This article is the fifth in a series on Purgatory:

Part 1: Introduction to the Catholic Understanding of Purgatory
Part 2: What is Purgatory Like? The Catholic Understanding of the Pains of Purification
Part 3: How to Avoid Purgatory: 8 Specific Ways to Reduce or Eliminate your Time in Purgatory
Part 4: How to Help the Poor Souls in Purgatory
Part 5: Indulgences - Definition and Meaning: God's Mercy Dispensed Through the Catholic Church

What are Indulgences?

The word indulgence comes from the Latin "indulgentia", meaning kind or tender. This word later came to mean the remission of tax, debt, or punishment. This is the meaning of the word in the Catholic Church as well. An indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. Even though sins are forgiven, they must be atoned for, since they do damage to our relationship with God, and they harm others. Though the relationship with God is restored and the guilt removed for sins through the Sacrament of Confession, we must still make amends for the harm that our sins have caused. We believe that this debt will be repaid either on Earth or in Purgatory after our judgment. Indulgences are a way for us to repay some (or all) of the debt we have accumulated for our sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1471) defines indulgences in this way:

"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." Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.

As I mentioned in a previous article on Purgatory, it may be helpful to call to mind an example to illustrate the difference between forgiveness of sins and atonement for sins. If Bob spreads rumors about Sally and then asks Sally for forgiveness, and she forgives him, then the relationship is restored. However, there is still a problem in that Sally's reputation has been harmed and people who heard the rumors may have an unfavorable opinion of Sally. Bob must do everything he can to repair Sally's reputation. Until her reputation is restored, justice has not been satisfied. Purgatory is the place where unfulfilled justice is dispensed by the All-Just God.

An indulgence is not the same thing as the Sacrament of Confession, nor does it have the same effect. Gaining an indulgence does not fix our relationship with God the same way a Sacramental confession does. Our sins cannot be forgiven by gaining an indulgence. An indulgence simply lessens or removes the punishment we would have in Purgatory. In fact, an indulgence can only be gained for yourself when you are in the state of grace - which is a result of Sacramental Confession. An indulgence is not a guarantee of avoiding Hell or Purgatory.

How can the Church Grant Indulgences?

In Matthew 16:19, our Lord says to Peter,

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

This is the power of binding and loosing. It is an incredible responsibility that our Lord confers on the first Pope. The Church has utilized this power to lessen or remove temporal punishment in Purgatory.

The "Treasury" of the Church

Christ, in His suffering and death purchased for us superabundant merits which are "stored up" by the Church. To this "treasury" of merits is added those merits gained by the Blessed Mother in her trials and heartbreak, as well as those merits gained by the saints. This treasury cannot be depleted and the Church confers these merits upon us as an agent of Christ in carrying out His command to "bind and loose". These merits release the penitent from the debt he owes the Church and from the temporal punishment he owes God as a satisfaction of God's perfect justice. An indulgence is not a means of ignoring or subverting Divine Justice, but rather is a way of paying the penalty we owe. The Church does not "own" the treasury of merit, but is simply the administrator of it.

Universal, Local, Perpetual and Temporary Indulgences

A Universal indulgence can be gained anywhere in the world. Other indulgences are available only in certain jurisdictions such as a diocese, city or country. There are many indulgences that can be gained in Rome or Jerusalem.

Perpetual indulgences are valid at any time. Temporary indulgences are available only on certain days or within certain time periods. An example of this is an indulgence that is granted during Jubilee Years.

Partial vs. Plenary Indulgences

A partial indulgence is one that removes part of the temporal punishment owed by the penitent. A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment owed by the penitent. If a person receives a plenary indulgence and then immediately dies, they will go straight to Heaven without any Purgatorial suffering.

In times past, the Church would place a particular value on a partial indulgence, such as "100 days". This meant that by completing the requirements for the indulgence, the penitent had removed "100 days" of their suffering. This was not meant to be construed as a literal value relative to days on Earth. Instead, what this meant was that the suffering removed was equivalent with "100 days" of the ancient canonical penance, which consisted of prayer, good deeds, fasting and alms-giving. This was always a relative value in terms of earthly penance, not purgatorial time. The specific values are no longer given to partial indulgences. They are simply called "partial", and left to God to determine the actual remission.

Conditions for a Plenary Indulgence

In addition to performing the prescribed act of penance to which the plenary indulgence is attached, the penitent must have completed the following 4 requirements:

1. Sacramental confession,
2. Eucharistic Communion
3. Prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff.
4. Complete detachment from all sin, including venial sin.

The first 3 conditions must be satisfied within a reasonable amount of time (20 days before or after the act of penance). This requirement used to be 8 days, but in the Jubilee Year, this requirement was relaxed to 20 days by the Apostolic Penitentiary. If any of these requirements is not fulfilled, then the plenary indulgence becomes a partial indulgence.

Some Common Indulgences

Here are some common indulgences that can be obtained at any time. To gain the plenary indulgence associated with each task, the above-mentioned conditions must be fulfilled. There are many more indulgences that can be gained in specific places or at specific times.

Reading of Sacred Scripture

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who with the veneration due the divine word make a spiritual reading from Sacred Scripture. A plenary indulgence is granted, if this reading is continued for at least one half an hour.

Recitation of the Marian Rosary (Rosarii marialis recitatio)

A plenary indulgence is granted, if the Rosary is recited in a church or public oratory or in a family group, a religious Community or pious Association; a partial indulgence is granted in other circumstances.

"Now the Rosary is a certain formula of prayer, which is made up of fifteen decades of "Hail Marys" with an "Our Father" before each decade, and in which the recitation of each decade is accompanied by pious meditation on a particular mystery of our Redemption." (Roman Breviary)

There have been 5 more mysteries added to the rosary, which are the Luminous Mysteries since the publication of the Roman Breviary, bringing the total number of mysteries to 20. The name "Rosary," however, is commonly used in reference to only a set of 5 mysteries or decades focused on a certain theme: Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous.

The gaining of the plenary indulgence is regulated by the following norms:

1. The recitation of one set of 5 decades only of the Rosary suffices; but the five decades must be recited continuously.
2. The vocal recitation must be accompanied by pious meditation on the mysteries.
3. In public recitation the mysteries must be announced in the manner customary in the place; for private recitation, however, it suffices if the vocal recitation is accompanied by meditation on the mysteries.
4. For those belonging to the Oriental rites, amongst whom this devotion is not practiced, the Patriarchs can determine some other prayers in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary (for those of the Byzantine rite, for example, the Hymn "Akathistos" or the Office "Paraclisis"); to the prayers thus determined are accorded the same indulgences as for the Rosary

Exercise of the Way of the Cross

A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful, who make the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross (Stations of the Cross). The gaining of the plenary indulgence is regulated by the following norms:

1. The pious exercise must be made before stations of the Way of the Cross legitimately erected. This is generally done by the local bishop at various parishes, cemeteries, or chapels around the diocese.
2. For the erection of the Way of the Cross fourteen crosses are required, to which it is customary to add fourteen pictures or images, which represent the stations of Jerusalem.
3. According to the more common practice, the pious exercise consists of fourteen pious readings, to which some vocal prayers are added. However, nothing more is required than a pious meditation on the Passion and Death of the Lord, which need not be a particular consideration of the individual mysteries of the stations.
4. A movement from one station to the next is required. But if the pious exercise is made publicly and if it is not possible for all taking part to go in an orderly way from station to station, it suffices if at least the one conducting the exercise goes from station to station, the others remaining in their place.

Those who are "impeded" can gain the same indulgence, if they spend at least one half an hour in pious reading and meditation on the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For those belonging to Oriental rites, amongst whom this pious exercise is not practiced, the respective Patriarchs can determine some other pious exercise in memory of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ for the gaining of this indulgence.

Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament

A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who visit the Most Blessed Sacrament to adore it; a plenary indulgence is granted, if the visit lasts for at least one half an hour.