Plenary Indulgences and Purgatory – Part I of III


Dear Father John, please explain plenary indulgences. If one confession fulfills the requirement of plenary indulgences 8 days before and 8 days after, it seems to me that if someone went to Communion everyday, prayed for the intentions of the Holy Father everyday and prayed the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament everyday, that she could release 17 souls from purgatory in 17 days. Is that right?

Aside from the problem of mathematical piety which we will discuss later, you are basically right, if indeed this person had the intention of obtaining an indulgence as she performed those acts of piety, and if this person were truly detached from personal sin. But we do have to be a bit careful here, so as not to have a simplistic view of indulgences. Let’s review.

An indulgence is simply a favor granted by the Church – to which, remember, Christ gave the “keys of the Kingdom” and the “power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven” (see Matthew 16).

By means of this favor, the Church applies the merits won by Christ and the saints to repair the damage that sins cause to our soul. We don’t obtain God’s forgiveness through an indulgence, rather we obtain the remission of what is traditionally called “temporal punishment” for sin. This is an important concept to consider. It connects both to the doctrine of indulgences, and also to that of purgatory.

A Trip to Purgatory

C.S. Lewis explained purgatory with a memorable image. Imagine that a young man leaves home to go off and fight in a war. He is gone for a long time, and when he finally returns, his clothes are tattered, he’s half-starved, he is caked with mud and covered with blood, his head is bandaged, both his legs are broken and one arm is in a homemade sling.

But, he is alive, and he has made his way home. Will he go right into the dining room where the family is having a birthday dinner? No. He is not fit for such a celebration, and he wouldn’t even want to make an appearance in his unpleasant condition. He has to go and get cleaned up, and the doctors will have to look at him and set those broken bones and change those bandages, and he’ll have to get his strength back, and he’ll have to undergo physical therapy to recover from his injuries.

The process may take a while, and it will probably be uncomfortable, even painful. It may take a full year before he’s 100% healthy and able to participate fully in family affairs. But in the end, he’ll take his rightful seat at the family feast.

That temporary recovery period is like purgatory. Our life on earth is a spiritual war. Our selfishness and sins not only offend God (the offense that confession removes, as God grants us his forgiveness), but they also do damage to our souls. They form and deepen spiritual habits, tendencies, and attitudes that are contrary to the gospel. And that damage needs to be repaired; every last scrap of selfishness and sinfulness has to be removed, or purified, before we are able to live in the perfect intimacy with God that heaven requires.

This purification can happen either in this life, or after we die. If it happens after we die, it is called purgatory – the state in which all remaining selfishness is purged from our souls.

Understanding that concept of purification lays the groundwork for understanding the value of indulgences, which we will look at next time

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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