INDULGENCES: the Good, the Bad, and the Family
(appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review November 2000.)
Indulgences have to do with how God handles evil and good.
To God, sin is always horrible, but humans do not always think so. The Church's teaching on indulgences is meant to impress on us some of God's horror of sin. The Church says sin is never an isolated event: rather, each sin has after-effects, not only in the person who sins but also in other parts of creation. Some of these after-effects are long-lived, and cannot be removed merely by going to Confession.
But another side of the Church's teaching on indulgences is that good deeds also have after-effects. And God deals with the after-effects of evil and the after-effects of good in different ways: the after-effects of good are much longer lived than the effects of sin. These aspects of the Church's teaching are meant to open our minds to the wonder of belonging to the growing family of God.
II. The Family of God
At a baby's baptism, the priest invites all present to pray the Our Father together so that the child will one day learn the highest duty of the baptized, to "call on God as Father in the midst of the Church". This phrase reminds us that all baptized people share the same Father, and we remember this most vividly at Mass. Everyone we see around us at Mass calls the same person Father: He is not just "my" Father, but "our" Father. We are all part of one family, the family of God.
Now a family is a place where we feel most at home. On major celebrations, it is natural to come back home, to gather with parents, brothers and sisters. At times, there may also be members of other generations of the family, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
The family of God also has its celebrations: every Sunday is meant to
be one. But in the family of
God, there are no cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents: all are called to be
brothers and sisters. We first learn this from the other people we can see at
But the most
unusual aspect of God's family is this: we also have brothers and sisters whom we cannot see with our natural eyes. Some
are centuries older than we are. Among our older siblings, some are a lot
better children of our Father than we are. On the other hand, some of our older
siblings are in a lot of pain, and have been suffering for a very long time.
Admittedly, it takes a lot more thought to recognize these
invisible folk as siblings than it does for the people we see at
they call on God as their Father in the midst of the same Church as we do. Compared with Thomas or Catherine, we who are alive today are mere babies in the family of God, no matter how sophisticated we may feel at times.
Now, children at the end of a large family know how special it can be to have an older sibling, especially at Christmas or on a birthday. The older sibling may be earning amounts of money which to a child seem stupendous. And whereas the child may be able to spend only a few pennies on a present for the older sibling, the latter can provide expensive presents which set the child's eyes agog.
In God's family, some of our siblings are fabulously wealthy in the world of grace: but others of our siblings have gotten themselves into trouble, and have been tormented by serious pain in purgatory ever since they died. Indulgences are ways that our mother the Church has devised to enable her wealthiest children to share their fortune with the younger members of God's Family (such as us), and for us (poor though we are) to share what we can with our older suffering siblings.
III. Sin and its after-effects
Sin is a deliberate breaking of God's law. Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967), writes: "The truth has been divinely revealed that sins are followed by punishments. God's holiness and justice inflict them. Sins must be expiated. This must be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries, and trials of this life and above all through death. Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments...The reasons [for punishments] are that our souls need to be purified, the holiness of the moral order needs to be strengthened, and God's glory must be restored to its full majesty...every sin upsets the universal order which God has established. Further, every sin does immense harm to the sinner himself and to the community of men."
The Pope is saying that when I sin, the sin has two effects: (a) in myself, (b) in the world around me. First, sin destroys grace in my soul, may condemn me to eternal punishment (if the sin is mortal), and leaves me in a weakened state. Secondly, my sin creates, as it were, some damage in God's world: my sin creates something like a dropped stitch in the fabric of human history which was never meant to be there. This weakness in myself, and the damage in creation, are two important after-effects of sin.
How far does the damage done by my sin spread out through creation? In the case of certain sins, the answer is obvious: drunkenness or infidelity or excessive gambling by a parent often leads to great suffering for innocent members of a family. But what about sins which have less obvious effects: how far do their effects go?
God provides an answer, in startling terms: "I, the LORD, your God, am a
jealous God, inflicting punishment for their father's wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation" (Exodus 20, 5). This remarkable statement leaves no doubt as to how serious sin is in God's eyes. God's answer applies to all sins, even sins which seem to have no obvious
effects on the innocent members of the family. It is a chilling thought that when I commit a sin, I may be condemning my children and my grand-children to serious consequences.
To remove sin and its after-effects requires several things. First, friendship with God must be restored, and amends must be made for offending His wisdom and goodness: this is done by a sincere conversion of mind in a good
confession to a priest. Confession removes the guilt of sin, and also removes any condemnation to eternal punishment (if mortal sin was committed). But what about the weakness in my soul, and the damage I did to God's creation? How are they to be removed? Confession does not do it.
Pope Paul teaches that there are two ways: "The first is by freely making reparation, which involves punishment. The second is by accepting the punishments God's wisdom has appointed....The very fact that punishment for sin exists, and that it is so severe, make it possible for us to understand how foolish and malicious sin is, and how harmful its consequences are". The souls who are now in purgatory are those "who died in the charity of God, were truly
repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions".
The necessity of doing penance for sins is apparent from the words of Our Lord: "Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish" (Luke, 13, 3).
But how do I know when I have done adequate penance for my sins? There is
no obvious measuring stick to use: could it be that God is a taskmaster who is never satisfied? If this were true, it would be a heavy burden indeed.
But there is good news for us because we are members of God's family. The fact is, some of our older siblings were so aware of how their sins had offended God, whom they loved, that they willingly suffered severe penances in order to repair the damage which they had done to God's world. The Church teaches that these saints, by means of their penances, more than compensated for the damage their own sins had done.
This has a remarkable effect on us. We have already seen how God reacts to sin, and to people who hate Him. Now we ask: how does God react to people who love Him? God's answer is clear, startling and specific: "I, the LORD, your God...bestow mercy down to the thousandth generation on the children of those
who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus, 20, 6).
This must be regarded as one of the most remarkable statements in all of Scripture. It says that God responds to love of Him very differently from the way in which He responds to sin: although sin is by no means allowed to go unpunished, nevertheless, the punishments are felt for "only" three or four generations, whereas the effects of good last "for a thousand generations", or essentially forever. In human terms, God rewards good deeds more than He punishes sin. God never forgets a good deed done by a person who loves Him. The
effects of sins peter out after a few generations, but the effects of good deeds never die.
Now, some of our older siblings performed good deeds during their lives, and God is still blessing those good deeds to this very day. Far from diminishing with the passing of the years, the amount of blessings has continued
to swell as God's family expands. The older the family of God becomes, the more the blessings accumulate.
IV. The treasury of the Church
Pope Paul describes the "treasury of the Church" as including "the infinite value which Our Lord's merits have in the eyes of God our Father, as well as the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary...In the treasury too are the prayers and good works of all the saints...they attained their own salvation
and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body".
Pope Paul admits that the idea that pastors could set someone free of the
after-effects of sin by applying the merits of Christ and of the saints grew up gradually in the Church over the centuries. The Church took time to realize that the after-effects of good deeds are building up as the years went on, growing like some sort of tidal wave of ever increasing size.
If we can return to the analogy of the family, we can see that it takes some time before the parents can call on the older siblings to start to contribute to family life. E.g., when a child reaches age 7-10, he/she can begin
to help with raising the younger members and doing chores. And when he/she reaches age 15-20, financial contributions to the family become possible. Once enough time has passed, it seems natural to have the older siblings help out with the younger ones. So it was with the Church after the first few centuries went by: the blessings that God was showering on the great saints long after they themselves were dead gradually became available to the younger members of the Church.
Eventually the Popes decreed that certain works which were suitable for promoting the common good of the Church could replace all penitential practices. Then the faithful who were genuinely sorry for their sins, and had confessed them, and had done such works, were granted by God's mercy, and trusting in His
apostles' power, the most complete forgiveness possible for their sins (Pope Paul VI).
An "indulgence" means taking away the after-effects of sin when the guilt is already forgiven. An indulgence is an action on the part of the Church to spread the treasury amassed by Christ and by our older siblings to the less
fortunate members of the family of God.
Why does the Church want us to gain indulgences? First, they help us to expiate our sins. Second, they encourage us to do works of piety, penitence, and charity. Third, when I gain an indulgence, I am admitting that by my own power, I could never adequately remedy the harm I have done to myself or to God's world by my sins. Finally, indulgences remind us of the enormous liberality which God gives to those who love Him: we can honestly say that we are taking advantage of blessings which God is still pouring out on people who loved Him centuries ago.
Indulgences show how closely knit we are as the family of God. They remind us of the good lives which our older siblings lived. And although these older siblings are much richer than we will ever be, nevertheless, the doctrine of indulgences does not by any means sneer at whatever we can contribute. What we have to offer may seem like pretty small change compared with what the giants of the Church have contributed. Nevertheless, we who are alive today can gain indulgences to help our suffering brothers and sisters in Purgatory. When we do this, we are practising charity in what Pope Paul calls "an outstanding way".
VI. Plenary and partial indulgences
Certain pious exercises carry with them indulgences which have the effect that ALL of the after-effects of sin are removed completely. These are called plenary (or complete) indulgences. Other indulgences remove only some of the after-effects: these are called partial indulgences. In older prayer books, you may see a period of time attached to certain prayers: this meant that the indulgence was only partial. The time period meant that if I say that prayer, the after-effects of my sin are removed to the same extent and they would have been if I had endured one of the penances of the early Church for that length of time. However, Pope Paul in 1967, in his role as chief dispenser of the treasury of the Church, decreed that no time intervals would any longer be assigned to
Plenary indulgences can be gained by spending at least one half-hour in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, or in reading the Scriptures with the
veneration due the Divine Word; by reciting the Rosary, with pious meditation on the mysteries, either as a family or in a church; and by praying the Stations of the Cross. These indulgences are available at all times of the year.
Certain practices carry plenary indulgences only at certain times of the
year. For example, each day from November 1 to November 8, a plenary indulgence applicable only to the souls in Purgatory is granted to the faithful who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the dead. On All Souls Day, a plenary indulgence, also applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who piously visit a Church and recite one Our Father and the Creed. Other feasts of the Church on which plenary indulgences can be obtained include the Sacred Heart, Christ the King, Pentecost, Lenten Fridays, and the Easter Vigil.
VII. Conditions for gaining indulgences
While it is true that indulgences are free gifts to those of us who are members of Christ's Catholic Church, there are certain conditions for gaining them. To gain a plenary indulgence, the indulgenced practice must be performed, and three conditions must be fulfilled: (i) sacramental confession; (ii) Eucharistic communion; (iii) prayer for the Pope's intentions (Our Father and one Hail Mary). Further, it is necessary to be free from all attachment to any sin at all, even venial sin.
Why should we pray for the Pope's intentions? Because we have access to indulgences through the generosity of the Church, of which the Pope is the visible head on Earth.
The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the indulgenced work has been performed. One sacramental confession suffices to gain several plenary indulgences. But for each plenary indulgence, communion must
be received, and prayers for the Pope's intentions must be said. No more than one plenary indulgence can be gained in one day, except on the day of death.