The term ‘indulgences’ refers to specific prayers and actions, permeated with a spirit of penance, that are a channel of God’s healing grace. Once a person has repented of his sins and received forgiveness from Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, indulgences help to further the healing process that is needed for himself or for a Holy Soul in Purgatory and for the people that have been hurt by their sins.
Two-fold Consequence of Sin
In order to come to grips with the Church’s teaching on indulgences, one must first understand the Catholic teaching on the two-fold consequence/punishment of sin: namely, the eternal and the temporal.
The eternal consequence of sin refers to hell, the permanent separation from God by persisting in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. Thus, the eternal aspect refers to whether or not we are forgiven.
The temporal consequence of sin, on the other hand, refers to the way in which our sins wound us and others.
God wants not only to forgive our sins, but to heal and transform us.
If we were to imagine our sins as nails driven into a piece of wood, and forgiveness as the removal of those nails, we would still be left with holes in the wood where the nails previously were.
In other words, the work of God is not complete upon mere forgiveness, but seeks to go further through healing and transformation accomplished by our cooperation with supernatural grace through penance & indulgences (i.e., filling in the holes of the wood).
In this light, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“These two punishments [eternal and temporal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (CCC, 1472).
We see the consequences of sin everywhere. Even after we have repented of our sins and received forgiveness it is still obvious that further healing is necessary, not only for ourselves but also for the people we have hurt by our sins.
Forgiveness and consequences are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They are two sides of the same coin. Together, they establish an essential part of the Lord's plan for believers.
Forgiveness is relational. It puts us back into a right relationship with someone. The Father sent Jesus to make a sacrifice on our behalf, and by so doing reconciled us to Himself. By His mercy alone, we can have communion with the Lord.
On the other hand, consequences are circumstantial. Often God does not remove consequences simply because someone trusts Christ as Savior or confesses sin. He leaves them in place for us to struggle with and to grow from for many reasons:
to learn from our mistakes;
in order to fortify us for future temptations;
to grow in humility and empathy,
God gives a punishment (consequence) because He not only wants to forgive us, but to heal and transform us completely not merely superficially.
We do this as parents. When our children get in trouble, they’ll quickly say they’re sorry—to which we respond both with forgiveness and their punishment. The punishment is not for them to earn our forgiveness back, but to redress the disorder wrought in their souls by the wrongdoing.
In Hebrews 12:6-11 we read:
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
It’s precisely because we believe in this dual consequence of sin (eternal and temporal) that we: do penance, believe in purgatory, and embrace the doctrine of indulgences.
There is a perennial temptation, once we have sinned and repented, to merely sigh sorrowfully without mending our ways but Our Lord Himself said,
“Bear fruit that befits Repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
The good news is that the principle of reaping and sowing works in a positive way as well. We can sow good seeds that will turn negative situations into positive ones through Penance & Indulgences
"The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal. 6:8).
So, what is Penance? Penance, in the sense it is being used here, is an act of self-denial or devotion performed voluntarily to show sorrow for a sin or other wrongdoing in an attempt to remedy the negative consequences. Penance (e.g. prayer, fasting & almsgiving) is a channel of God's grace for the purpose of healing the temporal consequences of sins and the transformation of the sinner. Furthermore, penance can be considered a "win/win" because it not only helps the person doing it but can also be offered as a prayer of intercession for others.
This is where Purgatory comes in. Purgatory is not a second chance or a middle ground. Rather, purgatory is for those who die in friendship with God (i.e., the eternal consequence of sin has been dealt with), but not yet completely purified (i.e., some of the temporal consequence of sin remains).
God begins his work of transformation in us now and he provides every opportunity to make amends and every grace we need to grow in this life; if left incomplete upon death, He will complete it in a state called “purgatory” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030, 1054).
In Purgatory a person can no longer do penance for himself/herself. They count on us to do it for them so that they can be transformed. Penance, in the form of indulgences, can be offered for our loved ones who have died.
The transformation that results from this is necessary for us and the Holy Souls in Purgatory to enter into full communion with God.
Importantly, indulgences have nothing to do with the eternal consequences of sin. That is, the Church has never taught anything like “you can buy your way to heaven.” Rather, indulgences are a lessening of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Analogously, it’s as if I assigned one of my children a thirty-minute timeout and later reduced it to fifteen minutes.
So where does this reduction in the temporal punishment come from?
It comes from the Treasury of Grace (also called Treasury of Merit). Let me explain.
All the faithful who possess the Holy Spirit form one Body in Christ - the Church (Romans 12:5). In this Body or family all the members can help one another. Jesus, the one mediator - enables us to share in His work by uniting our prayers, works, joys, sorrows and suffering to His great work of Redemption. In this way he uses our cooperation to bring grace and good to others in the Body (the Church).
This is called The Communion of Saints.
This communion of saints has two closely linked meanings:
It is a communion among holy persons (persons in the state of grace)
And a communion in holy things (prayers, works, joys, sorrows & suffering united with Christ and offered out of love)
What each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16).
All Christians are united by the Holy Spirit even though we live in three different states of being:
Some of us are pilgrims on earth journeying to heaven - The Pilgrim Church or The Church Militant
Others have died and are being purified in Purgatory - The Church Suffering
While still others are in the glory of heaven - The Church Triumphant
The saints in heaven can help us with their prayers. We can help the souls in Purgatory. The souls in Purgatory cannot help themselves but by offering our prayers, works, joys, sorrow and suffering for them we can speed them on to full union with God. They in turn, pray for us and as they come closer to the glory of heaven, their prayers for us become more & more effective.
“Our prayer for them is capable of not only helping them, but also of making their intercession for us more effective” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 958).
The Communion of Saints is explained simply that in the one family of God, each member of the family can help each other. We read in Matthew 6:19-20:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Christ is teaching that we can indeed store up “treasure in heaven.” Every time we do something good for God and others and by his grace working in our heart, we “lay up treasure (merits) in Heaven.” And thus there is truly a treasury of good deeds in Heaven.
Revelation 19:7-8 also speaks of this:
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb[a] has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints”
The Communion of Saints image (below) shows how the souls in the different states of being help one another:
What do we mean by “Merits?
By this we mean fruits, rewards, or good deeds. But this is not a proportionate system whereby we do certain good works and simply earn our way to heaven, as if God literally “owed” us something.
Rather, Jesus merits our capacity to merit in the first place; He is the primary cause of every merit accrued to us.
But just because he is the primary cause does not mean that we have no part to play at all. If we are connected to him, and use our free will to love others, we are truly secondary causes in his work of salvation.
On our own, we are absolutely incapable of obtaining supernatural merits. This is because we are fallen, sinful human beings. An unplugged lamp won’t give off any light, no matter how many times you turn the switch.
Similarly, original sin unplugged our souls from the source of grace – God himself. When Jesus became man and offered himself in atonement for our sins, he plugged human nature back in to God, so to speak. This was the redemption. And so, anyone who is united to Christ through faith and the sacraments is now once again connected to the source of grace – they are living in the “state of grace.”
Only in Christ, then, can we merit:
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
But that’s the amazing thing: in Christ, we can merit. God has consciously chosen to give us the possibility of making a difference in his Kingdom. We are not just along for the ride. What we do and how we choose to live our ordinary lives can actually increase the flow of grace in the world, spreading Christ’s Kingdom and storing up treasure for us in heaven. Jesus has not only saved us from damnation, but he has given us the possibility of becoming active, meritorious collaborators in the work of redemption. Not because we deserve it, but simply because he generously wanted to give us that possibility: he wanted our lives to have real meaning, our actions and decisions to have eternal repercussions; He wanted us to “bear fruit that would remain.” His love makes us friends and collaborators, not just his robots or spiritual trophies.
Though it may seem obvious, we should mention that no one can merit the initial grace of conversion for themselves. The unplugged lamp can’t plug itself in, though once plugged it really is the lamp that shines. A misunderstanding of this point helped fuel the fire of dissension that sparked so many painful divisions among Christians at the time of the Protestant Reformation. We cannot save or redeem ourselves; we need a Savior, a Redeemer: Christ.
But on the other hand, once we have accepted Christ’s gift of grace, that very gift enables us to merit other graces for ourselves and for the Church. This is a marvelous, wonderful, and underemphasized part of the Good News!
This leads us to The Treasury of Grace/Merit
This treasury includes all of the grace Jesus won for us by his death and resurrection.
It also includes the prayers, acts of charity, joy and patient suffering of all the faithful who have ever lived in fidelity to his grace.
In the communion of saints, we all share in each other’s merits:
“In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1475).
By receiving this grace and practicing virtue we may be purified of the temporal punishment of sin.
The Church dispenses this saving grace through the sacraments. But also through indulgences.
What the Church does, then, in administering an indulgence is apply the treasury of merits (that of Jesus and all the saints) to one of her children, under certain prescribed conditions (e.g., reading the Bible for thirty minutes).
The Treasury of Merit - Asking a Favor from the Church
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
Again, this application does not affect the eternal consequences of sin—i.e., it will not save one who is unrepentant and not in communion with our Lord.
Rather, the application concerns the temporal consequences of sin, an application that flows from the unity of the family of God and the way in which the merits of one sibling (e.g., a saint) can be applied to others (e.g., the pilgrim Church on earth or a Holy Soul in Purgatory).
So, how do we gain an indulgence?
1. The person must be in the “State of Grace.” For a Catholic, it may be necessary to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to the State of Grace. For the non-baptized, baptism is necessary.
2. Do the prescribed work (we must put our faith into action) with at least the general intention of gaining the indulgence.
There are prescribed penitential practices that go with the Indulgence
Actions along the lines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving
There are 2 Different Types of Indulgences
Can be applied to ourselves or a soul in purgatory but not to another living person.
Removes all of the temporal punishment accumulated up to this point
Certain conditions required
Can be acquired only once per day
Removes part of temporal punishment
Only God knows the partialness of the indulgence. It may be plenary, or 90% or 50% or 20% remission.
Can be acquired many times a day, unless otherwise expressly indicated.
You can combine them to gain more.
No longer to be assessed in function of time (days, months, years).
Instead, the value of an indulgence depends on "the action itself of the faithful who perform a work to which an indulgence is attached.”
Two elements specify the value of such an action:
"The charity of the one performing the act"
"The degree to which the act itself is performed in a more perfect way.“ (Pope Paul the VI)
Further, in keeping with this principle, a partial indulgence is "a remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church," that equals the value of the action as performed by the person.
As it grants an indulgence the Church promises to match the "merit" that accrues to the person who seeks the indulgence and performs the required work. This is what makes indulgences so important and amazing! This is how you can DOUBLE YOUR GIFT FOR YOUR DEARLY DEPARTED LOVED ONE.
There are Four General Ways, and Numerous Specific Ways to Obtain an Indulgence
The general ways:
1. A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, while carrying out their duties and enduring the hardships of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation (e.g., “Jesus I trust in you”, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph”, “All for Jesus”, etc.).
This first grant is intended to serve as an incentive to the faithful to put into practice the commandment of Christ that
"they must always pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1)
and at the same time as a reminder so to perform their respective duties as to preserve and strengthen their union with Christ.
Romans 12:12 "Rejoicing in hope, . . . patient in tribulation, persevering in prayer."
Ephesians 6:18 "With all prayer and supplication pray at all times in the Spirit, and therein be vigilant in all perseverance and supplication."
Colossians 3:17 Whatever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
2. A partial indulgence is also granted when, prompted by an attitude of faith, we devote ourselves or our goods to the service of brothers and sisters in need (like teaching the catechism to children or giving donations to the poor).
This second grant is intended to serve as an incentive to the faithful to perform more frequent acts of charity and mercy, thus following the example and obeying the command of Christ Jesus (John 13:15 & Acts 10:38). However, not all works of charity are thus indulgenced, but only those which "serve their brothers in need," in need, for example, of food or clothing for the body or of instruction or comfort for the soul.
Matthew 25:35-36, 40 For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.... Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me.
3. A partial indulgence is granted when, in a spirit of repentance for sin, we voluntarily abstain from something we like (like drinking water instead of Coke and “offering it up” for the souls in purgatory).
This third grant is intended to move the faithful to bridle their passions and thus learn to bring their bodies into subjection and to conform themselves to Christ in his poverty and suffering.
But self-denial will be more precious, if it is united to charity, according to the teaching of St. Leo the Great: "Let us give to virtue what we refuse to self-indulgence. Let what we deny ourselves by fast -- be the refreshment of the poor."
Luke 9:23 If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
1 Cor. 9:25-27 And everyone in a contest abstains from all things, and they indeed to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable. I, therefore, so run as not without a purpose; I so fight as not beating the air; but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection.
4. A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful, who in the particular circumstances of daily life, voluntarily give explicit witness to their faith before others.
This grant encourages the faithful to profess their faith openly before others, for the glory of God and the building up of the Church.
Matthew 10:32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven;
The numerous specific ways of obtaining indulgences include:
Visiting certain holy places or pilgrimage sites,
Practicing mental prayer (Christian meditation)
The heartfelt recitation of certain prayers (like the Creed and the Angelus)
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour
The devout reading of the Bible for at least half an hour
Devoutly praying the Stations of the Cross
Visiting a cemetery to pray for the dead during the week of All Souls’ Day
These last four in red can obtain a plenary indulgence when they are accompanied by:
Complete interior detachment from sin
The reception of Holy Communion
A prayer for the pope’s intentions
Confession within 20 days
There are many other ways as well, all of them listed in the official Handbook of Indulgences, Norms, and Grants. See links below:
Indulgences flow from the kindness & mercy of God, who meets the repentant sinner, with effective remedies, in his efforts to live up to his responsibility (to do his part) to heal the wounds caused by his sins. This urges him on to a more fervent charity (love of God and others) and causes him to grow in this love and be further conformed to the Image of Christ, his Lord.
Indulgences help the Christian who is duly disposed to permeate every part of his life – prayer, works, joys, sorrows and sufferings; hopes, dreams, desires, and even faults and failures – with the spirit of the Gospel and to direct everything he does each day to the glory of God. Indulgences underscore the importance of living a Christian life day in and day out while protecting the Christian from compartmentalizing his life of faith and relegating his religious practice to only one hour a week on Sunday.
Indulgences aid in the integration of the Catholic Faith with real life and prevent that pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and religious life on the other.
This blessed integration leads to a joy and “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) because of the presence of Risen Christ in every aspect of life.
Indulgences are a great aid to growing in holiness (intimacy with God) and can increase a person’s capacity to love God and others by 100-fold. In Baptism, the seeds of Faith, Hope & Charity (love) were planted in our souls. In order for them to grow they have to be nurtured. Indulgences are one of the ways that God provides the Christian with opportunities to practice Faith, Hope and Charity in the course of everyday life. These concrete acts then become the vessel (a living well) for God to fill with “living water” of his Holy Spirit.
Finally, INDULGENCES ARE A WONDERFUL WAY TO MAKE YOUR WHOLE DAY INTO A PRAYER FOR YOUR LOVED ONES WHO HAVE DIED. This way you and your loved one can advance together in holiness and toward full union with God.
Concrete Examples of Indulgences
(1st general grant) Act of Faith - in a difficult situation.
A person has just lost someone they love in a tragic accident and they are confused about why God would allow this. But deep down inside Faith begins to rise up and they think, “God is love and just because I don’t understand or feel this right now, doesn't mean that it is not true.” At that moment she makes an act of Faith by saying, “Jesus, I trust in you!” I offer this up for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. This act of Faith helps the Holy Souls and opens her heart to receive the living water of the Holy Spirit in a fuller measure and her love for God increases and she begins to experience peace.
Act of Love
A woman is at work and is broken-hearted because some of her co-workers are gossiping about her. She begins to get very angry and is about to react with angry words. Deep down inside Charity begins to rise up and she thinks “Instead of reacting in a negative way, I can offer this suffering up as a prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.” This she does right away by praying “Dear Jesus, I open this suffering up to you. Please come into it with your love and unite it with your perfect sacrifice and use it as a channel of your grace for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Thank you for giving me meaning and purpose in my suffering!” This act of Love helps the Holy Souls and opens her heart to receive the living water of the Holy Spirit in a fuller measure and her love for God & others increases.
Often, it is necessary to make the same act of Faith, Hope and/or Love over and over again as the waves of sorrow and suffering wash over us repeatedly. God receives each one of them as a precious gift and he always returns them with the blessing of a fuller measure of his presence.