Transformed by mercy: Indulgences open door to moments of grace

There are some subjects we discuss that are like pulling the loose thread on a sweater. Once you start, what appeared to be a short thread keeps going and going. The matter of indulgences is one such topic. We often think of the indulgence as the Catholic version of the ‘get out of jail free card’. Many of those with this conception are surprised to hear Pope Francis still talking about them. After all, weren’t indulgences something that we got rid of after the criticism of the Reformers in the 16th century?

One thing that is important to know at the outset is that an indulgence is not one of the seven sacraments, nor is it a workaround by which one can avoid sharing in the normal sacramental life of the Church. It is what is considered a sacramental, a practice that flows from and points to the sacramental life of the Church, the channel of God’s merciful grace in the world. It is for this reason that the conditions listed for receiving an indulgence often involve participation in sacraments such as reconciliation and the Eucharist. Indulgences are not about bypassing our normal encounters with grace. Rather, they are about connecting us with the depth of God’s mercy that is poured out in those encounters.

Carracci-Purgatory-webIf one reads the Code of Canon Law on indulgences, one can easily be confused. The code states: “An indulgence is the remission before God of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful gains under certain and defined conditions by the assistance of the Church which as minister of redemption dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (CIC 992).

Wait … ‘temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is already forgiven’? What does that mean? At first glance, this notion of the indulgence seems like an unnecessary repetition of grace.

It perhaps helps to remember that the idea of temporal punishment is connected with the Catholic teaching on purgatory. Purgatory, unfortunately, is a concept that Catholics often understand in an inverted manner. In other words, the way we often speak and think about purgatory reverses the divine logic behind the belief. We often think about it as a display of God’s justice, i.e. God meting out the punishment we really deserve (even though we’ve been forgiven already). Yet, in reality, it is actually a display of God’s mercy.

Because Catholic doctrine is a reality of interconnections, in order to understand purgatory as a manifestation of God’s mercy, we have to back up and consider an even more basic concept. We must establish a foundation by pointing out what we mean when talking about heaven. In a simple phrase, heaven is the state of being in perfect union with God.

Now, there are two things that keep us separated from this perfect union. The first is our nature, that is, what we are. We are creatures and God is not. How can we share in God’s life if we are completely different realities, completely different things? Christ took care of this by bridging the gap between God and us by taking on our humanity in the incarnation. That one event changes the whole course of history.

Mc15_33-39-webThe second barrier is sin, that is, what we do. Sin separates us from God because, in it, we place lesser goods over God’s love. Christ also took care of this by taking on our nature, dying, and rising. God really forgives us for our sins. We see this in Jesus’ ministry. We see it in his willingness to die for us and to rise again, transforming what it means to be human. We see it in the life of the Church, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation. Yet, the difficult thing about sin is that the more we do it, the more it changes who we are inside, the more broken we become, and the more we place these lesser goods before God in our hearts.

So, when Canon Law (or the Catechism) talks about temporal punishment, it is a reference to the fact that while God forgives us, we are still in need of healing and transformation. In other words, we do not believe in purgatory because we believe that God is demanding and needs us to be ‘fixed’ if He is to tolerate us for all eternity. Rather, we believe that God’s love for us is so great that He wished to make us fully capable of receiving this love. So, God continues to transform us until we are able to live in union with Him — that is, until there are no more barriers between God and us. What we call ‘punishment’ here is not something inflicted upon us by God but rather the consequence of separating ourselves from God. Purgatory, then, is not really punishment but the release from (self-inflicted) punishment. It is a state of conversion and transformation. In other words, the notion of purgatory shows us that God’s merciful, transformative love is so great that even death cannot overcome it.

So, let’s get back to indulgences, and specifically those offered in the year of mercy. After all, this was the thread we started pulling at the outset. If an indulgence involves release from temporal punishment, then it is a purgative experience. If our understanding of purgatory tells us anything about what a purgative experience is, then, simply put, it’s all about transformation. An indulgence tells us that God can take mundane, everyday actions (i.e. entering through a doorway) and turn them into moments of grace that transform our hearts, changing who we are. An indulgence — and the conditions for obtaining it — is not a magic formula; it is a recipe for a moment of grace. And when we seek indulgences for a deceased person, what we are doing is making a heartfelt plea for his or her continued transformation. So, as we indulge in the indulgence of this Year of Mercy, let us allow God’s love to flow through our actions and transform our inner being. Let us be transformed by God’s Mercy.


By Michael Martocchio, Ph.D.  |  Special to The Miscellany


Obtaining indulgences in the Jubilee Year of Mercy

The steps on how to experience and obtain an indulgence during the Jubilee Year of Mercy are outlined in a letter by Pope Francis.

In it, the pope writes that the celebration of the holy year should be “a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God” for all believers, so that “the faith of every believer may be strengthened and thus testimony to it be ever more effective.”

Purgatory-painting-web“I wish that the Jubilee Indulgence may reach each one as a genuine experience of God’s mercy,” Pope Francis writes, “which comes to meet each person in the Face of the Father who welcomes and forgives, forgetting completely the sin committed.”

To experience and obtain the indulgence, the faithful are called to:

Make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion. (See the list of holy doors in the diocese.)

One must also participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a reflection on mercy. Pope Francis writes, “Accompany these celebrations with the profession of faith and prayer for me and for the intentions that I bear in my heart for the good of the Church and of the entire world.”

For those who cannot enter the Holy Door, such as the sick, elderly or incarcerated, they can obtain the indulgence by “living with faith and joyful hope this moment of trial, receiving communion or attending Holy Mass and community prayer, even through the various means of communication.”

In regard to passing through the Holy Door, Pope Francis speaks specifically to those who are incarcerated: “May they all be touched in a tangible way by the mercy of the Father who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness. They may obtain the Indulgence in the chapels of the prisons. May the gesture of directing their thought and prayer to the Father each time they cross the threshold of their cell signify for them their passage through the Holy Door, because the mercy of God is able to transform hearts, and is also able to transform bars into an experience of freedom.”

Another requirement is to participate in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. “Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence,” the pope writes.

The indulgence may also be obtained for the deceased by remembering them in the eucharistic celebration, and praying for them, “that the merciful Face of the Father free them of every remnant of fault and strongly embrace them in the unending beatitude.”

Holy Doors in the diocese:


For more on the Jubilee of Mercy, visit

Also, for children there is a Catholic Bible school program “The Vatican Express,” that follows Pope Francis through the Door of Mercy. Visit


Understanding myths and misconceptions

To understand indulgences, one must be clear on what they are, and what they are not.

Here are some facts to help clear up some myths and misperceptions:

Why does one need indulgences?

Because we commit numerous sins each day and even when we confess our sins, the slight penances given in confession are not enough to remit the temporal punishment, so we have a “debt of justice” to God. If this debt is not paid here, it must be paid after our death (e.g. in purgatory).

Can a person in mortal sin obtain indulgences?

No. One must be in the state of grace to receive indulgences.

Do indulgences eliminate the need for confession?

No. Indulgences presuppose that one has already received sacramental absolution in confession.

Do indulgences eliminate the need for restitution?

No. Indulgences should be obtained in addition to making restitution. For example, if someone were to steal an item from another, he should go to Confession and receive sacramental absolution, restore the item or make full restitution, and obtain indulgences.

Can a person obtain indulgences for sins not yet committed?

No. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “[An indulgence] is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.”

Can a person “buy forgiveness” with indulgences?

No. The definition of indulgences is that forgiveness has already taken place; indulgences deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.

Can indulgences be applied to others, either living or dead?

One may apply indulgences to the dead, but not to other living persons. The Code of Canon Law states that one can gain partial or plenary indulgences for oneself or apply them to the dead by way of suffrage.

Does an indulgence shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days?

No. There used to be a certain number of days attached to indulgences, but those referred to the period of penance during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person’s case.

Can a person buy his way out of hell with indulgences?

No. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact.

Were indulgences invented as a way for the Church to raise money?

No. Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening penance and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.

There was a financial scandal surrounding indulgences that gave rise to the Reformation, but there was never any outright selling of indulgences. Rather, the giving of alms was used as an occasion to grant indulgences. Also, people were known to purchase the certificate of indulgence.

This gave rise to the Council of Trent, which instituted severe reforms and abolished the practice of granting indulgences connected to any type of fees or other financial transactions.