Holy Year IndulgencesFR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
Recently, our local paper had an article on the Holy Father declaring the year 2000 as a holy year and granting an indulgence for those who make a pilgrimage to Rome. The article was a little cynical toward the whole idea, especially granting indulgences for the souls in Purgatory. Could you comment?
As Catholics, we do hold to the doctrine of indulgences and to the practice of granting them. Motivated by the doubts and confusion over indulgences that arose after Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967) stated, They would appear to be solidly founded on divine Revelation, handed down from the Apostles. Nevertheless, many people, including Catholics, misunderstand indulgences.
The Catechism properly presents the teaching on indulgences in the section on the Sacrament of Penance. By definition, an indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Churchs help when, as minister of Redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints (Catechism, No. 1471, citing the Apostolic Constitution, No. 1). Now, what does this mean?
We believe that when we sin, we commit a freely-willed offense against God and our neighbor. God in His love and mercy forgives the guilt of any sin for which we are truly sorry. However, God in His justice requires that we expiate sin, or heal the hurt caused by sin. We call this the temporal punishment for sin. For example, if I damage my neighbor’s car, I can sincerely plead for forgiveness and my neighbor can genuinely forgive me; yet, I will also in justice have to pay for the repair of the car. In the same sense, during our life we perform penances here to expiate sin and purify our souls. If we die with venial sins, we will expiate these sins in Purgatory.
Since sin has a communal dimension, i.e. sin affects the whole body of the Church, salvation also has a communal dimension. This is why we pray for each others intentions at Mass or privately. From the earliest days of the Church, individuals have offered prayers and good works for the salvation of sinners. In those times when reconciliation was not complete until both confession and penance had been performed, penitents asked martyrs facing death for aid (to offer their sufferings for the atonement of the penitents’ sins) so that full reconciliation with the Church and re-admission to the sacraments could be obtained more speedily.
The communion of the Church also includes the faithful in purgatory and the saints in Heaven. These saints intercede on our behalf and pray for us. The Treasury of the Church includes the infinite, inexhaustible value of the merits of our Lords death and resurrection, and the prayers and good works of the Blessed Mother and all of the saints. Just as they aided those in the journey of salvation while living on this earth, they continue to do so now. As the Minister of Redemption, the Church invokes their aid to help reconcile fully penitents and alleviate the temporal punishment due to sin.
Also, in the early Church, bishops allowed penances, which were oftentimes severe, to be substituted with other works (indulgences) which may have been easier to fulfill but which promoted piety and strengthened the person spiritually. Eventually, Popes decreed that certain practices could replace imposed penances. These practices must be performed by the faithful who confessed their sins, then they would have totally alleviated temporal punishment due to sin. Note the Church has condemned any abuse of indulgences, and the person performing the indulgence must have a sincere, contrite, and humble heart.
Along this same understanding, an indulgence may be applied to the faithful departed, namely the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Looking to the example of Christ who died for our sins, all members of the Church must help each other on the way of salvation through prayers and good works. Just as we pray for each other here on earth and we too rely on the prayers of the saints in Heaven, the Poor Souls rely on our prayers and good works to help atone for the hurts of their sins. Pope Paul VI taught, Thus there is indeed a perennial bond of charity and an abundant exchange of all goods among the faithful, whether they have already taken possession of the heavenly home, or expiate their failings in Purgatory, or are still on their pilgrimage on earth; thereby, all the sins of the entire mystical Body are expiated and the divine justice is placated; and the divine mercy is moved to forgiveness so that the contrite sinners be brought sooner to the full fruition of the goods of God’s family (Apostolic Constitution, No. 5). We must not forget to offer prayers and other penances for the Poor Souls in Purgatory.
An indulgence is considered plenary or partial according to whether it expiates all or part of the temporal punishment due for sin. To gain a plenary indulgence, one must perform the work attached to the indulgence and make a sacramental confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary, or any other suitable prayer). The conditions may be met several days before or after performing the work of the indulgence. A partial indulgence is gained by doing the particular work sincerely. The Enchiridion of Indulgences (1968) lists the norms and grants.
With this teaching clearly in mind, the Holy Father did indeed proclaim in his bull, Incarnationis Mysterium the granting of a plenary indulgence during the Holy Year 2000 (No. 10). The indulgences focus on the traditional idea of a person making a pilgrimage: In Rome, a person may visit the Patriarchal Basilicas (St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. Paul, or St. John Lateran), the Basilica of the Holy Cross, the Basilica of St. Lawrence, the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love, and the Christian catacombs; at these places, the person could attend Mass, participate in another liturgical celebration, or spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and end with the recitation of the Creed, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary (or other Marian prayer). In the Holy Land, a person could visit the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Basilica of the Nativity, or the Basilica of the Annunciation, and perform the same acts. In dioceses the faithful can visit the Cathedral, another shrine, or any place designated by the Bishop, again performing the same acts. Homebound individuals can make a spiritual pilgrimage, fulfilling the same acts. A variety of other good works and sacrifices are also listed which may be performed. However, a plenary indulgence may be received only once a day and, as stated above, must also participate in Mass and receive the Holy Eucharist, make a good Confession, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. The indulgence gained, however, may be applied to the Poor Souls in Purgatory.
The Holy Father summarized the teaching as follows: This doctrine on indulgences therefore ‘teaches firstly how sad and bitter it is to have abandoned the Lord God. When they gain indulgences, the faithful understand that by their own strength they would not be able to make good the evil which by sinning they have done to themselves and to the entire community, and therefore they are stirred to saving deeds of humility’ (quoting Paul VI). Furthermore, the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others — living or dead — to become ever more intimately united with the Father in Heaven (No. 10).
Saunders, Rev. William. "Holy Year Indulgences." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.