A friend asked me this same question…so…here we go….
You don't hear about indulgences anymore, at least not in Catholic circles. If it could be said that at one time they were over emphasized, it's surely true that today they're under-emphasized. Many Catholic simply don't know what indulgences are, and they're at a loss to explain the Church's position on indulgences when challenged by fundamentalists.
And fundamentalists do bring up indulgences, perhaps because they know even less about them than the average, poorly-informed Catholic.
There is surely no better place to turn than to the Enchiridion of Indulgences. "Enchiridion" means "handbook," and the Enchiridion of Indulgences is the Church's official handbook on what acts and prayers carry indulgences and what indulgences actually are.
An indulgences is defined as "the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned." The first thing to note is that forgiveness of a sin is separate from punishment for the sin. Through sacramental confession we obtain forgiveness, but we aren't let off the hook as far as punishment goes.
Indulgences are two kinds: partial and plenary. A partial indulgences removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of it. This punishment may come either in this life, in the form of various sufferings, or in the next life, in purgatory. What we don't get rid of here we suffer there.
TIME OFF FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR?
If you uncover a holy card or prayer book, you'll notice pious acts or recitation of prayers might carry an indication of time, such as "300 days or "two years." Most fundamentalists, and even many Catholics, think such phrases refer to how much "time off for good behavior" you'd get in purgatory. If you perform a pious act labeled as "300 days' partial indulgence," then you'd spend 300 fewer days in purgatory.
It's easy to see how misinformed Catholics might scurry around for years, toting up indulgences, keeping a little register in which they add up the days. "Let's see, last year's tally comes to one thousand three hundred twelve years, give or take a week or so, and my lifetime tally is now past the twenty thousand mark. I can cancel out a lot of sinning with this!"
Or so some people might think. Well, there are no days or years in purgatory– or in heaven or hell, for that matter — and the indication of days or years attached to partial indulgences never meant you'd get that much time off in purgatory.
AS GOD SEES FIT
What it means was that you'd bet a partial indulgence commensurate with what the early Christians got for doing penances for a certain length of time. But there has never been any way for us to measure how much "good time" that represents. All the Church could say, and all it ever did say, was that your temporal punishment would be reduced — as God saw fit.
Since some Catholics were confused by the designation of days and years attached to partial indulgences, and since nearly all Protestants got a wrong idea of what those numbers meant, the rules for indulgences were modified in 1967, and now "the grant of a partial indulgence is designated only with the words "partial indulgence," without any determination of days or years," according to the Enchiridion.
To receive a partial indulgence, you have to recite the prayer or do the act of charity assigned. You have to be in the state of grace at least by the completion of the prescribed work. The rule says" at the completion" because often part of the prescribed work is going to confession, and you might not be in the state of grace before you do that. The other thing required is having a general intention to gain the indulgence. If you perform the required act but don't want to gain the indulgence, obviously you won't gain it.
The requirements for a plenary indulgence are tougher than for a partial. After all, a plenary indulgence remove all the temporal punishment due for the sins committed up to that time.
(If you sin later, of course, the temporal punishment connected with the new sins isn't covered by the earlier plenary indulgence, but, at least the punishment for the old sins isn't revived.)
"To acquire a plenary indulgence," says the Enchiridion, "it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent."
THE TOUGHEST REQUIREMENT
The greatest hurdle is the last. Making a good confession is not particularly difficult, and going to Communion and praying for the Pope's intentions are easier still. It's being free from all attachment to sin that's hard and it's quite possible that even evi-dently good people, who seek plenary indulgences regularly, never, in their whole lives, obtain one, because they are unwilling to relinquish their favorite little sins.
There is an account of St. Philip Neri, who died in 1595, preaching a jubilee indulgence in a crowed church. A revelation was given to him that only two people in the church were actually getting it, an old char-woman and the saint himself. Not exactly encouraging, huh? But don't worry. If you aren't perfectly disposed and can't get the plenary indulgence. you'll at least come away with a partial.
It should be pointed out that the first three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after doing the prescribed work, through receiving Communion and praying for the Pope are usually done the same day the work is performed.
By the way, the standard prayers for the Pope are one Our Father and one Creed, though you're at liberty to substitute other prayers.
The bulk of the Enchiridion is a listing of indulgenced prayers and acts. First come three "general grants."
The first says "a partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in the performance of their duties and in bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding — even if only mentally– some pious invocation." It is noted that this grant "is intended to serve as an incentive to the faithful to practice the commandment of Christ that `they must always pray and not lose heart'" (Luke 18:1)
The second general grant is this: "A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need." This grant "is intended to serve as an incentive to the faithful to perform more frequent acts of charity and mercy," as Christ commanded (John 13:15, Acts 10:38).
The third general grant provides that "a partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive them-selves of what is licit and pleasing to them." This provision is meant "to move the faithful to bridle their passions and thus to bring to their bodies into subjection and to conform themselves to Christ in his poverty and suffering" (Matt 8:20, Matt 16:24).
After the discussion of the general grants comes a listing of miscellaneous prayers and acts to which indulgences are attached. This list is much shorter than in former years, the Church having decided to limit indulgences to the most important works.
There is no room or need to mention all the pious acts which are indulgenced, but it's worth noting that a plenary indulgence is given for the recitation of the rosary in a church or family group (and not just the recitation, of course, but the fulfilling of the usual conditions for a plenary indulgence).
Likewise, first communicants and those who "assist at the sacred ceremonies of a First Communion — for example, the parents — can receive a plenary indulgence. And the same reward is given to those who, "with the veneration due the divine word, make a spiritual reading from Sacred Scripture" for at least half an hour. Even making the Sign of the Cross has a partial indulgence attached to it.
This list is a convenient compilation of all the ways to obtain a plenary indulgence. Note that in addition to the described work, obtaining a plenary indulgence also has the following conditions (see Norms which are summarized below):
Sacramental confession. A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences; but Communion must be received and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence.
Prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff. The condition of praying for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff is fully satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary; nevertheless, each one is free to recite any other prayer according to his piety and devotion.
It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent. If the latter disposition is in any way less than perfect or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be partial only, saving the provisions given in Norms 34 and 35.
Obtainable any time any place
Reading of Sacred Scripture
Recitation of the Marian Rosary (Rosarii marialis recitatio)
Exercise of the Way of the Cross
Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament
Obtainable on special occasions
Papal Blessing – even by radio
Closing Mass of a Eucharistic Congress
During a Diocesan Synod
During a Pastoral Visitation
Obtainable on special days
Each Friday of Lent and Passiontide after communion
Feast of Pentecost [26 May in 1996]
Feast of Corpus Christi – 2nd Thursday after Pentecost
Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – 3rd Friday after Pentecost
Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul – 29 June
"Portiuncula" – 2 August
All Souls Day – November 2
Last Day of the Year
Visit to a Church or Oratory of Religious on the Feast of the Holy Founder
Titular Feast of the Parochial Church
Visit to a Church or an Altar on the day of its consecration
Obtainable on special days at special places
Visit to the Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome
Visit to the Stational Churches of Rome
Obtainable on special occasions in one's life
Attending a mission
First Mass of newly-ordained Priests
Jubilees of Sacerdotal Ordination
The Moment of Death
N.1. An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints.
N.2. And indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin.
N.3. Partial as well as plenary indulgences can always be applied to the dead by way of suffrage.
N.4. A partial indulgence will henceforth be designated only with the words "partial indulgence" without any determination of days or years.
N.5. The faithful who at least with a contrite heart perform an action to which a partial indulgence is attached obtain, in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church.
N.6. A plenary indulgence can be acquired only once a day, except for the provisions contained in No. 18 for those who are on the point of death. A partial indulgence can be acquired more than once a day, unless there is an explicit indication to the contrary.
N.7. To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial, except for the provisions contained in No. 11 for those who are "impeded."
N.8. The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; nevertheless it is fitting that Communion be received and the prayers for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff be said the same day the work is performed.
N.9. A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences, but Communion must be received and prayers for the Supreme Pontiff's intentions recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence.
N.10. The condition of praying for the Supreme Pontiff's intentions is fully satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary; nevertheless the individual faithful are free to recite any other prayer according to their own piety and devotion toward the Supreme Pontiff.
N.11. While there is no change in the faculty granted by canon 935 of the Code of Canon Law to confessors to commute for those who are "impeded" either the prescribed work itself or the required conditions [for the acquisition of indulgences], local Ordinaries can grant to the faithful over whom they exercise authority in accordance with the law, and who live in places where it is impossible or at least very difficult for them to receive the sacraments of confession and Communion, permission to acquire a plenary indulgence without confession and Communion provided they are sorry for their sins and have the intention of receiving these sacraments as soon as possible.
N.12. The division of indulgences into "personal," "real' and "local" is abolished so as to make it clearer that indulgences are attached to the actions of the faithful even though at times they may be linked with some object or place.
N.13. The "Enchridion of Indulgences" is to be revised with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity and penance.
N.14. The list and summaries of indulgences special to religious orders, congregations, societies of those living in community without vows, secular institutes and the pious associations of faithful are to be revised as soon as possible in such a way that plenary indulgences may be acquired only on particular days established by the Holy See acting on the recommendation of the Superior General, or in the case of pious associations, of the local Ordinary.
N.15. A plenary indulgence applicable only to the dead can be acquired in all churches and public oratories — and in semipublic oratories by those who have the right to use them –on November 2. In addition, a plenary indulgence can be acquired twice a year in parish churches; on the feast of the church's titular saint and on August 2, when the "Portiuncula" occurs, or on some other more opportune day determined by the Ordinary. All the indulgences mentioned above can be acquired either on the days established or–with the consent of the Ordinary–on the preceding or the following Sunday. Other indulgences attached to churches and oratories are to be revised as soon as possible.
N.16. The work prescribed for acquiring a plenary indulgence connected with a church or oratory consists in a devout visit and the recitation of one Our Father and the Creed.
N.17. The faithful who use with devotion an "object of piety" (crucifix, cross, rosary, scapular or medal) properly blessed by any priest, can acquire a partial indulgence. But if this "object of piety" is blessed by the Supreme Pontiff or any bishop, the faithful who use it devoutly can also acquire a plenary indulgence on the feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, provided they also make a profession of faith using any legitimate formula.
N.18. To the faithful in danger of death who cannot be assisted by a priest to bring them the sacraments and impart the apostolic blessing with its attendant plenary indulgence (according to canon 468, sec.2 of the Code of Canon Law) Holy Mother Church nevertheless grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death (in articulo mortis), provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. To use a crucifix or cross in connection with the acquisition of this plenary indulgence is a laudable practice. This plenary indulgence at the point of death can be acquired by the faithful even if they have already obtained another plenary indulgence on the same day.
N.19. The norms established regarding plenary indulgences, particularly those referred to in N.6, apply also to what up to now have been known as the "toties quoties" ["as often as"] plenary indulgences.
N.20. Holy Mother Church, extremely solicitous for the faithful departed, has decided that suffrages be applied to them to the widest possible extent at any Sacrifice of the Mass whatsoever, abolishing all special privileges in this regard.
These new norms regulating the acquisition of indulgences will become valid three months from the date of publication of this constitution in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
Indulgences attached to the use of "objects of piety" which are not mentioned above cease three months after the date of publication of this constitution in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.
The revisions mentioned in N.14 and N.15 must be submitted to the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary within a year. Two years after the date of this constitution, indulgences which have not been confirmed will become null and void.
We will that these statutes and prescriptions of ours be established now and remain in force for the future notwithstanding, if it is necessary so to state, the Apostolic Constitutions and Directives published by our Predecessors or any other prescriptions even if they might be worthy of special mention or should required particular repeal.
Given at Rome at St. Peter's on January 1, the octave of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, 1967, the fourth year of Our Pontificate.