The Scriptures | The ChurchFathers

The doctrine of indulgences is probably the leastunderstood teaching of the Catholic Church, an so unfortunately littleuse is made of such great treasure and graces we would have otherwise obtainedfor ourselves and others.

What then is an indulgence?

An indulgence is simply a remission through the infinite merits of JesusChrist and His Saints of the temporal punishment due for sins committedafter guilt and eternal punishment have been remitted.

Sacred Scripture gives us an example of what is meant by "temporal punishment."Mary, the sister of Moses, was forgiven by God for complaining againsther brother. Nevertheless, despite such forgiveness, God imposed upon herthe temporal punishment of leprosy and seven days exile from her people(Num. 12). A thief may be sorry for stealing a large sum of money froma gentleman, but he is still required to return the money taken and evendo time in prison.

That Our Lord has given the Church the power of granting indulgencesis implied in Scripture: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever youloose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (St. Matt. 16, 19). We noticethat no limit is placed upon this power of loosing, "the power of the keys"as it is called .

St. Paul provides a clear example of the Church using this power withrespect to the incestuous Corinthian upon whom he had imposed a severepenance. After learning of the Corinthian's fervent sorrow St. Paul absolvedhim of the penance which he had imposed saying: "For, what I have pardoned,if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the personof Christ" (2 Cor. 2, 10 [Douai]).

In this example we have the elements of a true indulgence: (i) a penance(temporal punishment) imposed on the Corinthian by St. Paul; (ii) sorrowon the part of the sinner for his crime; (iii) the relaxation of the penanceby St. Paul (the indulgence); (iv) the relaxation done in the "person ofChrist."

Further, Catholics believe that many of the faithful throughout thecenturies - virgins, martyrs, confessors, saints etc. - have performedpenances and good works far in excess of what was due as temporal punishmentfor their own sins. Their merits, in union with the infinite merits ofJesus Christ, form a "spiritual treasury" which the Church can draw uponto assist other members of the Church in general or, in particular, paythe debt of temporal punishment both for the living and the dead:

"I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my fleshI am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake ofhis body, that is, the church" (Col. 1, 24); "For just as the body is oneand has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, areone body, so it is with Christ;...If one member suffers, all suffer togetherwith it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it" (1 Cor.12, 12-26).

Therefore, by virtue of the Communion of Saints the faithful can assisteach other with their prayers, masses, almsgivings to remit temporal punishmentdue to sin, most particularly, to offer mass for the deceased to remittemporal punishment due in purgatory.

It must be understood the merits of Christ and the saints form the sourceof indulgences. This treasury is left to the Keeping of the Church. Consequently,to make it available for the faithful, there is required an exercise ofauthority, which alone can determine in what way, on what terms, and towhat extent, indulgences may be granted.

An indulgence may be plenary or partial according as to whether it removeseither all or part of the temporal punishment due to sin. The requirementsfor gaining a plenary indulgence are (1) performance of the indulgencework - for example, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least onehalf an hour, devout reading of the Sacred Scriptures for at least onehalf an hour, or praying the Marian Rosary in a church, public oratoryor family group, etc.; (2) sacramental confession; (3) eucharistic communion,and (4) prayer for the Pope's intentions. The last three conditions maybe fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribedwork. However, it is fitting that communion be received and the prayerfor the Pope's intentions be said on the same day the work is performed.If any of these conditions are not fulfilled the indulgence gained willonly be partial.

A partial indulgence is gained by any of the faithful who either, inthe performance of their duties and bearing the trials of life, raise theirmind with humble confidence to God, adding some pious invocation; or ina spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to servetheir brothers in need; or in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprivethemselves of what is licit and pleasing to them. Works which can be performedfor partial indulgences include reciting any of the following prayers:Profession of Faith, De Profundis, Magnificat, Sub Tuum Praesidium, Memorare,Salve Regina, Grace before and after meals, Adoro Te Devote, Angelus, AnimaChristi, Te Deum, Litanies, the Sign of the Cross, etc.

Indulgences are a great aid to true devotion, fostering a spirit ofprayer and sacrifice in the name of Christ, not just for one's own benefit,but for the benefit of all the faithful.