The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member … all mankind is of one author, and is one volume. —John Donne
When Pope Francis publicly appeared for the first time on the day of his election, one thing he did was give a blessing to the crowd. Just before, it was announced that everyone who received it, whether there in person or over the air, could receive a plenary indulgence.
Now, of all Catholic doctrines and practices, one hears perhaps the least about indulgences. As far as I can remember, I have not heard a single homily that mentioned them, nor learned about them in religious instruction. There is a kind of vague embarrassment about indulgences, probably since the only thing people know about them is they were associated with scandal that precipitated the Protestant Reformation. However, while many grievous abuses related to indulgences were reformed during the Council of Trent, they have always remained a part of the Catholic Church. What are indulgences, and why might we consider taking them seriously today?
The Communal Aspect of Penance
After making a sacramental confession, the priest normally asks the penitent to perform an act of penance―frequently it is to recite a prayer, such as an Our Father or a decade of the Rosary, though it could also be a work of charity or mercy. The reason we do penance is that even after we have been forgiven, the effects of our sinful acts still exist. A harsh word may be forgiven, but the relationship needs to be worked on to move forward. The thief may receive forgiveness from his victim, but perhaps the property has been long sold and still needs to be made up for. Penance is analogous to these examples. It is the spiritual way that we make amends for the spiritual effects of sin that has already been forgiven. It is the exercise we must do to get back in spiritual shape, after sin has been cured but when we are still weak from its after-effects.
Of course, like the whole Christian life, penance is meaningless unless it is connected to Jesus Christ. In doing penance, we join with him in his Passion and draw strength from him. Hence, penance only finds its proper place when it is offered through Christ, who makes our sacrifices acceptable to the Father.
What is more, our penance is not only linked to Christ, but to the whole Church. Sin is never merely individual, but harms the whole body of Christ. On the other hand, it is not only sin that affects the whole body, but also all our good works. Hence, our penance is not only for ourselves, but for the good of the whole communion of saints. A recent high-profile example of this was Marc Cardinal Ouellet’s penitential visit to Ireland in the wake of the scandal of abuse. The cardinal was not personally involved in the grave crimes committed by some clergy in Ireland, so he was not there to ask for personal forgiveness. But as a member of the Church, he was able to perform a penance, as small as it might have been, as an act of reparation for the sins of other Christians.
The Good News About Penance
Despite the many ways we as a Church have failed and continue to fail in faith, hope and charity, the reality is that sin cannot overwhelm us. The merits of Christ’s passion are far more wonderful than our puny human sins. Moreover, throughout history and everywhere around us there are great saints in the Church, whose works of mercy and charity, united with Christ’s, are continuously bearing spiritual fruit. Many saints―a Mother Theresa, for example―have produced good works that everyone sees and celebrates, but I suspect that the majority of the saintly works that are done happen anonymously. Perhaps there is a saint living right next door to you who is at this very moment adding to the merits of the Church by his unselfish and unseen acts of charity.
Traditionally, all these good works of the Church are called her “treasury”. And the good news is that because it has its foundation in Jesus Christ and is adorned by the works of the saints, it will always outweigh the morass of sinfulness on the scales of good and evil.
At heart, an indulgence is simply a formal way of participating in this great treasury. Not only can we help the Church by our own good works, but we can also allow the good acts of Christ and the saints to do their work in us to purify us from our sins. Thus, an indulgence is a gift the Church gives us, after we have been forgiven of our sins, in which the good works shared by the whole Church can substitute for our doing all the penance alone. If I steal a million dollars from someone, fritter it away, but later am truly repentant and become reconciled to my victim, there is little possibility that I could ever repay him. But if my community chips in, it is possible to restore the losses. In the same way, when I sin, the community of the Church is willing to chip in to help me come back to full spiritual health. And not only can I gain an indulgence for my own sake, but also for those who are being purified in purgatory. In the latter case, I receive a gift from the Church’s treasury in order to immediately gift it to someone else.
Nuts and Bolts of Indulgences
Unlike the Sacrament of Confession, indulgences are not sacramental. But like sacraments, there is a formal aspect to them. The most basic distinction is between partial and plenary indulgences. Partial indulgences remit a part of the effects of sin, while plenary remit all the effects of sin. Both have as conditions that you be in a state of grace (that is, that you have sacramentally confessed all serious sins), that you intend to receive the indulgence, and that you actually performed the work associated with the indulgence.
Partial indulgences are generally “easy” to obtain―by praying certain short prayers like the Hail Holy Queen, carrying out simple actions like making the Sign of the Cross or performing small acts of charity such as helping those in need. I place “easy” in inverted commas, because, given all the above, we should never forget that all indulgences are gifts that should not be taken for granted.
Plenary indulgences are a bit more involved. Normally, only one can be obtained on a given day. In addition to the conditions mentioned above, they require:
- making a sacramental confession within a few days of performing the indulgenced act (some say eight days, others three weeks); one confession can be used for multiple plenary indulgences;
- receiving the Eucharist within a few days of performing the act;
- praying for the intentions of the pope; and
- being free from attachment to all sin.
There are many indulgenced acts that can be done at any time if the above conditions are fulfilled. Some examples are reverently reading Sacred Scripture for half an hour, spending an hour in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or participating in a public or family recitation of the rosary . Other plenary indulgences are available on special occasions. For instance, on All Soul’s Day (or during the following week), a plenary indulgence can be obtained for a deceased person by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead. Or, for a contemporary, example, a special indulgence for the Year of Faith is currently available.
Two Reasons to Take Indulgences Seriously Today
If indulgences have dropped off the radar of the typical Catholic today, there are at least two reasons we might consider rethinking their importance.
First, indulgences are an occasion to do what we should already be doing! They encourage us to frequent the sacrament of confession and participate in the Eucharist. They prescribe prayers and charitable actions, which should be a part of every Christian life. They make us mindful of the universality of the Church by praying for the Holy Father’s intentions. They call us to examine our conscience to see whether we are attached to sin, however small.
Second, far from promoting quirky, individual acts of piety, the doctrine of indulgences radically affirms the communal nature of the Church. In a time in which many are seeking to break beyond a merely individualistic understanding of sinfulness to discover “corporate” sin, or “sinful structures”, surely we should also look beyond an individualistic approach to works of penance. One way (though probably not the only way) we might meet this desire is to turn to indulgences. After all, they have been around much longer than the doctrine of individualism. That was an invention of modernity; and though she is ever learning, the Church is older and wiser.