by Brian Grab


On Monday, October 5, Maria Goretti’s major relics were in Boston as part of the Pilgrimage of Mercy. One interesting aspect of this mercy was the plenary indulgence issued for pilgrims who venerate her by visiting her relics. But what is an indulgence?


According to Canon Law, “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” (can. 992).

“Remission before God of the temporal punishment” means that in generous response to the prayers of the Church, God removes the punishment due to a sinner. This appeals to the Catholic conception of sin, punishment, and mercy. Sin has two effects: it damages our relationship to God and cultivates an “unhealthy attachment to creatures” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1472). These effects correspond to punishments, which are the natural effects of sin, much as pain is the natural effect a placing one’s hand on a hot stove. “Eternal punishment” refers to a situation where a person has so damaged his relationship with God that eternal life with God becomes impossible. The forgiveness received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation heals a penitent’s relationship with God and thus lifts the consequence of eternal punishment. However, the “temporal punishment” that results from unhealthy attachment to creatures remains. This orientation towards creatures and away from God is disordered and must be corrected before one can enjoy eternal life with God in Heaven. Correction can happen either on Earth or in a special state of after-death purification known as “Purgatory.”


In life, penance serves to reorient the human person to God, thereby removing temporal punishment and the need for purgatory. Traditionally this can take the form of prayer, fasting, and works of charity (almsgiving). Indulgences are specific recommendations for appropriate acts of penance, the “certain prescribed conditions” in the above definition. A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment, while a partial indulgence removes temporal punishment only partially.   The Church can guarantee the effectiveness of these prescribed acts “as the minister of redemption.” Christ entrusted the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter, and Peter’s successor, the Pope, maintains the authority to “loose and bind” (Matthew 16:19). The “treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” refers to the infinite merit earned by Christ on the Cross, which has been even further enriched by the prayers and holy lives of the saints, especially Our Lady. The thinking is that in order to satisfy the justice of God, a moral good must cancel out the evil of sin. God provides this good super-abundantly on the Cross. The Church then distributes this good to specific penitents in the form of indulgences as rewards or incentives for performing certain spiritually beneficial acts.


In addition to the specific act or prayer the Church wishes to encourage (the indulged act), there are four requirements necessary for an indulgence: 1. Make a sacramental confession (within a reasonable time period of the indulged act, such as seven days). 2. Receive Holy Communion (within a similar time period). 3. Pray for the intentions of the Pope. 4. Have a detachment from sin, even venial sin. In short, the person seeking the indulgence must truly desire to be cleansed of the “unhealthy attachment to creatures.”   


Indulgences can be part of the ordinary, everyday, Catholic faith life. A half hour of Eucharistic Adoration or of devoutly reading the Bible qualifies for a full plenary indulgence. In less time than it takes to get dinner at the dining hall, you could be well on your way to having all temporal punishment lifted.  Remember, holiness is the goal of the Christian life. It is possible for you, and for me, and God will give us the help we need.


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