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The indulgences

On the occasion of the Jubilee of Mercy announced by Pope Francis, all faithful Christians may obtain a plenary indulgence in Lourdes. "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1471). It may be difficult to understand this concept, however, as it refers to several complex elements of Christian faith: the Sacrament of Reconciliation, reparation for sins, the communion of saints, purgatory and the mediation of the Church; hence the need to explain these various elements.

1. Forgiveness and reparation

The indulgence is distinct from the forgiveness of sins, which is granted by God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to the person who sincerely regrets his sins. Forgiveness restores man’s communion with God, which has been ruptured or damaged by sin. Sin however not only damages this communion; it also has other consequences, such as destroying the harmony between men, between man and creation, and the very integrity of man himself. Contrary to common belief, forgiveness given in the Sacrament of reconciliation does not repair all the consequences of sin. These consequences, called temporal punishments, are only remitted by the mercy of God which man welcomes and in which he cooperates through acts of charity, works of mercy, penance and prayer (cf. Ep 4:24 and CCC, n.1472).

2. How can we make reparation?

The first means given to us for reparation is the penance given in Confession. It does not contribute to the forgiveness of sins – only a sincere confession and absolution received are necessary to be forgiven - but to the reparation of the consequences. As any penitent can see, frequently the penance given and the consequences of our sins are often very disproportionate. Thus this penance only partly remits the consequences of sin.

he second means consists of all the acts of charity, works of mercy, all our prayers, all our trials, and all actions that can unite us with Christ.

The third means of reparation is by indulgences. By virtue of the Communion of Saints, that is to say the same and unique charity which binds all those who are united with Christ in faith, there is an abundant exchange of all good things “which is not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries…but the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ's merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy". (cf. He 7:23-25; 9:11-28)  (CCC, n. 1476)

Through the indulgences, the Church intervenes in favour of individual Christians and opens this treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. However  as it is God’s wish that man should cooperate in the redemption, that he should merit the freely given grace of God through his actions, the Church asks the faithful Christian who wishes to obtain an indulgence to do something concrete.

Thus, through the indulgence, “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” (CCC, n. 1478). The use of indulgences helps us to understand that “by our efforts alone we would be incapable of making reparation for the wrong we have done, and that the sins of each individual harm the whole community” (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis §21).

3. The indulgences

Contrary to common thinking, indulgences are frequently and widely used by the Church. The Handbook of Indulgences lists over thirty-seven ways of receiving them: for instance, from receiving the Urbi et  Orbi blessing from the Pope, to renewing one’s baptismal vows on the day of the Paschal Vigil or visiting one of the Major Basilicas in Rome and reciting one Creed and one Our Father. A plenary indulgence is also granted to those who visit the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour, read Holy Scripture attentively for half an hour, recite the rosary piously in the company of others, etc. The indulgence is therefore not something extraordinary, but quite common.

The indulgences may appear ‘easy” in relation to the gravity of the sins committed. However this disproportion also exists in the penance given in confession when the sin can be objectively quite serious. Faced with God's mercy, the challenge is not in the difficulty, but in the fact of freely making an act by which we mark our detachment from sin and our desire to be with God.

The Church grants two types of indulgence: Plenary Indulgences which remit all temporal punishment due to sin or Partial Indulgences which remit only part of the temporal punishment. For these partial indulgences, the Church used to speak of “a number of days”, a reference that can still be found in certain missals or chapels. It now only speaks of partial indulgence to prevent the faithful from believing that it refers to a lesser number of days in purgatory, and consequently considering grace in accounting terms.

4. What are the conditions for receiving an indulgence?

To obtain the indulgence, one must be in a state of grace and have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin. One must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Holy Father and pass through the Door of Mercy. The prayer for the intentions of the Pope is left to the choice of the faithful, but an “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary” are suggested.

It is recommended, but not necessary, that these rites be completed on the same day: they may also be carried out over several days.
In addition, the faithful must perform one of the following works,

  • Works of Piety: for instance, a pilgrimage to a sanctuary, or again an act of piety (Way of the Cross, Rosary, Eucharistic adoration, etc.),
  • Works of Mercy: for instance, visit brothers and sisters who are in need or are in difficulty (the sick, the imprisoned, elderly people living alone, disabled people, etc.), as if making a pilgrimage to Christ present in them, or support, by a significant contribution, works of a religious or social nature (for the benefit of abandoned children, young people in trouble, the elderly in need, foreigners in various countries seeking better living conditions).
  • Acts of penance: for example, for at least one whole day, abstain from    unnecessary consumption (smoking, alcohol, etc.), or fast and donate a proportionate sum of money to the poor.

5. Who may obtain the indulgence?

One can receive an indulgence for oneself or the faithful departed, but not for another living person: it is up to that person to do what is necessary to free himself or herself from sin. Neither God nor anyone else can be a substitute for one’s own free will.  To do something to obtain an indulgence is not a calculated act, but ultimately an act of trust in the absolute Mercy of God.

“In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin”.

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus §22