Stand in the Light of Indulgences — By: Church Militant

Many Catholics may not be familiar with the concept of indulgences. Or, deep in the recesses of their brain, they may connote them with something negative. To put it colloquially, indulgences may get a bad rap.

But indulgences are good things, and they’re especially worth remembering during the Lenten season, when we turn our full attention toward God.

They remind us of the need to atone for our sins, even after a good confession, because our minds and attitudes that lead us to sin need to be repaired. They remind us that forgiveness is not cheap. Think of the price Our Lord paid for the forgiveness of our sins!

Understanding what indulgences are can be difficult, especially as they are acquired by conditions determined by the Church, but stick with me.

Simplest Explanation 

I often see confusion about indulgences when I lead Rosaries with a church group. At the end, I always add, “For the plenary indulgence and the intention of the Holy Father, let us say one Our Father and one Hail Mary.” Invariably afterward, at least one person comes up to me and asks, “What do you mean by ‘indulgence,’ Father?”

Sin and all its residue are being washed away from you.

I have to confess that I’m challenged to give a clear response to a topic that is ancient, complex, and, in many ways, out of sync with contemporary world values.

In the few seconds I have, I usually dodge the difficult language — “plenary indulgence” — and nudge them to think about, as I put it, “the graces God showers down upon you when you devoutly pray the Rosary.”

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“Sin and all its residue are being washed away from you, and your soul is being made ready to be with God in Heaven.” I say. “Purgatory is shorter for those who do their cleanup work while still here on earth.”

But this assumes they were catechized well enough to understand the concept of Purgatory.

Deeper Meaning: Removing the Stain

So if I am lucky enough to have fewer time constraints, I talk about indulgences in more detail to clear up the confusion. To start with, I emphasize that indulgences are good. The more indulgences you get, the better. If you have heard some of the negative things said about indulgences, brush all these aside. The Church, in its teaching and wisdom, is actually quite clear on what indulgences are and what they are not.  

Pope St. Paul VI

In 1967, Pope St. Paul VI wrote in an encyclical titled Indulgentiarum Doctrina, “For all men who walk this earth daily commit at least venial sins; thus all need the mercy of God to be set free from the penal consequences of sin.”

It goes without saying that this applies even more when we commit mortal sins.

The pope’s words highlight how, even after a good confession, we may need “to be set free from the penal consequences” — that is, from the just punishment, of our sins. Indulgences can help us be set free from the spiritual debt we owe, which must be rendered. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “an indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.” In other words, an indulgence is a reduction in the punishment we owe due to sins that are already forgiven in confession

In short, when a person commits a mortal sin — or even a venial sin — there are consequences for that sin. The consequences extend to the person who committed it as well as to the larger world. When we sin, we do not just hurt ourselves, we also hurt God and our neighbors. We don’t sin in a vacuum.

Jeremiah the prophet explained how both the good and the bad we do get passed on to other people: “You continue your kindness through a thousand generations; but you repay the ancestors’ guilt upon their children who follow them.” 

It’s a place where the hard-headed can learn how to act like their all-loving Master.

So even when someone takes to confession a mortal sin and completes the penance given by the priest, there remains for these sins, especially mortal sins, residue on the person’s soul, as well as the negative effects of the sin in the world. Indulgences remind us that forgiveness is not cheap.

This residue, or guilt, is better remediated in this life before death than in Purgatory. 

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew’s Gospel can help us understand how, even after forgiveness, the process of spiritual purification must be carried on.

In this parable, a master forgives a servant a big debt, but the servant is left unaffected by his master’s generosity. At the end, the servant throws into prison a person who owed him just a small sum of money. Even though the master forgave him, this act of forgiveness did not change the man’s heart.

What’s most significant for us in this conversation about indulgences is the last line of the parable: “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” 

This last line of the parable provides a good explanation of Purgatory. It’s a place where a man, over time, is cleansed from all the residue and guilt of sin and made ready for Heaven. It’s a place where the hard-headed can learn how to act like their all-loving Master, compared to fallen human beings. It’s a place where a man pays back the debt of his sin and prepares his heart and soul to be in God’s presence. 

Post-abortive women welcome stiff penances for the sin of abortion.

An indulgence, in the eyes of the Church, then, is a penitential act performed by a man to implore God to pour out His grace and remove any and all blemish of sin. The indulgences can come in the form saying Rosaries or novenas, visiting holy shrines, or doing spiritual reading with the intent of conforming your will to Christ’s. All work toward washing away sin’s residue and transforming us into saints.

Ask a priest or do your own research on what kinds of indulgences you can perform to ready yourself for God.

Mortal Sins Require Thorough Cleansing

As a priest, for many years I have worked with post-abortive women in Project Rachel. Project Rachel is a ministry in the Church that helps such women heal and restore their relationship with God. 

For women who have aborted their own child, there are few other sins that leave such deep scars and a heavy burden. The first step for a woman in the aftermath of abortion is to make a good confession and to complete the assigned penance.

My experience has been that post-abortive women welcome stiff penances for the sin of abortion. These make a big difference in their recovery. They welcome the penance of saying a daily Rosary for a month. They are glad to know that by going to daily Mass the guilt they carry can be removed. They come to know that God can heal them fully. 

Priests who work regularly with post-abortive women know from experience that abortion leaves deep scars and that these scars must be removed. It takes God’s grace and time to erradicate the selfishness, doubt and lack of trust in God that led to the abortion in the first place.

The wise priest, when hearing someone confess the sin of abortion, advises the penitent to come back to confession in a month’s time and to revisit how God’s grace is working in their lives. The second confession is generally deeper and more sincere. Often I have heard something like this: “Father, it was how I abandoned the Church and replaced it with my own selfish pursuits that led me to abort my child.”

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives a repentant sinner their sins. And when the penitent duly completes the penance assigned, God initiates the process of removing the guilt and residue of the sin. But, what about the repentant sinner who has no time to complete his penance before his death? 

If someone asks you to say a Rosary with them, say yes! Doing so comes with an indulgence.

Over the course of my priesthood, I have had more than one person confess the sin of abortion on their deathbed, and then after making a good confession, they have died.

As a priest, it is not my place to make a judgment about where their souls went. All I can say is that God, who is a just judge, will determine if they have made it into Purgatory. But anyone purged of all the effects of sin will enter Heaven.

Get on Track While You Can

Saint Louis De Montfort, in his little book The Secret of The Rosaryhas a great explanation for indulgences: “An indulgence is a remission or relaxation of temporal punishment due to actual sins, by the application of the super abundant satisfactions of Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints — which are contained in the Treasury of the Church.”

St. Louis de Montfort

This straightforward explanation is simple to understand when you accept that St. Louis uses “temporal” as a metaphor. The soul that has committed serious sins has to make atonement for them — even after confession, in this life, or the next. Big sins carry a bigger “temporal” punishment, and lesser sins have a shorter “temporal” punishment.

The Church, in Her wisdom over the centuries, has always encouraged the faithful to live holy lives, and if they fall from grace, to confess their sin immediately and get back on track by completing the penance assigned. In centuries past, priests, when hearing a penitent confess mortal sins, would more often than not assign stiff penances for these sins. 

In modern times, when God’s mercy has been overemphasized at the expense of God’s justice, some balk at a priest giving stiff penance for mortal sin. Dutiful completion of challenging penances — as well as seeking indulgences, prayers and pilgrimages — seem out of step with today’s desire for “one-and-done” solutions. Reparation for sin unfortunatley seems like a concept for a bygone day.

The shorter the time you spend in Purgatory, the sooner you can enter the presence of God.

But for the sake our soul and the souls of of all those affected by our sins, we must resurrect the idea of indulgences. If someone asks you to say a Rosary with them, say yes! Doing so comes with an indulgence. If the Holy Father determines that a visit to a saint’s shrine has a partial indulgence attached to visiting it, go visit it! And at the end of the day, God can only shower down His grace upon the man who actively seeks it. More grace makes you that much more clean on your journey toward Heaven! 

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The Afterlife Coach: Why It Matters

Devoutly receiving Holy Communions, reverently saying the Rosary and completing novenas all remake a man into the image and likeness of Christ. These devotions prepare us for beholding the presence of God in His heavenly courts. The shorter the time you spend in Purgatory, the sooner you can enter the presence of God.

In the end, indulgences are not about subtracting numbers of days or years from Puragatory; they’re about weaving us suitable garments of holiness.

Remove Your ‘Horrid Nails’

An article by Joe Sixpack, a Catholic writer and podcaster who died recently, told of a noted painter in the days of the Dutch masters “who had wasted his youth in wickedness and depravity.” The artist grew in grace and understanding later in life and “bitterly regretted” his sins. He desperately wanted to make up for them.

As  Joe Sixpack told the story,

One of the painter’s best-known works depicts the 13th Station of the Cross, the taking down of Our Lord from the Cross. Prominent in the painting is the man who pulled the nails from our Savior’s sacred Flesh. The person painted into that role was the painter himself. When asked why he used himself as the model for that man, he replied (with considerable feeling), “God knows I’ve driven innumerable cruel nails into my Lord, crucifying him over and over with my sins. Don’t you think it’s about time for me to tenderly and lovingly pull out a few of those horrid nails?”

I pray that you, too, will adopt this spirit of sorrow for sin and the passionate desire to set things right.

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