Dear Grace, Could you please explain what an “indulgence” is and how someone may obtain one?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins (whose guilt has already been forgiven) which the faithful Christian, ho 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" (CCC 1471). The doctrine on indulgences is closely linked to the Church's teaching on purgatory and the communion of saints.
In order to understand the Church's practice of granting indulgences, we must first realize that mortal sin is, above all, an offense against God. It cuts off our communion with Him, and it has two consequences eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Eternal of course means forever, so that refers to the possibility of hell, or eternal damnation. Temporal, on the other hand, refers to something that lasts only for a time or not eternal. In other words, even after the sin has been forgiven and communion with God has been restored, there still remains some attachment to sin and this needs to be purified either ere on earth, or after death in purgatory, before the soul can go to be with God (CCC 1472).
One may ask, "Where does the indulgence come from and how is it that the Church has the power to grant them?" This requires an understanding of the doctrine of the communion of saints, which teaches that there is a life beyond this one and that those who died in faithfulness to God's friendship and love have gone to be with Him in heaven.
In addition, we also believe that by their good works, the saints, including Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, have earned merit, a sort of spiritual credit. The Church, by the "power of the keys" given to Peter by Christ, has authority to dispense these merits as she sees fit. When these merits are applied to the saints in purgatory, who are in a state of purification in order to enter heaven, or to the saints on earth who are still struggling to reach heaven, they have the power to remit or wipe away their temporal punishment due to sn.
An indulgence is partial or plenary, as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. If you would like to know more about indulgences and how to gain one, a very good source would be a publication authorized by Pope Paul VI that is titled Handbook of Indulgences. All of the prayers and practices and examples are listed there and would be too many to include here. Usually, in addition to some particular good work, the Church requires three basic conditions for obtaining an indulgence: Confession, Communion, and prayer for the Holy Father. For additional norms, one would need to consult the Handbook.
Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. We should never forget to pray for the souls in purgatory or for ourselves, or our loved ones. They in turn will pray for us when they have reached the glory of heaven that awaits us all.
Grace MacKinnon. "Indulgences." (March, 2003).
Reprinted with permission of Grace MacKinnon.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. She is the author of Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith published by Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-348-2440.
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