The great celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day traditionally come with special opportunities for what are called “indulgences.” Indulgences are a subject fraught with misunderstanding, so it might be helpful to try to give a brief explanation in this space, especially since the pope has expanded the availability of certain indulgences for the sake of the Holy Souls in Purgatory because of the socially-restrictive conditions of the pandemic.
To understand indulgences, we have to understand the concept of “temporal punishment.” When we go to confession and receive absolution, our guilt for the sins we’ve committed is forgiven. Thus, because of God’s mercy we are saved from eternal punishment for our offenses. But even though the sin has been forgiven, there also might remain temporal (as in “temporary” and not eternal) punishment that represents the reparation that, in justice, we must make for our trespass against God’s goodness, His truth, and His love. As Fr. Leo Trese explains in his classic work, The Faith Explained, “we pay this debt of temporal punishment through the sufferings of purgatory unless we discharge the debt during life by appropriate works of penance.” This is where indulgences come in, because they are an easy way of paying the debt of temporal punishment that we owe after receiving mercy and the forgiveness of our sins.
The history of the Church’s practice of granting indulgences goes back to the early days of the Church, when repentant sinners (penitents) had to perform severe penances before they could re-enter fellowship with the Christian community. Fr. Trese explains that this was the era of the martyrs, who were being arrested and sentenced to death for the faith. Penitents would go to the prisons where Christians were awaiting execution and ask the soon-to-be martyr for a written request for mercy, called a “letter of peace,” that the penitent would present to the local bishop, who would release the penitent from his penance and declare that the temporal debt incurred by his sin had been satisfied. Crucially, satisfaction had been made through the consent of the martyr, who out of charity offered to apply the merit of his or her suffering towards the debt of penance that the sinner owed.
This transaction points to the existence of something like a great collective spiritual bank account of merit that belongs to the Church, that can be accessed by its members to pay their temporal debts incurred because of sin. This is the spiritual treasury of the Church, filled to overflowing principally through the infinite merits of Our Lord’s good works in the world, particularly the suffering of His passion. Our Lady, preserved from all sin, adds to the infinite treasury, sharing with the Church the entire value of her good works. The saints also contribute to the treasury the value of their works, which exceed their own need. The Church has the authority to grant us access to this treasury of merit, and we make a “withdrawal” by fulfilling the conditions set by the Church for the obtaining of an indulgence. An indulgence can be “plenary,” meaning it wipes out the entire debt of temporal punishment, or partial. We can receive the benefit of the indulgence for ourselves or for the sake of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The basic requirements to obtain a plenary indulgence are: 1) to be in a state of grace and fully detached from sin, 2) to go to sacramental confession and receive the Eucharist within a week of the indulgenced act, 3) to pray for the intentions of the pope. Even if one doesn’t have the requisite detachment from sin to obtain a plenary indulgence, one can still receive the benefit of the partial indulgence.
Each year, in the month of November, Catholics have two traditional ways of getting a plenary indulgence. The first is to visit a cemetery and pray for the dead during the eight days following All Saints Day (Nov. 1-8). The second is to piously visit a church on All Souls Day (Nov. 2) and recite an Our Father and the Creed. This year, the Church has extended the opportunity to fulfill the plenary indulgence requirements throughout the month rather than during the normally limited time frame. Because of the health emergency, the elderly, the sick, and others who cannot leave the house for serious reasons can participate in the indulgence from home, reciting prayers (such as the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet) for the deceased before an image of Mary or Jesus. In addition, they must spiritually unite themselves to other Catholics, be completely detached from sin, and have the intention of fulfilling the ordinary conditions (Eucharist & confession) as soon as possible.
Indulgences are an important part of life as a Catholic. When we have a proper understanding of what they are, we recognize that they are the effect of the deep connection we enjoy with the saints and the Holy Souls in Purgatory as members of the Church, a connection that is grounded in Christ Himself. They are a way in which we can care for and share with each other what we have received from the Lord Jesus.