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Remembering the Often-Forgotten Indulgences

Dr. Remi Amelunxen
Many Catholics today know almost nothing about indulgences. Like the Sabbatine Privilege and the 30 Gregorian Masses, which were dealt with in another article, indulgences have been relegated to the dust bin in most Catholic parishes and schools. It behooves us to know these important assistances the Church gives us to shorten our stay in Purgatory or, in some rare cases, to avoid it altogether.

Also, if we generously earn indulgences for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, we may hope to obtain relief or release for many of them, in accord with God’s Holy Will. In gratitude they may well obtain for us many favors.

What are indulgences?

First, it is helpful to point out what an indulgence is not. When one sins, there are two consequences: For the guilt incurred by sin, he loses sanctifying grace, and for the harm his crime caused to God’s glory he must pay a penalty. Confession absolves a man from his guilt; the indulgence helps him alleviate the penalties he owes to God’s justice.


Confession restores the soul to sanctifying grace, but some debt for the sin remains

Thus, an indulgence is not a permission to commit sin. Nor does it produce the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; rather it consists of payment of the debt that the sinner owes to God. It does not protect the sinner from temptation or subsequent occasions of sin. Nor does it automatically secure salvation of the sinner or release the soul of another from Purgatory.

Now, let us see what an indulgence actually is. The word indulgence comes from the Latin indulgentia, a kindness or favor. In the Old Testament it was used to express release from punishment or captivity (Is 61:1). The Church uses the word in an analogous sense, defining indulgence as a remission of the punishment due to sin, where guilt has already been forgiven.

The faithful Catholic who is properly disposed can gain this benefit by means of certain prayers or acts carried out under prescribed conditions. Such remission is granted by the Church through the power of the keys through the application of the infinite merits of Our Lord and the precious merits of the Saints.

In the Sacrament of Baptism, the guilt of sin is remitted and all of the penalties attached to sin. In the Sacrament of Penance, the guilt of sin is removed and the eternal punishment due to mortal sin. But the transient, or temporal punishment required by Divine Justice remains and must be expiated in the present life or in Purgatory.

The penance imposed by the priest in the Sacrament of Penance – an integral part of that Sacrament – is to make satisfaction for the debt caused by sin. However, often the priest gives a penance for the sin that is much lighter than what is deserved. Thus, an amount to be paid still remains, and the person should either do other penances to make expiation or he will have to go to Purgatory.

Another means the Church gives to alleviate that debit – which is extra-sacramental and presupposes the effects obtained by confession, that is, contrition – is by means of indulgences.

Here is a summary in more simple terms:
  • The Church forgives the guilt of the sin through the Sacrament of Penance, eliminating the eternal consequence of the sin for the sinner and restoring him to the life of grace.
  • The penitent sinner desires to make satisfaction for his debt to God whom he offended through sin.
  • The Holy Church, through the power of the keys, has the authority to open ways for the penitent to make satisfaction for his debts to God by tapping into the treasury of merits of Christ and the Saints.
  • So, Holy Mother Church establishes certain prayers and works to be offered under certain conditions, which will pay either partially or totally for the debt owed to God.
  • The faithful performs the prescribed actions under the established conditions to gain a partial or plenary indulgence.
  • The Church mitigates the punishment deserved by opening the treasury of merit and applying those merits to the faithful.
  • Indulgences earned for the Poor Souls are efficacious by way of suffrage (per modum suffragii), that is, depending on God’s decision and not involving Church power, whereas in indulgences for the living the Church exercises power.
Kinds of indulgences

An indulgence that can be gained in any part of the world is universal. If the indulgence can be gained only in a specified place, such as Rome or Jerusalem, it is local. Perpetual indulgences may be gained at any time, while temporary ones only on certain days or periods of time. Real indulgences involve certain objects – e.g. crucifix, rosary, medal. Personal indulgences are granted to a certain class of individuals, e.g. members of an order or confraternity.

The most important distinction is between plenary and partial indulgences.

The plenary indulgence

A plenary indulgence is the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. Hence, in principle, a person who dies in the state of grace after gaining a plenary indulgence would go straight to Heaven. Only the Pope can grant plenary indulgences.

Some Catholics imagine that one need only carry out the prescribed action for a plenary indulgence and they have earned a kind of “pass to Heaven.” This is not the case. There are certain conditions the Church requires to earn a plenary indulgence. They are the following:
  • The person must be in the state of grace by the completion of the indulgence.
  • The person must have the intention of gaining the indulgence.
  • The person must receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion within seven days of the indulgence, but preferably on that day;
  • The person must pray for the intention of the Pope (i.e. one Our Father and one Hail Mary suffice).
  • The person must be free from all attachment to sin, even venial sins.
Jubilee 1875, Pius IX

A plenary indulgence is granted for visiting Rome during a jubilee year. Above, Pius IX in the 1875 jubilee year

Clearly, the last condition is the most difficult, and most persons will not fulfill it. Nonetheless, the Church encourages the faithful to try with perseverance since the effect is so great. If one tries to gain a plenary indulgence but fails to fulfill all the requirements, the indulgence will be partial.

Only one plenary indulgence may be gained per day, except that at the moment of death a person may gain a second plenary indulgence for that day. Another exception is on All Souls Day, November 2, when the faithful may earn a plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory.

These are some examples of ways to gain a plenary indulgence:
  • Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one hour;
  • Making the Way of the Cross, walking from station to station;
  • Vocal recitation of at least five decades of the Rosary said with devout meditation on the mysteries. It can be said in a Church, family group, religious community, or pious association;
  • A plenary indulgence is granted on each Friday of Lent to the faithful who after Communion piously recite before an image of Christ crucified the prayer: "Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus." On the other days of the year the indulgence is partial.
  • A pious visit to a church on All Souls' Day (November 2) with the prayers of one Our Father and the Creed - this indulgence is applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory;
  • A devout visit to a cemetery with a prayer for the departed souls from the first to the eighth day of November.
The partial indulgence

A partial indulgence remits only a certain portion of the penalty due to sin. For partial indulgences the faithful must be in the state of grace (free from mortal sin). Although confession is not obligatory, the person must at least have a contrite heart for even venial sins. As for the plenary indulgence, the person must intend to receive the indulgence and perform the prescribed action.

exposition blessed sacrament

A plenary or partial indulgence can be gained by praying before the Blessed Sacrament

There are three General Grants of partial indulgences and many Special Grants.

These General Grants are intended to remind the faithful to infuse with the Catholic spirit the actions of their daily lives and to strive in the ordering of their lives toward perfection.
  • First General Grant: A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in the performance of their duties and in bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding - even if only mentally - some pious invocation.

  • Second General Grant: A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.

  • Third General Grant: A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who in a spirit of penance voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them.
Special Grants of partial indulgences move the faithful to perform works of piety, charity and penance. They include:
  • Indulgenced prayers, either recited alone, alternately with a companion, or by following it mentally as another recites it.

  • Indulgenced works, such as the devout use of a properly blessed article of devotion (crucifix, rosary, scapulars, or medals), reading Scripture, making the Sign of the Cross, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, etc.
The complete list of indulgenced prayers and works are contained in a book called the Raccolta or the Enchiridion, which means "handbook.” When looking at an old Raccolta or reading old prayer books or holy cards, one might see a period of time attached to a partial indulgence, e.g. "indulgence of 100 days."

After 1968, the indication of days in such a manner was done away with. It seems that many persons assumed that indulgences became null and void since the days were no longer listed or many indulgenced prayers were not included in the 1968 Enchiridon. This is not the case, and the confusion has contributed to the sad neglect of the precious gift of Indulgences that Holy Mother Church gives us.

A special indulgence to be gained during Mass

chalice consecration

Catholics are instructed to look at the Sacred Species and say "My Lord and my God"

The indulgences to be gained at the Consecration of the wine into the Precious Blood are not well-known to Catholics.

A detailed description is given in the St. Andrew’s Missal, which instructs us that when the priest recites the consecratory formula of the wine, the faithful should look at the chalice and then bow down and adore the Blood of Christ. The consecrated species are thus shown to the congregation as a protest against the heretics who denied the real presence.

St. Pius X granted an indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines (a period of 40 days) to all who, looking at the Body and Blood of Christ, say “Dominus meus et Deus meus” – My Lord and my God. These are the words of St. Thomas to Our Lord in the Cenacle after he doubted. To all who do this daily, he granted a plenary indulgence once a week provided they receive Holy Communion subject to the usual conditions. It is forbidden to say the invocation aloud.

Many Catholics who piously bow their heads during the Consecration thus lose the opportunity to gain this indulgence. Instead, let them look devoutly at the Sacred Species and say the prescribed prayer. It is a simple way to receive either a partial or plenary indulgence.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted September 4, 2013

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