Indulgences are one of the most misunderstood and controversial teachings of the Church, but they are also a great gift of God’s mercy and grace. The Church came under fire in the early 1500’s for its abuse and selling of indulgences. This was one of the major issues Martin Luther had with the Church, which he described in his Ninety-five Theses, considered to be a primary impetus of the Protestant Reformation. While there were abuses of indulgences taking place at this time, we now understand the beauty and power of this gift the Church has provided its faithful through its authority given it by Christ through the Power of the Keys.
While there are MANY ways to obtain a partial or plenary indulgence, Divine Mercy Sunday, The Second Sunday of Easter, is a very popular way to do so. In this post I’ve attempted to provide an explanation of indulgences and provide resources for further details concerning how one might obtain and assign them to themselves or their departed loved ones.
What is an Indulgence?
A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.
Eternal and Temporal Punishment or Guilt
There are two kinds of punishment attached to sin, eternal and temporal. If the sin is mortal (serious, grave) sin, the person loses the friendship of God and with it the life of divine grace within. This punishment is eternal. If the person is not restored to grace before death he will be punished forever in hell, since serious sin is an infinite insult to an All-Holy God and thus deserves a like punishment. It was to repair for such sin that Jesus became man and was crucified. As God His sacrifice was infinitely meritorious, as Man He was able to represent us. He thus could expiate for our mortal sins, which are not just beyond our power of expiation but infinitely beyond it.
Mortal sin, and also venial sin (which has no eternal punishment attached to it), both disturb the right order within us and in the order of justice in general. We all experience these temporal (or in-time, in-this-world) consequences of sin, both both personally and socially. Sin changes us (or rather we sin because we are not what we are supposed to be), and like a pebble in a pond these changes have effects beyond us. Not only must we be sorry for our sins, but we must be more thoroughly converted to the Lord, and demonstrate that conversion (Acts 26:20) by our actions. So, while sacramental absolution forgives the eternal guilt of sin, which requires the infinite merits of Christ, it does not necessarily remove all the temporal punishment, since they are somewhat within our power to repair (and somewhat unknown to us). Depending on our degree of sorrow, absolution may result in the expiation of all the temporal guilt of sin. However, for that which it does not repair, we must offer further expiation through prayer, penance, carrying the Cross etc., or after death be purified in purgatory (Rev 21:27).
What an Indulgence does is to take an occasion of such expiation (a certain prayer, penance, charity or other designated work) and add to its intrinsic merit before God an additional value based on the treasury of merits of Jesus Christ, and those perfectly united to Him in heaven (the saints). This can either partially, or under certain conditions, totally remit the temporal punishment due to sin. This depends, naturally, on our openness to God’s grace. A mechanical performance of an indulgenced work would not have effect. Performing an indulgenced work should have the consequence of fixing our will away from our sins and entirely on God. This is why among the most important of the conditions for receiving a plenary indulgence, and the hardest to satisfy, is the complete detachment or detestation of our sins. By detesting our sins we orient our will away from creatures (to the degree we love them inordinately), towards God. In this way we open our will to the action of His mercy flowing into our souls, which alone is able to effect the complete remission of the temporal punishment to our sins.
An example will perhaps better illustrate these points. A boy playing ball breaks a window of his home. Contrite and sorrowful he goes to his father, who forgives him. However, despite the forgiveness the window is still broken and must be repaired. Since the boy’s personal resources are insufficient to pay for a new window, the father requires him to pay a few dollars from his savings and forego some of his allowance for several weeks, but that he, the father, will pay the rest. This balances justice and mercy (generous love). To ask the boy to do nothing, when it is possible for him to make some reparation, would not be in accordance with the truth, or even the boy’s good. Yet, even this temporal debt is beyond the boy’s possibilities. Therefore, from his own treasury the father generously makes up what the child cannot provide. This is indulgence. Unlike the theologies that say “we are washed it the blood of the Lamb and there is nothing left to do,” Catholic teaching respects the natural order of justice, as Jesus clearly did in the Gospels, yet recognizes that man cannot foresee or undo all the temporal consequences of his sin. However, God in His mercy will satisfy justice for what we cannot repair.
Note on Partial Indulgences (days and years)
In the past partial indulgences were “counted” in days (e.g. 300 days) or years (e.g. 5 years). Catholics often mistakenly thought that this meant “time off of purgatory.” Since there is no time in purgatory, as we understand it, it meant instead the remission of temporal punishment analogous to a certain amount of penitence as practiced in the early Church. This was a very generous standard, since the penitence required for sacramental absolution in the early centuries was arduous, indeed. However, with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 revision of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (Collection or Handbook of Indulgences), this confusing way of counting partial indulgences was suppressed, and the evaluation of a partial indulgence left to God.
There are many prayers still circulating on prayer cards and in prayer books which have partial indulgences in days and years attached to them. However, all grants of indulgence issued prior to 1968, unless re-issued in the Enchiridion or specifically exempted by papal decree or privilege, were suppressed by Pope Paul VI. Thus, these many specific prayers with their attached indulgences, as well as the manner of measuring partial indulgences, are no longer valid. Some of them may still receive an indulgence, though, because of being re-issued in the new Enchiridion (e.g. the Anima Christi, the Prayer before a Crucifix and many other formal prayers). All other prayers previously indulgenced could, nonetheless, receive a partial indulgence under the general grants of indulgence which Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II in his 1999 revision of the Enchiridion, established. These general grants establish partial indulgences for devout prayer, penitence and charity, and are a new and very generous inclusion in the Church’s grants of indulgence. They have made it unnecessary to grant specific indulgences to prayers and other pious acts, as was done in the past.
Summary of the Decree of Indulgence for Divine Mercy Sunday
I. The usual conditions for every plenary indulgence:
- Sacramental confession [according to previously issued norms, within abut 20 days before or after]
- Eucharistic communion [according to previously issued norms, preferably on the day, or the days before or after]
- Prayer for the intentions of Supreme Pontiff [certain prayers are not specified]
II. The specific conditions for this Indulgence
On Divine Mercy Sunday in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy or, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!”)
- A partial indulgence, granted to the faithful who, at least with a contrite heart, pray to the merciful Lord Jesus a legitimately approved invocation. [e.g. Jesus I trust in You. My Jesus mercy. or any other approved invocation]
- For those who cannot go to church or the seriously ill
Conditions for a Plenary Indulgence:
- totally detesting any sin,
- the intention of fulfilling as soon as possible the three usual conditions of confession, communion and prayers for the Holy Father
- recite the Our Father and the Creed before a devout image of Our Merciful Lord Jesus
- pray a devout invocation to the Merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you).
If it is impossible to do even this:
- with a spiritual intention unite with those carrying out the prescribed practice for obtaining the Indulgence in the usual way and
- offer to the Merciful Lord a prayer and the sufferings of their illness and the difficulties of their lives, with the resolution to accomplish as soon as possible the three conditions prescribed to obtain the plenary indulgence.
Duty of priests
- Priests who exercise pastoral ministry, especially parish priests, should inform the faithful in the most suitable way of the Church’s salutary provision [of a plenary indulgence].
- Promptly and generously be willing to hear their confessions [this does not necessarily have to be on Divine Mercy Sunday itself, since that is not a condition for the indulgence]
- On Divine Mercy Sunday, after celebrating Mass or Vespers, or during devotions in honour of Divine Mercy, lead the recitation of the prayers when they instruct their people, gently encourage the faithful to practise works of charity or mercy as often as they can
Plenary Indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday: The Decree of Indulgence 29 June 2002
On 29 June 2002, the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See promulgated a decree creating new indulgences that may be gained by the faithful in connection with the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday. This decree grants a plenary indulgence to those who comply with all the conditions established, and a partial indulgence to those who incompletely fulfill the conditions.
APOSTOLIC PENITENTIARY DECREE
Indulgences attached to devotions in honour of Divine Mercy
“O God, your mercy knows no bounds and the treasure of your goodness is infinite…” (Prayer after the “Te Deum” Hymn) and “O God, you reveal your almighty power above all by showing mercy and forgiveness…” (Prayer for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time), in these prayers Holy Mother Church humbly and faithfully sings of Divine Mercy. Indeed, God’s great patience with the human race in general and with each individual person shines out in a special way when sins and moral failures are forgiven by Almighty God Himself and the guilty are readmitted in a fatherlike way to his friendship, which they deservedly lost.
Duty of honouring Divine Mercy
The faithful with deep spiritual affection are drawn to commemorate the mysteries of divine pardon and to celebrate them devoutly. They clearly understand the supreme benefit, indeed the duty, that the People of God have to praise Divine Mercy with special prayers and, at the same time, they realize that by gratefully performing the works required and satisfying the necessary conditions, they can obtain spiritual benefits that derive from the Treasury of the Church. “The paschal mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man, and through man, in the world” (Encyclical Letter Dives in misericordia, n. 7).
It is God’s Mercy that grants supernatural sorrow and resolution to amend
Indeed, Divine Mercy knows how to pardon even the most serious sins, and in doing so it moves the faithful to perceive a supernatural, not merely psychological, sorrow for their sins so that, ever with the help of divine grace, they may make a firm resolution not to sin any more. Such spiritual dispositions undeniably follow upon the forgiveness of mortal sin when the faithful fruitfully receive the sacrament of Penance or repent of their sin with an act of perfect charity and perfect contrition, with the resolution to receive the Sacrament of Penance as soon as they can. Indeed, Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us in the parable of the Prodigal Son that the sinner must confess his misery to God saying: “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15,18-19), realizing that this is a work of God, “for [he] was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15,32).
Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday
And so with provident pastoral sensitivity and in order to impress deeply on the souls of the faithful these precepts and teachings of the Christian faith, the Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II, moved by the consideration of the Father of Mercy, has willed that the Second Sunday of Easter be dedicated to recalling with special devotion these gifts of grace and gave this Sunday the name, “Divine Mercy Sunday” (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Decree Misericors et miserator, 5 May 2000).
The Gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter narrates the wonderful things Christ the Lord accomplished on the day of the Resurrection during his first public appearance: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you’. When he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the discples were glad to see the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you’. And then he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'” (Jn 20,19-23).
To ensure that the faithful would observe this day with intense devotion, the Supreme Pontiff himself established that this Sunday be enriched by a plenary indulgence, as will be explained below, so that the faithful might receive in great abundance the gift of the consolation of the Holy Spirit. In this way, they can foster a growing love for God and for their neighbor, and after they have obtained God’s pardon, they in turn might be persuaded to show a prompt pardon to their brothers and sisters.
Pardon of others who sin against us
Thus the faithful will more closely conform to the spirit of the Gospel, receiving in their hearts the renewal that the Second Vatican Council explained and introduced: “Mindful of the words of the Lord: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13,35), Christians can yearn for nothing more ardently than to serve the men of this age with an ever growing generosity and success…. It is the Father’s will that we should recognize Christ our brother in the persons of all men and love them with an effective love, in word and in deed (Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et spes, n. 93).
Three conditions for the plenary indulgence
And so the Supreme Pontiff, motivated by an ardent desire to foster in Christians this devotion to Divine Mercy as much as possible in the hope of offering great spiritual fruit to the faithful, in the Audience granted on 13 June 2002, to those Responsible for the Apostolic Penitentiary, granted the following Indulgences:
a plenary indulgence, granted under the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the intentions of Supreme Pontiff) to the faithful who, on the Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday, in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy, or who, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!”);
A partial indulgence, granted to the faithful who, at least with a contrite heart, pray to the merciful Lord Jesus a legitimately approved invocation.
For those who cannot go to church or the seriously ill
In addition, sailors working on the vast expanse of the sea; the countless brothers and sisters, whom the disasters of war, political events, local violence and other such causes have been driven out of their homeland; the sick and those who nurse them, and all who for a just cause cannot leave their homes or who carry out an activity for the community which cannot be postponed, may obtain a plenary indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday, if totally detesting any sin, as has been said before, and with the intention of fulfilling as soon as possible the three usual conditions, will recite the Our Father and the Creed before a devout image of Our Merciful Lord Jesus and, in addition, pray a devout invocation to the Merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you).
If it is impossible that people do even this, on the same day they may obtain the Plenary Indulgence if with a spiritual intention they are united with those carrying out the prescribed practice for obtaining the Indulgence in the usual way and offer to the Merciful Lord a prayer and the sufferings of their illness and the difficulties of their lives, with the resolution to accomplish as soon as possible the three conditions prescribed to obtain the plenary indulgence.
Duty of priests: inform parishioners, hear confessions, lead prayers
Priests who exercise pastoral ministry, especially parish priests, should inform the faithful in the most suitable way of the Church’s salutary provision. They should promptly and generously be willing to hear their confessions. On Divine Mercy Sunday, after celebrating Mass or Vespers, or during devotions in honour of Divine Mercy, with the dignity that is in accord with the rite, they should lead the recitation of the prayers that have been given above. Finally, since “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5,7), when they instruct their people, priests should gently encourage the faithful to practise works of charity or mercy as often as they can, following the example of, and in obeying the commandment of Jesus Christ, as is listed for the second general concession of indulgence in the “Enchiridion Indulgentiarum”.
This Decree has perpetual force, any provision to the contrary notwithstanding.
Archbishop Luigi De Magistris,
Tit. Archbishop of Nova
Fr Gianfranco Girotti, O.F.M. Conv.,
Catechism of the Catholic Church
1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
“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.”
“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
The punishments of sin
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. (1861; 1031)
1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He 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.” (2447)
In the Communion of Saints
1474 The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God’s grace is not alone. “The life of each of God’s children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person.” (946–959; 795)
1475 In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.
1476 We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.” (617)
1477 “This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.” (969)
Obtaining indulgence from God through the Church
1478 An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity. (981)
1479 Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain p 372 indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted. (1032)
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., pp. 370–372). United States Catholic Conference.
Handbook of Indulgences and the Manual of Indulgences
The Church provides many ways for the Faithful to obtain indulgences. The Handbook of Indulgences from Catholic Book Publishing is the revised edition of the Enchiridion of Indulgences and the official English translation of the Church’s book on indulgences. This liturgical book includes a list of the works and prayers to which indulgences are attached.
The Manual of Indulgences was published by the USCCB in 2006. This is a complete guide to available partial and plenary indulgences and how to obtain them. Below is a summary of its contents:
1. Act of Family Consecration
2. Act of Dedication of the Human Race to Jesus Christ the King
3. Act of Reparation
4. Papal Blessing
5. Days Designated Universally for a Certain Religious Intention
7. Eucharistic Adoration and Procession
8. Eucharistic and Spiritual Communion
9. Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition
10. Spiritual Exercises and Monthly Recollections
11. Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
12. At the Point of Death
13. In Memory of the Passion and Death of the Lord
14. Articles of Devotion
15. Mental Prayer
16. Listening to Sacred Preaching
17. Prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary
18. Prayers to One’s Guardian Angel
19. Prayers in Honor of St. Joseph
20. Prayers in Honor of the Apostles Peter and Paul
21. Prayers in Honor of the Saints and Blesseds
22. Novenas, Litanies, and Little Offices
23. Prayers of the Eastern Churches
24. Prayers for Benefactors
25. Prayers for Pastors
26. Prayers of Supplication and Acts of Thanksgiving
27. A Priest’s First Mass and Jubilee Celebration of Ordination § 1 Priest’s first Mass
28. Profession of Faith and Acts of the Theological Virtues
29. For the Faithful Departed
30. Reading of Sacred Scripture
32. A Pastoral Visit
33. Visiting Sacred Places