What are indulgences?
The issue of indulgences is an area of difficulty for many people. In fact, it was one of the sparks that started the tragic blaze of the Protestant Reformation, a blaze that incinerated the cultural and religious unity of Christendom starting back in the 1500s.
An indulgence is simply a specific manifestation of God’s grace — one that the Church offers to us as a concrete way to show our love for the Lord and for our neighbor. An indulgence can only be attained with the intention of attaining it. So, if I were to lift my mind to God in the midst of my workday, I wouldn’t receive an indulgence for doing that unless I consciously intended to receive it. Through prayer and sacrifice, we become channels of God’s grace, and an indulgence is a manifestation of that grace.
In the first centuries of the Church, Confession and penance were much more public than than they are now. It wasn’t until the sixth century that Irish monks really began to popularize individual, private confession. Until that era, it was more common for Christians who had fallen into grave sin to make their confession in front of the bishop and the entire congregation — and to be assigned a visible penance.
For example, a public sinner might be required to wear some kind of penitential garb and stay at the back of the church during Mass for six months or even an entire year.
Even during those early centuries, however, the practice of indulgences was emerging. For example, if a believer caved in under pressure of persecution and publicly denied his faith, it was considered the grave sin of apostasy. If that believer repented, he would be given a hefty penance. But that penance could be lessened if he visited a future martyr or confessor who was imprisoned for their faith. He would get this holy person to sign an affidavit by which he would express his desire to apply the merits of his sacrifice to the believer’s penance. He then would bring this document to the bishop and some or all of his penance could be remitted.
After the period of the Roman persecutions, obtaining this kind of remission of penance through the merits of the saints continued. Thus, the practice of indulgences emerged. Until recently, the relative value of the different indulgences was still expressed by correlating them to certain amounts of days. This harkens back to the early Church and its public penances, which were assigned for specific periods of time. Today this method of expressing the relative value of indulgences has been simplified. Instead of specific numbers of days, we just have partial or full (plenary) indulgences.
FR. JOHN BARTUNEK, LC, is a former professional actor who became a Catholic priest in 2003. This column is printed with permission from his book Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions (Servant Books, 2014).
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.
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 indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1478-1479