Indulgences have been around for a long time, but I suspect that a lot of people, even Catholic people, have a hard time understanding how they work. So I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC1471-1479). The opening paragraph of the section on indulgences is a paragraph-length sentence that’s clear as mud. Here’s how it was once explained to me.
Pretend your a child. You’re playing ball and you break your neighbor’s window. That’s a sin. As all good parents do, mom and/or dad tells you to go to the neighbor and tell her you broke the window. That’s confession. The neighbor says “That’s ok. I forgive you.” That’s reconciliation. But you still have to pay for the broken window. The neighbor agrees that you can satisfy the debt by cutting her grass. That’s an indulgence.
It’s a simple-minded explanation but I think it works. In our world, we commit a sin, we confess it to the priest, and we’re forgiven. But there’s still that “stain of sin” on your soul. That’s what purgatory is for. You enter purgatory free from sin, but your soul isn’t clean. After a certain amount of time, your soul is clean enough to enter heaven. The cleansing process is called “temporal punishment”. The root of the word temporal means time. Each sin has a certain amount of time attached to it. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it) we have no idea how much time is attached to each sin. Imagine if you died and went to purgatory and the first person you met was Saint Peter. That would be very depressing.
One way of cleansing the soul is through good works. Some people are so virtuous that their good works are far more than they need for their own salvation. The excess is called the “Church’s treasury.” These “excess graces” (my term) are stored up for you and me. Imagine the virtues of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and all the saints. Through them there is an infinite store of graces that you and I can share in. On the other hand, it’s possible for us to obtain indulgences and give them to someone who has died, helping them cleanse their souls.
There are two types of indulgences. Plenary indulgences wipe out all of your temporal punishment. Partial indulgences, as the name implies, only wipe out some of your temporal punishment. Because time is a human concept, we have no idea how much time we spend in purgatory or how much time an indulgence is worth.
Quoting the Catechism (#1478)
An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted by 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 to their sin.
So, where do I buy these indulgences?
In the past indulgences have gotten a bad rap because some unscrupulous clergy use to sell them. The sale of indulgences was one of the things that got Martin Luther so worked up that he nailed his 95 Theses on the Cathedral door. You can’t buy an indulgence. You can earn an indulgence in a lot of different ways. As I mentioned yesterday, praying the Stations of the Cross is one way. I’m not going to take the space here to list them all. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the subject. But it is worth mentioning that you are probably earning indulgences every day and don’t even know it. For instance, reading the Bible earns a partial indulgence. So does making the Sign of the Cross. Reading this blog might even be worth a few seconds. Catholic Answers has a good article on myths about indulgences along with a partial list of them.
Here’s the thing. If you get a chance to earn an indulgence, especially a plenary one, jump on it.