Somebody recently mentioned indulgences to me. I am very dedicated to seeking indulgences, especially for the poor souls in Purgatory. I’ve actually been meaning to write about this topic for a while, and especially since I’ve been trying to write about the Rosary–there are special indulgences related to rosaries (the objects) and to the Rosary (the prayer). I will highlight these below. So here we go: indulgences!
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶1471)
I’ve heard temporal punishment explained very simply thus *: say that you drop a glass that has a drink in it and make a big mess. You tell your mother that you are sorry, and she forgives you. But the mess still needs to be cleaned up. In justice you should be the one to clean it up. Having to clean up the mess is your “temporal punishment.” Every sin we commit makes a mess. Contrition and forgiveness heal our relationships with God and others, but they don’t clean up the messes. We each have to clean up our messes, either in this life or in Purgatory. Indulgences are a divine gift by which we can be freed even from having to clean up our messes.
We can obtain indulgences for ourselves, or for souls in Purgatory. We cannot apply them to other living persons, however. Obtaining indulgences for the souls in Purgatory is a great and generous act of mercy. Personally, I make that my focus. I consider it a win-win situation; the souls get freed from Purgatory, and I get some new friends up in Heaven to pray for me!
Indulgences are granted via specified actions. Here are a couple of examples of common indulgenced actions (including the rosary-related ones). These and many, many more can be found in the Enchiridion of Indulgences along with all the other norms and regulations relating to indulgences.
35. Use of Articles of Devotion (Obiectorum pietatis usus)
The faithful, who devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary. scapular or medal) properly blessed by any priest, obtain a partial indulgence.
Get your rosaries (and other items) blessed by a priest! It’s so quick and simple to do. I’ve just gone up to my priest after Mass and asked him to bless rosaries. It takes maybe 20 seconds, and he is always more than happy to oblige. After it is blessed, you can receive a partial indulgence just by using it. Partial indulgences, as their name suggests, remove part of the temporal punishment you’ve amassed. But you can gain them again and again–they are unlimited!
But if you think that’s simple, check this out:
55. Sign of the Cross (Signum crucis)
A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who devoutly sign themselves with the sign of the cross, while saying the customary words: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The first time I read that, I was like, “Seriously? Nah, an indulgence can’t be that easy!” The thing to remember about partial indulgences is that the extent of the indulgence (whether “partial” means a little or a lot) depends on the devotion with which we perform the prescribed action. It’s not the size of the action, but how well we do it.
But back to #35 above, rosaries can be used for a variety of prayers, such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The above indulgence would apply to any devotional use of a rosary! This next one, however, applies specifically to the “capital-r” Rosary, and it is an example of another kind of indulgence, a plenary indulgence:
48. Recitation of the Marian Rosary (Rosarii marialis recitatio)
A plenary indulgence is granted, if the Rosary is recited in a church or public oratory or in a family group, a religious Community or pious Association; a partial indulgence is granted in other circumstances.
“Now the Rosary is a certain formula of prayer, which is made up of fifteen decades of “Hail Marys” with an “Our Father” before each decade, and in which the recitation of each decade is accompanied by pious meditation on a particular mystery of our Redemption.” (Roman Breviary) The name “Rosary,” however, is commonly used in reference to only a third part of the fifteen decades.
The gaining of the plenary indulgence is regulated by the following norms:
1) The recitation of a third part only of the Rosary suffices; but the five decades must be recited continuously.
2) The vocal recitation must be accompanied by pious meditation on the mysteries.
3) In public recitation the mysteries must be announced in the manner customary in the place; for private recitation, however, it suffices if the vocal recitation is accompanied by meditation on the mysteries.
4) For those belonging to the Oriental rites, amongst whom this devotion is not practiced, the Patriarchs can determine some other prayers in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary (for those of
the Byzantine rite, for example, the Hymn “Akathistos” or the Office “Paraclisis”); to the prayers thus determined are accorded the same indulgences as for the Rosary.
Note that it specifies that one must meditate upon the Mysteries of the Rosary–just saying the vocal prayers is not enough. Also, the 5 decades must be said “continuously”–you must pray them all in one sitting, as opposed to praying one Mystery then doing something else and coming back later to pray the others. Not all plenary indulgences are specified at such length. Here is another common universal one:
3. Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament (Adoratio Ss.mi Sacramenti)
A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who visit the Most Blessed Sacrament to adore it; a plenary indulgence is granted, if the visit lasts for at least one half an hour.
Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? There are a number of indulgences which may generally be called partial, but in certain circumstances may be plenary. For example, devoting a longer period of time to the action, or doing the action on a particular day or during a particular season (e.g. when the Tantum Ergo is recited on Holy Thursday or Corpus Christi)
A plenary indulgence such as this remits your entire temporal punishment, no matter how great it may be. It’s a very powerful thing, and a very huge gift from God. We are limited to receiving only one plenary indulgence per day. The only exception is that plenary indulgences can be obtained at the point of death, even if one has already obtained a plenary indulgence earlier that day.
This brings me to the conditions that must be met in order to obtain any indulgence:
22. § 1. To be capable of gaining an indulgence for oneself, it is required that one be baptized, not excommunicated, in the state of grace at least at the completion of the prescribed works, and a subject of the one granting the indulgence.
§ 2. In order that one who is capable may actually gain indulgences, one must have at least a general intention to gain them and must in accordance with the tenor of the grant perform the enjoined works at the time and in the manner prescribed.
Essentially, you need to be a Catholic in good standing and in a state of grace (no unconfessed mortal sins on your soul). If there is an indulgence specified by a particular bishop for a particular diocese, you have to be part of that diocese and subject to that bishop. The rosary-related indulgences are universal. Also, you have to want and intend to obtain the indulgences. This is why it is so important that we all be aware of indulgences–and believe in them! If, after reading all this, you decide you just don’t believe what the Church teaches about indulgences, well, then you’re never going to obtain one. And that would be very unfortunate.
To obtain plenary indulgences, additional conditions must be met:
26. To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental Confession, eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.
If the latter disposition is in any way less than perfect or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be partial only, saving the provisions given below in Norm 34 and in Norm 35 concerning those who are “impeded.”
While to receive a partial indulgence you simply have to be in a state of grace, for the plenary indulgence, you must go to Confession, even if you have only venial sins to confess. And note that requirement that “all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent”! That’s a tall order. I think the key word is “attachment.” We may fall into venial sin, but that’s not the same as being attached to it. We have to detach and reject sin–we have to be pure of heart and pure of intention. We have to keep our eyes on our goal, which is to free ourself or some other poor soul from the results of sin. We can’t very well do that if we ourselves give in to sin all too willingly and perhaps even eagerly.
Note that even if you don’t fully meet the conditions for obtaining a plenary indulgence, you can still obtain a partial indulgence.
27. The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; it is, however, fitting that Communion be received and the prayer for the
intention of the Sovereign Pontiff be said on the same day the work is performed.
28. A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences; but Communion must be received and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff must be
recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence.
29. The condition of praying for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff is fully satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary; nevertheless, each one is free to recite any other
prayer according to his piety and devotion.
More details about those conditions. Regarding the first sentence in 27, “may be fulfilled several days before or after”: traditionally, the set time-frame was 8 days. In 2000, the Great Jubilee Year, it was specified as “about 20 days.” This longer time-frame remains in force, per the Apostolic Penitentiary.
I know this may all be a little overwhelming. All these rules and regulations may seem burdensome. Really, though, the rules basically come down to simply living out the faith. If you go to Confession pretty frequently, you’re going to be in good shape to meet all the requirements. And what Catholic wouldn’t want to offer prayers for the Holy Father’s intentions? Or be detached from sin?
Furthermore, God is merciful. There is nothing He would rather do than relieve us from troubles and suffering. That’s the reason Christ died. And it is only because Christ died that the Church can offer indulgences. The graces we receive as indulgences were gained on Good Friday. So if we approach His great mercy, if we seek out the graces of indulgences for ourselves, or especially for others, following the rules and regulations to the best of our ability, God isn’t going to say, “Oh, you didn’t do x perfectly, so no deal!” God is not held to the rules and regulations of the Enchiridion. We are bound to fulfill them the best we can. They are the Church’s way of showing us what is the best way to follow, the Church’s way of saying, “If you abide by these, your success will be assured.”
So, whatever you do, don’t be discouraged by the rule book. Of course, don’t toss the rule book aside, either. Respect it for what it is and try to abide by it. The rest will be taken care of by God’s mercy. I think this is especially true when we seek indulgences for the souls in Purgatory. I pray a little prayer that goes something like this:
Dear Lord, today I wish to obtain every possible grace and indulgence for the poor souls in Purgatory. Please don’t look on my unworthiness to obtain such tremendous graces, but look in mercy upon those poor souls who are longing and suffering so greatly to be united with You at last! Thank You. Amen.
If you want more information, take a look at the Enchiridion. This is a PDF copy that you can search if you’re looking for something particular. Definitely look at pages 19-40, where the various indulgenced actions are listed. You might be surprised, as I was!
Really, there is no excuse for not seeking to obtain indulgences.
* I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly who gave this explanation. I remember hearing it on the radio, and I’m almost positive it was a priest, so I’m thinking it must have been either Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ on EWTN Open Line, or Father Vincent Serpa, OP on Catholic Answers Live. Many thanks to whomever it was!