What is an indulgence?


With the coming of the new millennium and all of the preparations for it, Pope John Paul II recently announced a series of regulations for the gaining of special indulgences for the year 2000.

Recently in the Diocese of Charleston, we experienced the gift of an indulgence. For all Masses of Christmas, Bishop Thompson, having the permission of Rome, extended the favor of granting an apostolic benediction to all of the priests, religious and laity of diocese. The benediction is a special blessing that the pope offers and is rarely given outside of Rome. A special quality of this blessing is that it carries with it an indulgence — something many people (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) have only a vague idea of.

What is an indulgence, what are its effects and how is one obtained. To quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which in turn quotes Pope Paul VI: “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.”(1) The teaching of indulgences is an essential part of the doctrine of the church. It has clear implications in at least four areas: the teachings on sin and its consequences, on purgatory, the merits of Christ and on the communion of saints.

An indulgence may be applied for our own benefit or for anyone we wish it to be applied, be they living or dead. In this sense an indulgence may be thought of as a spiritual gift we may give to someone else. We also share in these gifts because of the merits of Christ and of all the saints. “In the communion of saints, ‘a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.’ In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one can cause others.” (2)

Indulgences take away all or part of the punishments we would endure in purgatory as we are purified of our sins and united with God. When we think about what sin is and what effects it has on our lives, the doctrine of indulgences makes perfect sense. Sin separates us from God and even though we ask and receive his forgiveness, we are still damaged by those sins. The things we are required to do to receive an indulgence help us to overcome any attachment we have to sin and to grow in charity toward God and others.

There are many ways of obtaining an indulgence, all of them are outlined and regulated in the Handbook of Indulgences published following the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The book is not easily available because few people seem interested in the subject, but it may easily be ordered from any Catholic bookstore. Some require a particular number or type of prayers, others include some form of pilgrimage or other work of charity.

For the indulgence given following the apostolic benediction, and for most other types of indulgences, three things are required and all must be done within a reasonable amount of time — within eight days before and eight days after the blessing is given. The first requirement is that we must make a confession and do penance. The second requirement is that we must receive Communion with the intent of gaining an indulgence. And the third is that we must offer a prayer for the pope and his intentions.

The parishes of St. Louis in Dillon and Infant Jesus in Marion took advantage of receiving the indulgence at Christmas. These parishes are small, but very active, with a combined total of only 150 families. The daily administration of these parishes is handled by Sister Bernadine Jax, while I serve the sacramental needs. On average I am occupied in the confessionals of these two small parishes for about 20 minutes each week. When the announcement was made that an indulgence would be granted for those who fulfilled the three requirements, we all prayed for the pope at the end of the homily, most received Communion at the Christmas Masses, and I was kept busy in the confessional for nearly seven hours. This is exactly what an indulgence is designed to do — to bring us closer to God through the sacraments he has given his church.

(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr.1471. Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina. Norm 1.

(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr. 1474. Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, nr. 5.

Father Scott Buchanan is parochial vicar at St. Anthony’s Church in Florence and sacramental priest at St. Louis Church in Dillon and Church of the Infant Church in Marion.