You hear a lot of different things in apologetics and “Q&A” pieces about what exactly the theory behind indulgences is. Some say that, back in the Middle Ages, when penances were things like carrying your armor up a mountain over and over and over again, indulgences were “easy alternatives.”
Then there’s the question of “time”. In the old days, partial indulgences had certain numbers of “days” attached, like, “300 Days’ Indulgence.” The common understanding was that this pertained to “days in purgatory.” The popular criticism was that “there’s no time in Purgatory.” But that doesn’t make sense, since Purgatory will end with the end of time. Purgatory really is “time served.” However, I’ve also read that the “days” really means that the grace is equivalent to X number of days on pilgrimage or X number of days living a monastic lifestyle. But that doesn’t make much sense, either.
A popular maxim of liberal Catholics (TM) is, “Vatican II got rid of indulgences because they used to sell them.” Uh, no. The “sale of indulgences”, per se, has always been considered a form of simony. There *were* priests who would, on their own, assign indulgences and penances to penitents that amounted to “give me $100 and your sins will be forgiven.” That’s Simony (i.e., Simon the Magus in Acts), and has always been condemned by Holy Mother Church. There have been, historically, certain indulgences attached to particular charitable donations, including contributing to the building of the Sistine Chapel. Since this was so easily abused, it was ended at the Council of Trent.
What Vatican II “got rid of” was the days thing, reducing it to simply “partial” and “plenary” indulgences. Now, the cool thing there is that we can see partial and plenary indulgences as paralleling another concept Protestants have a hard time with (even though it’s biblical): mortal and venial sins. Venial sins harm our relationship with God, but do not sever it. Conversely, partial indulgences help to build our relationship with God, but do not necessarily solidify it.
Similarly, while mortal sins sever our relationship with God, and, unrepented, guarantee we’ll go to Hell, plenary indulgences, so long as we are detached from sin and don’t backslide after earning them, guarantee we’ll go straight to Heaven, with no time served in Purgatory.
Now, here’s the trick: we can’t be certain we’ve “earned” a Plenary Indulgence ,and we definitely don’t know for certain that we”ll keep it (that would be “Eternal Security”). There’s a story about St. Philip Neri preaching about a special indulgence the Pope had granted for that day, and receiving the awareness that only two people in the congregation were actually deserving of that indulgence: himself and one old lady.
You see, to truly earn a plenary indulgence, you have to be free from all attachment to sin, and that’s a tough qualification to achieve.
You can earn up to 14 or 15 plenary indulgences per confession (up to seven days before or after the time of Confession). So, if you go to Communion *every* day during those two weeks before and after Confession, and make sure you perform some devotion with a plenary indulgence attached, *and pray for the Pope*, you can earn potentially up to 15. Now, what to do with them? Give them away. You can pray that any indulgences you earn on a particular day be assigned to a soul in Purgatory. I’ve found it very efficacious to offer indulgences for certain deceased relatives and then get them into Heaven.
You wanna get Clarence Oddbody into Heaven? That’s the way (forget all that “angel” and “getting his wings” junk).
Now, the best way to explain the *theory* of indulgences is to look for their origin. I believe I”ve blogged this before, but the very first indulgence granted by the Church is the Portiuncula Indulgence.
St. Francis of Assisi, like many Catholics, especially during the Crusades, was very concerned with making pilgrimages to the Holy Land . Since he knew how hard it was to actually get there, he started several devotions which, through the Church’s approval, are intended to help give the same graces as one would get from such a pilgrimage. One such devotion is the Stations of the Cross.
Another is the Portincula Indulgence. The “Portiuncula” is a nickname of the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, the church that St. Francis literally “rebuilt” at the beginning of his career and served as his base of operations.
Aug. 2 is the feast of Our Lady of the Angels. On that day, there is a plenary indulgence for going to *any* parish church, but particularly a Franciscan church or any named “Our Lady of the Angels.” It’s considered as if you’ve gone on pilgrimage. The indulgence also extends to visiting any church on its patronal feast.
So, yesterday (at this blogging) was the Feast of Corpus Christi, and we went to Corpus Christi Church in Lexington. We were too late for mass, but we had been invited to the parish picnic. Had a great time. Four families we’re friends with from the homeschool group were there. Then, before we left, Mary and I both went into the church individually to pray (all you have to do is say some prayers for the Holy Father). Then we went to Mass somewhere else.
Isn’t that cool?
I once got in trouble for giving Mary’s religion class a pre-approved guest lecture on indulgences–during the Jubilee Year 2000–talking about the Jubilee Indulgence. “We teach love and forgiveness here,” said the principal (I thought that’s what indulgences were, but she meant “forgiveness of sins without a confessional”).
We have a few weeks left in the Year of St. Paul: the special indulgence this year applies to any time one visits a church dedicated to St. Paul or St. Peter, or another church that has been assigned by the bishop. I’ve already blogged about the new indulgence for the coming Year of Priests that starts on the Feast of St. John Vianney.
Of course, when you know the disparate ways you can get a plenary indulgence, some of them seem kind of redundant or overkill compared to others. In addition to the Portiuncula Indulgence, common methods include 1) saying the rosary, with reflections on the mysteries, either with a group of people or in front of the Blessed Sacrament; 2) reading the Bible for a half an hour prayerfully; 3) spending a half an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament; 4) praying the Stations of the Cross in Church (always forget if this is exclusive to Lent, but I think it’s all year round); 5) reflecting on the Passion on a Friday in Lent (including the Prayer before a Crucifix; 6) going to Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday; 7) saying the Franciscan Crown Rosary (7 decades, a few different mysteries, but meditations aren’t required); 8) going on a three day retreat; 9) praying for the Dead, particularly at a cemetary, during the first week of November; 10) Saying the Office of the Dead (I think both morning and evening prayer; again, not sure if this is anytime or just first week of Nov).
You can only “earn” one plenary indulgence a day, but I dare you to try reading the Bible in front of the Blessed Sacrament for a half an hour, preferably using the Bible readings as Rosary meditations, while in a state of grace!!