After explaining what an indulgence is and considering the history of indulgences in the Church, Jenna Cooper now looks at the specifics of how — and why — to get one.
1. How can I obtain an indulgence?
Indulgences can be earned through the particular prayers or pious acts to which the Holy Father has attached an indulgence. In addition to fulfilling the specified action, a person seeking to earn a plenary indulgence must also fulfill certain conditions.
2. What are the conditions necessary for obtaining an indulgence?
Besides completing the specific act to which the indulgence is attached, a Catholic seeking an indulgence must also
- Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. Every year, the pope publishes a list of his special intentions for each month. (For example, one of his intentions for the month of January 2016 is that “sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.”) However, even simply praying “for the intentions of the Holy Father” in a more generic way is sufficient. The faithful are free to choose exactly how they will pray for the pope’s intentions, although the Church recommends offering an “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary.”
- Make a sacramental confession and receive Holy Communion. While this condition would ideally be fulfilled on the same day one earns the indulgence, it is acceptable to receive these sacraments at a different time close to the completion of the action to which the indulgence is attached. In a document from the Apostolic Penitentiary (the Vatican office that regulates indulgences), which articulated many of the specific rules for indulgences on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000, it was indicated that an acceptable period of time to fulfill this condition is within 20 days of fulfilling the indulgenced act.
- Be wholly and sincerely repentant for one’s sins, to the point of being free from all attachments to sin. This is the most difficult condition to fulfill but in many ways also the most important. Being free from all attachment to sin means that we have chosen to love God and prioritize our relationship with him over and above whatever pleasures are associated with our sins. This places us in the appropriate spiritual state for receiving the graces that the Church grants us in an indulgence.
3. What happens if these other conditions aren’t fulfilled?
Fulfilling all these conditions is necessary in order to receive a plenary indulgence (that is, a full indulgence for the complete remission of the temporal punishment due to sin). On the other hand, if only some of the conditions are fulfilled, one may still earn a partial indulgence. Additionally, there are also specific partial indulgences already attached in a regular way to some prayers and pious acts.
4. How often can I earn a plenary indulgence?
A faithful Catholic can earn one plenary indulgence per day, presuming that all the above-mentioned conditions are all met. It is worth noting, though, that while one sacramental confession is adequate for obtaining several plenary indulgences, each individual plenary indulgence requires its own reception of Holy Communion and prayers for the Holy Father’s intentions.
5. Who can receive a plenary indulgence?
Individuals may obtain indulgences for themselves, and an indulgence can also be earned on behalf of someone who has died. However, an indulgence cannot be obtained on behalf of someone else who is still alive on earth — though, of course, we are always free to encourage our living family and friends to seek indulgences for themselves!
6. Is there a special indulgence attached to the Year of Mercy?
Yes. There is a special plenary indulgence for the Jubilee Year, which can be obtained by visiting a Holy Door, either in Rome or in one’s local diocese, and making a profession of faith. During the Year of Mercy, the Jubilee indulgence can also be earned by carrying out one of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.
Pope Francis has further made accommodations for those who would be unable to receive the Jubilee indulgence in the normal way. For example, those who are incarcerated may obtain the indulgence by visiting the chapel of their prison. The elderly and the homebound can earn the indulgence by “receiving communion or attending Holy Mass and community prayer, even through the various means of communication” while “living with faith and joyful hope this moment of trial.”
7. Why should we earn indulgences?
Indulgences are a powerful means of grace for our own spiritual growth and are a tremendous work of mercy when applied to those who have died. All souls in purgatory are granted entrance to heaven once their stage of purgation is complete. Assisting these souls in their final step of purification is a particularly powerful participation in God’s mercy. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest acts of charity that we can perform for our departed loved ones, or for souls in purgatory we never knew on earth but will know in heaven. And can’t we assume they will be especially eager to remember us when — benefitting from the indulgence — they are before Our Lord’s throne?
Read Part I on Indulgences, here
For Pope Francis’ monthly intentions for 2016: http://apostleshipofprayer.org/2016-intentions/
The Church’s practices regarding indulgences, stated on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/tribunals/apost_penit/documents/rc_trib_appen_pro_20000129_indulgence_en.html
Pope Francis’ letter to the President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, outlining some specifics for the Year of Mercy indulgence: http://www.im.va/content/gdm/en/giubileo/lettera.html
[Editor’s note: Read how one Catholic came to better understand and seek indulgences.]
Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.