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?
Last time we explored, briefly, the reality of purgatory, as a prelude to understanding the great gift of indulgences. Purgatory is the process of purification by which someone who dies in friendship with Christ but not completely freed from selfishness is prepared for the definitive union with God of which heaven consists.
God Indulges in Mercy
Through the favor granted by an indulgence, God’s mercy permits this purification to happen more quickly than otherwise. Instead of having to suffer through the purification oneself, in other words, purification is obtained through the suffering already undergone by Christ and the saints. Indulgences can’t free souls from hell, but they can speed up the purification process for oneself or for souls in purgatory, by remitting this temporal punishment (the restorative purification) that personal sins create the need for. There are two types of indulgences: partial, which repairs some of the self-damage caused by sin, or plenary, which repairs all of the damage.
As you mention in your question, the Church has usually attached indulgences to some act of piety, by which we can show our love for God and neighbor. Plenary indulgences always include a particular act of piety (like half an hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament), plus confession within a week, Holy Communion, and prayers for the pope and his intentions. But they also require a complete interior detachment from sin. Sometimes it is hard for us to know if we are fully detached. But even if we are not, God will honor our prayers and faith in some way, perhaps through granting a partial indulgence.
Those Complicated Catholics
Doesn’t this all seem a bit complicated? Why doesn’t God just simplify things? We can never know all of God’s reasons, but the doctrine of indulgences does reflect his wisdom in myriad ways.
First of all, it shows his justice. God longs to forgive all sinners and welcome them back into his friendship and his family. But it would be unfair to simply ignore the damage that sin does. Justice requires that the damage, including that done by the sinner to the sinner’s own soul, be repaired.
But God is also merciful, and so he allows us to help each other out, to bear each other’s burdens, to contribute to the good of one another, both here on earth, and after death. Furthermore, the obvious benefit that indulgences give to souls in purgatory can motivate us to a deeper prayer life. I know one couple who structure their spiritual lives around obtaining a plenary indulgence every day. This keeps them on track – they have to pray daily and be receiving the sacraments regularly in order to obtain those indulgences. It adds objectivity to their spiritual life.
The bottom line, however, is charity, love. Obtaining indulgences for souls suffering in purgatory exercises true supernatural love for neighbors whom we may never meet till our family feast in heaven. And when we exercise true, supernatural love, it grows – nothing matters more than that.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD
Editor’s Note: In our next post, we will explore additional information on indulgences and what the Church has to say about this.