Divine Mercy Sunday…

…is a few days away. The Servant of God John Paul II, Pope, granted indulgences to those who keep this feast day under certain conditions. Now that we are Catholics we can use this great gift of Holy Mother Church. Before we mention Divine Mercy Sunday and the indulgence attached to it let us look briefly at the concept of Indulgences.

Among the riches of the Catholic Church is the granting of Indulgences. The very word stirs up more misconceptions than perhaps any other teaching in Catholic teaching.

What is an indulgence?  

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 defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints. In other words Indulgences remove the punishment we deserve because of our confessed sins. One might ask that since in the sacrament of Confessions sins are absolved, what is there to forgive. Look at it this way. You have a white cloth. You drop oil on it. When you wash the cloth the oil is removed but the stain remains. In confession sins are removed but their stain is still on the white garment of our baptism. A plenary indulgence removes the stain of sin and grants us the freshness we had on the day of our baptism.

Where is all this in the bible? When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain. One passage demonstrating this is 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan the prophet confronts David over his adultery:  “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die’” (2 Sam. 12:13-14). God forgave David but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments (2 Sam. 12:7-12). (For other examples, see: Numbers 14:13-23; 20:12; 27:12-14.)
If Christ gave his ministers the ability to forgive the eternal penalty of sin, how much more would they be able to remit the temporal penalties of sin! Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth, saying, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). As the context makes clear, binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties (such as barring from and readmitting to the sacraments). Therefore, the power of binding and loosing includes the administration of temporal penalties.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Catholics should not be defensive about indulgences. They are based on principles straight from the Bible, and we can be confident not only that indulgences exist, but that they are useful and worth obtaining.

How to gain an indulgence

To gain any indulgence you must be a Catholic in a state of grace. You must be a Catholic in order to be under the Church’s jurisdiction, and you must be in a state of grace because apart from God’s grace none of your actions are fundamentally pleasing to God (meritorious). You also must have at least the habitual intention of gaining an indulgence by the act performed.

To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope’s intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

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