An Explanation of Indulgences

by Jim Dunning

(This article was originally published in "Irelands Own" magazine. The webmaster would like to gratefully thank the author for his kind permission in reprinting it here.)

There was a time when indulgences had a bad name. This was because in the Middle Ages some of the clergy were in the habit of selling indulgences to the faithful for their own benefit. They had no right to do so and the practice was eventually stopped. In 1567 Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving fees or any financial transaction, proving that the Church was determined to put an end to the abuse. However, the regular and proper use of indulgences was still strongly recommended and that continues to be the case.

What exactly is an indulgence? Put simply, it is the full or partial remission of the temporal punishment still due after sins have been forgiven. The former is called a plenary indulgence, the latter a partial indulgence. Both are dispensed by the Catholic Church, which claims the authority to apply the merits of Christ and the saints in heaven.

Where did this authority originate? How, one might ask, does the Pope come to have the power required to achieve this? In the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Chap. 16: 18-19), Christ said to Simon Peter: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in heaven.”

A wonderful statement, leading directly to the Sacrament of Penance. At one time those going to confession could expect to receive certain penitential practices to carry out as a condition for their absolution. Over the years, the successors to St. Peter decreed that some prayers and good works could replace these penitential practices, leading to the introduction of indulgences. The aim of the Church in granting indulgences is not only to expiate or reduce the temporal punishment still due to sins after the eternal punishment has been remitted by confession, but also to persuade the faithful to perform works of piety, penance and charity, leading to a general growth in faith. (Offering indulgences for the dead is an excellent example of charity. Donating money to relieve starvation in Third World countries is another.)

Indulgences are not awarded lightly or accidentally. There is nothing automatic about them. There must be the intent to gain an indulgence. Pope Paul VI stated: ‘Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God.’ To gain one you have to be a Catholic in a state of grace. To obtain a partial indulgence one must perform with a contrite heart the act or prayer to which the indulgence is attached. For a plenary indulgence the conditions are stricter. As well as having a contrite heart, where possible one must, within a period of up to 20 days, go to confession, receive Holy Communion and pray for the Pope’s intentions. (One Our Father and one Hail Mary will suffice.) Also, you must be free from all attachment to sin – including venial sin. If all four conditions are not met the indulgence granted will be only partial.

The list of approved indulgences was changed in 1968. It is to be found in the Catholic Church’s Enchiridion of Indulgences, available from the local library or through Google on the Internet. The determination of the number of days or years which were commonly quoted, and which actually referred to the number of days’or years’ remission of punishment on completion of the old canonical penances, has been abolished. The number of indulgences on offer has been somewhat reduced. According to the Enchiridion, ‘The main concern has been to attach greater importance to a Christian way of life, and to lead the faithful to cultivate the spirit of prayer and penance and to practise the theological virtues, rather than merely repeating certain formulas and acts’.

While partial indulgences can be gained more than once a day, a plenary indulgence can be acquired only once in the course of a day. An exception to this is allowed at the moment of death. Not all indulgences are available to the living. For example, a partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in Purgatory, is granted to the faithful who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the departed buried there. During the period 1st – 8th November (the month of the Holy Souls), a plenary indulgence may be gained for such visits.

Interestingly, the Church makes a plenary indulgence available to those of the faithful who are unable, when dying, to be assisted by a priest bringing the sacraments, provided they are “properly disposed” and have been in the habit of saying prayers during their lifetime. The holding of a crucifix at such a time is recommended as praiseworthy.

There are various ways of obtaining plenary indulgences. One is granted, for instance, to a Catholic who spends at least three whole days in the spiritual exercises of a retreat. Participation in certain pilgrimages is another source. Sometimes they are connected to Feast Days, such as Corpus Christi, or a particular event or date, such as the Millenium. The 150th anniversary two years ago of the Apparitions at Lourdes was another example.

Reciting the Rosary as an individual, and saying various other prayers, such as the Angelus, or Psalm 129, the “De Profundis” (Out of the Depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord..), are means of gaining partial indulgences. If five decades of the Rosary are recited in a church gathering or family group, however, they merit a plenary indulgence. Similarly, attending the Stations of the Cross, participation in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour, reading Holy Scripture for the same length of time – all can lead to a plenary indulgence. There is plenty of opportunity.

So, is it possible for the faithful to avoid Purgatory altogether? The answer is yes, though it is advisable not to rely solely on indulgences. In a book entitled: “Read Me Or Rue It” by Fr. Paul O’Sullivan (now out of print but available via Google on the Internet), excellent advice is given on how to achieve this aim. It involves a whole list of activities and attitudes:-

Remove the cause of sin by frequent use of the Sacraments; break off bad habits, such as speaking ill of others;

Do penance by way of little mortifications, like St. Therese of Lisieux; be unselfish and kind to all, practising self restraint and patience;

Bear suffering patiently and calmly for God’s sake, offering up every pain, sorrow and disappointment; willingly accept minor daily annoyances;

Go to Confession frequently, take Communion and attend Mass more often, thus gaining the strength to avoid sin;

Ask God to deliver you from Purgatory altogether! Perseverance and faith may prevent God from refusing this favour; After Holy Communion say: ‘Eternal Father, from this day forward I accept with a joyful and resigned heart the death it will please You to send me, with all its pains and suffering’;

Ensure that those nearest to you will summon a priest as soon as it is known that you are in danger of dying, so that you will benefit from the Sacrament of the Sick, formerly called Extreme Unction;

Make use of partial indulgences; recite short ejaculatory prayers during the day, such as ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in You’; obtain plenary indulgences also.

Apply the benefits of indulgences to help the Holy Souls reach Heaven.

With regard to the last recommendation, it should be remembered that those who work heart and soul for the relief of the Holy Souls may well hope to avoid Purgatory altogether. As St. James said, ‘He who saves a soul, saves his own and satisfies for a multitude of sins’.

Those interested in saving souls may wish to join a special Association devoted to this cause. One such is the Association of the Holy Souls, Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary, Pius XII Monastery, Rua do Rosario 1, 2495 Fatima, Portugal, to whom one should apply for further details. There may be some delay in obtaining a reply. One applicant recently received the following from the Mother Prioress:-

‘God bless you for your interest and desire to help all the suffering souls in Purgatory. Though we continue to enroll members in the Association, we encourage you to try to work for the Holy Souls in your own diocese. As much as possible, according to your means and state in life, we suggest that you:
Request Holy Mass to be offered in your parish for the relief of the Holy Souls;
Assist at Holy Mass with the intention of relieving their suffering;
Pray for the Holy Souls – especially the prayer of the Rosary;
Remind and encourage others to pray for the suffering souls….

Finally, we ask you to remember in prayer those who are dying so that every grace they need will be granted, especially to those who may have despaired of God’s love and mercy.

In your kindness, please pardon any delay in our reply to your letter.’

Those with access to the Internet on a computer will find a choice of Associations dedicated to the Holy Souls via Google. One such is FOSS, (Friends of the Suffering Souls), whose email address is Applications to enroll for the most part involve only one communication, so a relative or friend owning a computer may well help out without being unduly inconvenienced.

One last note about indulgences. They are not granted automatically. In particular, plenary indulgences are hard to obtain because of all the conditions attached. One way to achieve genuine repentance for sin, and determination to avoid it, is to pray the Rosary regularly. It is impossible to say the Sorrowful Mysteries thoughtfully and conscientiously without being filled with sorrow for past sins. It may not be enough, but it is a start.

Click here to go to Part 1 of this article, entitled "Purgatory".

‘I received many and great favours from the saints, but still greater favours from the Holy Souls.’ -St. Catherine of Bologna


Tomy Sebastian said...

It was really nice blog. I got an important information which I was seeking for long.
Could you please also show me where I can find all the plenary indulgences offered by the Catholic Church.?

Glenn Dallaire said...

Hi Tomy,

Thank you for your kind comments. I am really glad to hear that you are enjoying the website!

All of the plenary indulgences offered by the Catholic Church are in a book called "The Enchiridion of Indulgences", and it is for sale on and many other book dealers. However, much of it is availible for FREE on the Internet:
Perhaps the best website is:
Enchiridion of Indulgences

Thanks again and may God bless you and your loved ones,
Glenn Dallaire

USC ChE 2003 said...

Hi Glenn,

Thanks for this website and your other websites as well (St. Gemma, Miracles of the Church, etc...). As a Catholic struggling to be worthy of heaven, I find these articles inspiring and helpful in doing the norms recommended by the Church.

May God continue to bless your work!


Glenn Dallaire said...

Hi Fred,
Thanks so much for your kind comments. I am glad to hear that you are enjoying the websites! As for myself, I am really enjoying creating them and learning alot along the way!

`Best wishes and may God bless you and your loved ones

Anonymous said...

According to norm 4 of the manual of indulgences, you don't have to have contrition in order to gain a partial indulgence. Rather, with contrition, by the intervention of the Church, you receive an equal remission that the act itself grants you. So with "at least inward contrition" you receive an extra remission of punishment. The conditions for gaining an indulgence are laid out in norm 17 sections 1 & 2.