Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5
One of the most misunderstood, and perhaps abused, teachings of the church is the plenary indulgence. I have to admit, it took me forever to understand what this was all about. But as with any of the church’s rich traditions, this is but a gift of God to us.
I will start by stating the church’s definition of a plenary indulgence from EWTN;
This is how an indulgence is defined in the Code of Canon Law (can. 992) and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1471): “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”.
Um, what? I don’t know about you, but when I first read that, I did not have any understanding of what this meant. And it also is a teaching that seems to have been lost over the last 60 years. So this is one I prayed on a lot to try to comprehend, try to understand, even as I knew it was a good I was trying to earn.
The conditions to earn a plenary indulgence are as follows;
- In general, the gaining of indulgences requires certain prescribed conditions (below, nn. 3, 4), and the performance of certain prescribed works ….. [in this case, those granted for the Feast of Mercy]
- To gain indulgences, whether plenary or partial, it is necessary that the faithful be in the state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed. [i.e. one must be a Catholic, not excommunicated or in schism.]
- A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day. In order to obtain it, the faithful must, in addition to being in the state of grace:
- have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
- have sacramentally confessed their sins;
- receive the Holy Eucharist (it is certainly better to receive it while participating in Holy Mass, but for the indulgence only Holy Communion is required);
- pray for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.
- It is appropriate, but not necessary, that the sacramental Confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the Pope’s intentions take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed; but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act. Prayer for the Pope’s intentions is left to the choice of the faithful, but an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” are suggested. One sacramental Confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and a separate prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions are required for each plenary indulgence.
- For the sake of those legitimately impeded, confessors can commute both the work prescribed and the conditions required (except, obviously, detachment from even venial sin).
- Indulgences can always be applied either to oneself or to the souls of the deceased, but they cannot be applied to other persons living on earth.
So let me see if I can sort through all of what is being said and done here.
An indulgence repairs for sins, the way a new window repairs a broken one. You can be forgiven for breaking the glass, but the repercussions, or the broken window, is still there. The indulgence repairs the wound so to be “made perfect” again.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
An indulgence is “earned” by proper disposition and doing what is asked by the church.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. John 14:15-16
The indulgence is actually teaching us to surrender all we have to God so the merits of Christ can be fully applied to us. The more we rely on Christ, the more He repairs all repercussions of the sin we have committed. He does so through the authority of the church because the goal is the communion of the whole Mystical Body with Christ the head of the church.
An indulgence is God’s way of giving the authority to the church to help walk us on a path of total surrender to Christ.
We are asked to be detached from sin because He cannot repair fully a wound we will not hand over. Every time we justify our sin, we are attached to it, we haven’t given it to God, and He cannot fully be our savior repairing for what we have broken.
I yelled at you or was abusive to you because I had a hard day – I have justified. And people learn you need to be avoided when you had a hard day. They cannot rely upon you. And the wound grows bigger and cannot be repaired without drastic measure. I cling to my abusive ways to handle what is happening. But the one who converts – surrenders that to God. They detach from the sin that helped them cope and they hand it fully to God. God can then step in and forgive the sin and repair the relationships. People see the difference in who you have become and the healing repairs all that has been broken. A person who has surrendered all to God looks and acts different.
He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:29-30
In other words, our wounds become repaired by the holes in His hands and feet when we hand them over. And my friend Ashley once said, each communion we receive in a state of grace after confessing removes the penalty for our sin (with the other conditions met). I realized this is because we have surrendered it fully to him. This grace can be applied anywhere, and this is when we see miraculous healing, especially in our relationships.
It is why when we approach communion in a state of grace we should have no agenda but to do the Will of God and let Him fill us. Confession is vital to our ability to do this. We pray for the Supreme Pontiff because it is through his authority that all of this is bound in heaven. We become bound to the Cross of Christ which repairs for all we have done. So many want to skip over the cross, hold onto their sins that make them sit comfortably. Purification from sin hurts, but it is the ultimate healing. You cannot reach resurrection without handing it all over. You will never be fully healed without detaching from your sin.
We think of an indulgence as us doing something, but the reality is it is teaching us to rely solely upon him. It is teaching us that we cannot save ourselves. He is the one doing because our hardened hearts have softened. The church has given us a pathway to teach us to rely on Christ. What an absolute heartache that this teaching has been decimated because it has moved us away from total surrender to God.
Indulgences are probably one of the most beautiful things (besides the Sacraments themselves) that the church has offered us, but because it is so misunderstood it is under utilized. We would catapult to holiness as a Body of Christ if we knew truly knew what this teaching meant.
Indulgences can be earned by your surrender to Christ and then given to a person in purgatory. The Lord allows us to partake in all of His saving action because he loves us so much. The intention of our heart must always be pure, no other ulterior motive than to help the repair Body of Christ. And it teaches us to give of ourselves the way Christ gave to us. We become another Christ and that’s exactly what the world needs.