What Are Indulgences?

Photo by Cholo Rosales on Unsplash

What are indulgences? Let’s take a more common example to explain a larger theological point. Let’s say your daughter took your car without permission. You would be angry as a parent, but you would forgive her for what she did. However, you certainly would give her some kind of punishment for what she had done as well.

With our sins, God always forgives us. The sacrament of penance forgives our sins and God’s forgiveness eliminates our eternal punishment. However, that doesn’t mean that sins over the course of our lives haven’t taken their toll on our souls. We may have to do a bit of work still to get over the things that trip us up time and time again. So while we aren’t eternally punished by God, there still may be some temporal punishment for us to endure in eternity (e.g. in Purgatory).

An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions by the assistance of the Church which as minister of redemption dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. (Code of Canon Law, 992)

So how do you get an indulgence? In the case of a pilgrimage, like World Youth Day for example, you would receive a plenary indulgence as long as you:

1) Make a sacramental Confession
2) Receive Eucharistic Communion
3) Say prayers in accordance with the intentions of the Holy Father.

The Church reminds us that these efforts please God, and will shorten the time of our temporal punishment. The Church, however, makes no claims about how long that time might be. (Mostly because there really is no time in heaven as it does not conform to our human sense of time and space). But suffice it to say, that just as you might shorten the time of your daughter’s punishment if she washes the car, does some extra things around the house, and begins to show maturity, God will do the same for us if we show some spiritual maturity — and the Church spells out just what that might look like in this instance.

Of course, indulgences can be abused. Martin Luther saw this in the Protestant Reformation when he saw indulgences being bought and sold for one’s self and for others. The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms about granting indulgences for money. In 1567, Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions. And technically speaking, the Church never “sold” indulgences. Rather, part of a large penance that would be done to gain the indulgence might have involved a charitable donation to the poor and thus a large donation might be enough to procure the indulgence. This is no longer the case. Financial transactions of any kind cannot be used for an indulgence.

So basically, if you attend World Youth Day (I have attended two myself) and go to confession and receive Communion while there, you will receive the plenary indulgence. The prayers made in accordance with the pope’s wishes actually happen while you are there, but you may be asked to continue those prayers for a certain period of time following the pilgrimage. You also must be baptized, not excommunicated, and in the state of grace at least at the end of the prescribed works. (Canon Law 996)

For more on the World Youth Day indulgence click here.

Originally published July 19, 2013.