+ A.M.D.G. +


It has already been explained that by the Sacrament of Penance the debt of eternal punishment due to the sinner is remitted, but not the temporal. This he must discharge either in this world by sickness, adversity, temptation, persecution, voluntary works of penance, and the like, or in the fires of purgatory after death. This is exemplified by the holy penitent, Mary of Egypt. For seventeen years she led a sinful life; after her conversion she did penance in the desert for seventeen years. Her penance consisted in horrible temptations, in hunger and thirst, in sufferings from exposure to cold and heat. It was the same with other penitents.

1. God has granted to the Church the power, after the recon ciliation of the sinner with God, of changing the punishments yet remaining due to sin into works of penance, or of remitting them altogether.

Our Lord conferred on St. Peter in particular, and on all the apostles in general, the power to remove whatever hindered the ad mission of the penitent to heaven. To St. Peter He said: “Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. xvi. 19), and to the apostles He said: “Whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. xviii. 18). Now since mortal sin excludes from heaven permanently, and the temporal penalty of sin temporarily, power to remit both one and the other is vested in the Head of the Church and in the bishops. We read that certain Christians of Corinth, who had been excommunicated for their vices, were pardoned by St. Paul in the name of Christ (2 Cor. ii. 10), after they had testified to the sincerity of their compunction. When the Church remits temporal penalties, she does not cancel them altogether; she supplies what is lacking from the treasury of the infinite merits of Christ and of the saints. Many members of the Church have performed penances over and above what was due to their sins, and the store of their merits, owing to the satisfaction made by Christ, is so vast in extent, that it far exceeds the penalties due to the sins of all living (St. Thomas Aquinas). In these merits all participate who belong to the communion of saints; and the distribution of them was entrusted by the Son of God to St. Peter, who is the doorkeeper of heaven. Thus it will be seen that no one is actually exempted from the payment of his debt, since what is still due is paid out of the treasury of the Church.

1. Hence at the time of the great persecutions, the Church used to lay upon repentant sinners public penances for the expiation of the temporal punishment of sin, and afterwards com mute them into lesser ones, or remit them altogether, if the penitent manifested a sincere intention of amendment, or a martyr interceded for him.

The Christians of early ages were mostly recent converts from heathenism, and needed rigorous treatment. Public penance generally consisted in exclusion from the company of the faithful; the excommunicate were only allowed to kneel in the vestibule of the Church and hear the first portion of the Mass; they were not permitted to receive holy communion, and as a rule, were not absolved until the expiration of their term of penance. During that time on fixed days they had to fast on bread and water. This public penance usually lasted seven years; it was only imposed for grave offences, such as apostasy, giving the Holy Scriptures into the hands of pagans, etc.; for heinous crimes such as murder, the period was still longer. For lesser transgressions a fast of forty days was the ordinary penance. But the Church knew that the design of God is not so much to chastise the sinner as to detach him from earthly affections and lead him to amend; thus, if the penitent showed by his conduct that his conversion was not superficial, but real, it was deemed unnecessary for him to do further penance. Consequently the penitential works were in some cases partially or wholly remitted. Now since Christians form one body among themselves, the communion of saints, they can make satisfaction for one another; hence the martyrs pleaded on behalf of the penitents. St. Thomas Aquinas says that what friends do for us we do in a measure for ourselves, since by reciprocity of affection two are made one.

2. In later times, when public penances were abrogated, the Church permitted the contrite sinner to discharge the debt of temporal punishment due to sin by means of almsdeeds, crusades, or pilgrimages.

Formerly the penitent had to apply for dispensation or mitigation; later on it was offered by the Church to the faithful. In the Middle Ages there were good reasons for remitting penances on the payment of a sum of money, for in those days greed and avarice prevailed, and we know that every vice is best extirpated by its opposite virtue. The money thus collected was expended in the erection of churches and cathedrals” for the most part; this is how the funds were raised to build St. Peter’s at Rome. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, a total dispensation from works of penance, i.e., a plenary indulgence, was granted to all who took part in the crusades themselves, or in later years provided men for money to carry them on. These indulgences were extended to the near relatives of the crusaders. Crusades were also undertaken on the same conditions against heretics and that the church. In the tenth century, we find pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela mentioned as means of discharging the temporal debt due to sin. When the Holy Land came in the power of the Turks, and pilgrimages could no longer be made to Jerusalem, Pope Boniface VIII granted full remission of temporal punishment to all who, during the year 1300, should for fifteen successive days visit the Basilica of the apostles in Rome. This was the origin of the Jubilee indulgence; it was repeated fifty years later, the condition of a visit to the Lateran Church being added. In that year three million pilgrims are said to have journeyed to the Eternal City. The interval between the granting of these indulgences was reduced by later Pontiffs to thirty-three years, in honor of the period of Our Lords life on earth; again it was shortened to twenty-five years. Furthermore it was decreed that the same indulgence might be gained by the inhabitants of certain large cities, provided they visited their cathedral church and gave a sum equal to the cost of a journey to Rome, to the preachers of the indulgence, or collectors of alms. This gave rise to great abuses. The collectors who were principally Dominican or Franciscan monks, were sometimes guilty of extravagances, and the Council of Trent had to suppress their office altogether (Council of Trent, 21, 9).

3. In more recent times the Church permitted the substitution of works more easy of accomplishment, such as prayer and the reception of the sacraments, for the more rigorous works of penance, as a means of satisfaction.

In this manner the church endeavors to incite her children to greater fervor; to induce them to approach the sacraments(this supposes conversion and amendment), to be diligent in prayer, to enroll themselves in confraternity, to recite the rosary, to increase in devotion to Saints and relics , etc. She acts like a mother who mingles sweets with the bitter psychic to induce the child to swallow it. The ancient rule of discipline formerly in force in the Church is the standard whereby the measure of punishment to be remitted is estimated; thus when it is said that three years’ indulgence is granted for the recital of a certain prayer, the meaning is that the penitent by repeating that prayer, does as much in expiation of his sins as would formerly have been done by three years of canonical penance. The object of this is both to testify to the Church’s reverence for ancient ordinances, and also by reminding them of the severe requirements of former days, to make the faithful perform cheerfully the easy task they are now called upon to accomplish.

2. The remission of the temporal punishment due to us on account of our sins is called an indulgence, and is obtained by the performance, while in a state of grace, of certain good works enjoined on us by the Church.

An indulgence (pardon or remission) is therefore a kind of absolution from the temporal penalty of sin, after absolution from the guilt and eternal punishment. An indulgence is very similar to an amnesty; if this is granted by a monarch, a free pardon, or a mitigation of sentence, is accorded, on account of their good conduct, to some criminals among others, who, though condemned to death, have had their verdict commuted to a term of incarceration. An indulgence is by no means a remission of mortal sin and the eternal punishment due to it; these must already be remitted before an indulgence can be gained. It is not absolution from sin, but the remission, partial or plenary, of satisfaction due to sin. It is not a means of evading the Sacrament of Penance and rendering sin easy; on the contrary it obliges us to a real conversion of life.

Indulgences only remove those temporal sufferings which do not conduce to our eternal salvation.

An indulgence only exempts us from such sufferings as are exclusively primitive; it does not remove those which God sends upon us for our advancement in holiness, or to prevent our relapse into sin; for suffering such as these no satisfaction can be made, as we see in the case of David. When the death of the child was foretold to him, as the punishment of his sin, he besought the Lord for the child and kept a fast (2 Kings xii.), but God would not accept this satisfaction; the child died. Nor do indulgences deliver us from sufferings which are a probation, or are intended to enhance our eternal felicity; in that case they would be prejudicial to salvation, not beneficial. Without suffering no man can be saved; even the immaculate Mother of God, who was free from all sin, had no small measure of suffering as her lot on earth.

It is necessary for gaining an indulgence to be in a state of grace; otherwise good works can only conduce to the conversion of him who performs them, and are valueless for the remission of temporal punishment.

As a member of the human body, if it be dead, can derive no benefit from the action of the living members, so the living members of the Church are powerless to aid, by the application of the satisfaction they have made, the soul of one who is spiritually dead, i.e., in mortal sin.

The Church grants indulgences for the recital of certain prayers, for visiting certain holy places, for the use of certain sacred things, besides personal indulgences.

The heavenly treasures of the Church are not administered for gain, but godliness (Council of Trent, 21, 8). As instances of indulgenced prayers we may mention the acts of the three theological virtues, the Angelus, the usual prayers of the Mass, etc. These prayers must be vocal; it is not necessary to repeat them kneeling, unless this should be definitely specified. They may be recited in any language, provided the translation is approved by the bishop. Not a single word must be omitted or altered, and the prescription as to time, place, etc., must be strictly observed; but the indulgence is not lost on account of some trifling mistake. The indulgence attached to some prayers may be gained each time they are repeated (toties quoties); in the case of others, only once a day. As instances of places where indulgences may be gained, we may mention the Via Crucis in Jerusalem, and the stations wherever they are canonically erected. The Scala Santa in Rome, the stairway, that is, in Pilate’s house up and down which Our Lord was dragged. It consists of twenty-eight marble steps, and was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by the Empress Helena in 326. By ascending this staircase on. One’s knees, meditating meanwhile on Our Lord’s Passion, an indulgence of nine years for every step may be gained. Large indulgences are also granted for visiting the tomb of the holy apostles, the stations in Rome (churches where remarkable relics are preserved), the Chapel of the Portiuncula at Assisi, the sepulchre of St. James at Compostella, besides many others. As instances of holy things and sacred objects to which indulgences may be attached, we may mention: Crucifixes, medals, rosaries, pictures, statues, etc., provided they are not made of very fragile material. These objects must be blessed by the Sovereign Pontiff, or some priest possessing the powers. The indulgence is lost if the object to which it is attached is more than half destroyed; if, that is to say, the greater part of the beads of a rosary are worn away, or more than half of the crosses have fallen from a set of stations, also if a blest object is sold, or lent to another person for the sake of gaining the indulgence, but not if it is given away after being blessed. More than one indulgence may be attached to the same rosary; a crucifix can likewise be indulgenced for the hour of death, and for the stations; but one and the same prayer will not avail to gain all the indulgences attached to any one object. Partial indulgences may be gained daily; and plenary very frequently if the usual conditions are fulfilled. All crosses or rosaries brought from Palestine, which have touched the holy places, have the Papal blessing attached to them. The members of confraternities and some secular priests have personal indulgences granted to them.

3. An indulgence is either plenary, when a full and entire remission of all the temporal punishment due to sin is gained, or partial, when only a portion of the temporal punishment is remitted.

Indulgences are ordinarily greater or less in proportion to the prescribed works; for a small work, a small indulgence, for a work of difficulty a large indulgence is granted. Let no one imagine that it is an easy thing to gain a plenary indulgence. For he who retains any undue attachment to earthly things, is not altogether free from the guilt of sin; nor consequently from the penalty of sin, and he yet needs purification by suffering. Only in as far as the offense against God is hateful to the penitent, does God remit the chastisement due to His justice.

Plenary indulgences are granted by the Church, provided that we approach the sacraments and pray for the Holy Father’s intention besides performing the prescribed works; sometimes the condition of visiting a church is added.

For instance: For daily acts of the three theological virtues, a plenary indulgence may be gained on any one day in the month on the usual conditions. The same privilege is attached to several other prayers and ejaculations, such as: “Sweetest Heart of Jesus, I implore, that I may ever love Thee more and more.” Those who are in the habit of going to confession every week can gain any indulgence in the course of the week without going again to confession, except the Jubilee indulgence. More than one plenary indulgence may be gained at one and the same communion, provided the works prescribed for each severally be accomplished. If a visit to a church or public chapel is enjoined, it must be made on a separate occasion. Infirm persons are only required to go to confession; instead of receiving communion and visiting a church, if these be the conditions, they can gain the indulgence by performing some other work prescribed by their confessor. All who by illness or other un avoidable circumstances are prevented from visiting a church, do not lose the indulgence, if they fulfil all the conditions within their power. Prayers for the intention of the Church are left to every one’s discretion. In general, five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys are considered sufficient; they must be repeated audibly, either before or after communion, and offered up for the peace of Christian princes, the extirpation of heresy, and the exaltation of the Church.

The most important plenary indulgences are the Jubilee indulgence, the indulgence of the Portiuncula, and that of the Papal benediction.

The Jubilee indulgence is granted every twenty-five years to the whole Church, and lasts for the whole year. The Jews kept the fiftieth year as a year of jubilee, or rejoicing. We have already explained how this custom was introduced into the Church. The conditions for gaining it are: The reception of the sacraments and the visit to a church, besides at least one day of fasting and an alms. In the Jubilee year all other indulgences for the living are suspended (except that of the Angelus and for the hour of death), but if applied to the dead they continue in force. As a rule, the Jubilee indulgence can only be gained once, and that for one’s self; but sometimes it is otherwise. Occasionally an extra Jubilee is proclaimed by the Sovereign Pontiff under special circumstances, such as his accession to the Papal throne, the opening of a council, etc. The indulgence of the Portiuncula can be gained repeatedly on the second of August, and on the evening before; as often, in fact, as any one who has been to confession and communion visits the Portiuncula Chapel, or any other public chapel of the Franciscans or Poor Clares, and prays for the intentions of the Holy Father. The indulgence originated in this wise: While St. Francis was praying in his favorite church near Assisi, Our Lord appeared to him, with His blessed Mother and several saints. Francis entreated Our Lord to grant a plenary indulgence to all who after approaching the sacraments, should visit that church. Our Lord consented, bidding him go to the Pope, who would ratify the privilege. Francis accordingly repaired to Rome; the Holy Father granted the indulgence, fixing it for the second of August. Later Pontiffs extended it to all public chapels of the Franciscan Order, and some others. This indulgence can only be gained once for one’s self; if gained more often, it must be applied to someone else. The communion need not necessarily be made in a church of the Order. A plenary indulgence may be gained by all who, after confession and communion, and prayer for the intention of the Church, receive the Papal benediction. Previous to the year 1870 this used to be solemnly given after High Mass on great festivals from the balcony of St. Peter’s. Bishops and priests are now and again authorized to give the Papal blessing to their flocks on special occasions, such as the close of a mission.

A plenary indulgence may be gained in the hour of death by those who, having received the sacraments and invoked the holy name, receive the Papal blessing, or keep beside them some object blessed by the Holy Father; also by the members of most confraternities, and by all who have daily recited the three acts of faith, hope and charity, or some other similarly indulgenced prayer.

If a sick man, desirous of gaining a plenary indulgence, should find it impossible to receive the sacraments, he may at least make an act of contrition; if he cannot utter the name of Jesus with his lips, he can at any rate invoke it in his heart. In any case perfect conformity to the will of God is essential. The majority of priests are empowered to give the papal benediction to the dying. Those who have received the necessary faculties can indulgence crosses, medals and the like for the hour of death. It is enough if the faithful keep objects thus blessed in their houses, to enable them to gain the indulgence. Indulgences for the hour of death are also attached to membership of various confraternities. They may also be gained by making acts of faith, hope, and charity daily, in one’s own words or otherwise. The same applies to several other short prayers, such as “Angel of God,” etc. Indulgences obtained in the hour of death are purely personal; they cannot even be applied to the souls in purgatory. As the dying cannot, with the best of wills, perform works of penance, the Church almost entirely exempts them from the obligation of trying to discharge the temporal debt of punishment due to their sins.

The partial indulgences granted by the Church are generally a quadragena, or forty days; or for a period of a hundred days, a year, five or seven years, very rarely for thirty or a hundred years. Those fixed periods do not mark the number of days or years by which the purgatorial fires are abridged; they do but indicate that as much of the temporal punishment of sin is remitted as would have been remitted have a corresponding period of the canonical penances formerly imposed on penitents.
4. The Pope alone has power to grant indulgences which are for the whole Church; for in him alone jurisdiction over the whole Church is vested, and he is the steward of the Church’s treasures.

Bishops have the power to grant partial indulgences, but only for those in their own diocese; just as secular magistrates can only judge cases which come within the sphere of their jurisdiction. Bishops are sometimes authorized by the Holy See to grant indulgences of a year, or forty days, on such occasions as the dedication of a church.

5. Indulgences may also be applied by way of suffrage to the suffering souls in purgatory, if this be expressly stated respecting the indulgence; a plenary indulgence is gained for them every time the holy sacrifice of the Mass is offered on a privileged altar.

The communion of saints enables us to assist the holy souls in purgatory by applying to them our good works; those good works, that is, to which the remission of temporal punishment is attached. If we desire to gain an indulgence for the faithful departed we must see that we are ourselves in a state of grace. “Let him who would help to deliver the holy souls from purgatory,” says St. Francis Xavier, “first see that he delivers- his own soul from hell.” The application of indulgences to the souls of the departed is by way of suffrage, not of absolution. It is by no means certain that the individual for whom a plenary indulgence is gained will be forthwith released from purgatory; the amount of punishment thereby remitted to him rests entirely with God to determine. The indulgence of the privileged altar consists in this, that whenever Mass is celebrated at that particular altar a plenary indulgence is given from the treasures of the Church to one of the souls in purgatory. In every cathedral there is one such altar, and in many parish churches or churches of an Order; the altars thus privileged are generally indicated by the inscription altare privilegiatum, and black vestments must be used when Mass is said at one of them, if the rubrics allow of it on that day. The privilege must be renewed by application to the bishop every seven years. The indulgence can be gained for one individual only, and for that one the Mass must be offered, but the priest may include in his intention other persons deceased. The intention of the priest is not necessary to the gaining of the indulgence; it will be seen that bv no other means is a plenary indulgence so surely gained as by this, since it depends entirely upon the offering of the holy sacrifice, not upon the spiritual state of any individual. But whether the Mass celebrated at the privileged altar effects the complete deliverance of the soul from the pains of purgatory cannot be known, as it depends solely on the mercy of God. Priests who have made the heroic act of charity for the holy souls have the same privilege in their own person.

6. The graining of indulgences is most salutary (Council of Trent, 25), because we thereby keep far from us temporal evils, and are stimulated to the accomplishment of good works.

The indulgences we gain avert from us sickness, calamities, temptations, etc., which, if no indulgence be gained, come upon us as the temporal punishment of sin Thus those who neglect this practice, may be* compared to a traveller who although he might reach his destination by a short and easy route, prefers to take a long and toilsome road; he is his own worst enemy. Some people take exception at the doctrine of indulgences, but this is because they do not understand it; others condemn it, because of the abuses in the Middle Ages. Was there ever a good and holy thing which was not misused by the wicked? The abuse of a thing does not diminish its usefulness. Therefore do not despise indulgences, for by despising them many have fallen into error and perdition.


This article, INDULGENCES is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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