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From the Shepherds: Teaching about Indulgences

Authored by Bishop John LeVoir in Issue #3.1 of Catechetical Review

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Resurrection of ChristDuring the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis gave us much to think about, pray about, and work on. He also gave us an opportunity to gain a special plenary indulgence, by passing through a designated Holy Door and performing certain holy acts with devotion. What a great grace!

In order to teach about indulgences, we need to be able to explain them, which can be challenging. 

The Catechism defines an indulgence as: “The remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Glossary). However, this answer begs a further question: “What is the temporal punishment due to sin that is remitted by an indulgence?”

Even after our sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there can remain what is called the temporal punishment due to sin. This is the purification we must undergo to be free from the unhealthy attachment to the things of this world that is a consequence of our sins. Temporal punishment is a consequence of sin that endures even after death (see Glossary). The purpose of the purification is to remove all earthly attachments from our hearts and to bring about a total conversion of ours hearts to God.

Temporal punishment due to sin is to be distinguished from eternal punishment due to sin, which is the consequence of unrepented mortal sin. Eternal punishment separates the unrepentant sinner from communion with God for all eternity in hell (see Glossary).

Let’s consider one example of temporal punishment due to sin. We might tell a lie, thinking (wrongly) that the lie will get us out of some trouble that we are in. However, we are later sorry for the lie and we confess this sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and it is forgiven, and we receive God’s grace. However, as a consequence of our sin, there remains an unhealthy attachment to lying that must be purified either in this life (through charity) or in the next (in Purgatory). In this life, a person should “…strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the ‘old man’ and to put on the ‘new man’” (CCC 1473).

Temporal punishment due to sin can also be remitted by an indulgence. An indulgence is gained by making a loving sacrifice to God: sometimes through prayer, sometimes through actions, or sometimes a combination of both. When a specified sacrifice of love is completed satisfactorily and an indulgence is gained, it means that God, through the Church, remits temporal punishment and draws the person gaining the indulgence closer to him.

Requirements for Obtaining Indulgences

The Catechism teaches that: “A properly disposed member of the Christian faithful can obtain an indulgence under prescribed conditions through the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (Glossary).

Indulgences can be gained only by those people here on earth who are members of the communion of saints. They can be gained not only for themselves but also for the dead. “Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory” (1498). Though the remission of their temporal punishment due to their sins, the souls in Purgatory can enter heaven more promptly than otherwise possible. It is a great act of love on our part to gain an indulgence for someone who is waiting in Purgatory to go to God in heaven.

It is important to note that indulgences do not take away sins. Indulgences remit the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences can be either partial or full (also called plenary). A partial indulgence remits part of the temporal punishment due to sin. A full or plenary indulgence completely takes away the temporal punishment due to sin.

The necessary conditions that are to be fulfilled for an indulgence are as follows:

“To gain indulgences, whether plenary or partial, it is necessary that the faithful be in the state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed. A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day. In order to obtain it, the faithful must, in addition to being in the state of grace:

  • have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
  • have sacramentally confessed their sins;
  • receive the Holy Eucharist (it is certainly better to receive it while participating in Holy Mass, but for the indulgence only Holy Communion is required);
  • pray for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff”” (Apostolic Penitentiary, 29 January 2000).

Most Rev. John M. LeVoir is Bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota.

This article originally appears on page 20 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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