Basic Catholic Rules On Indulgences

November 29, 2010

Bridegroom Press
November 2010

“I remember indulgences from when I was a kid!” Many people mention this, and the people who do always have questions.

Where Has The Time Gone?
When we learned about indulgences twenty, thirty, forty or more years ago, we remember how the nuns explained it to us: doing an indulgence got us time off purgatory. We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded like a good deal.

God bless the nuns, but they either deliberately misled us because they didn’t think we would understand the real explanation, or they didn’t know the real explanation themselves. Prior to Vatican II, all indulgences had a certain amount of time associated with them - saying this prayer or doing that deed was worth 300 days, or 10 years or somesuch. But the time listed was never meant to refer to time in Purgatory. It was a little more complicated than that.

Long, Long Ago…
You see, in the very early Church, the first 300 to 400 years, the sacrament of reconciliation was not celebrated as commonly as it is now. In fact, it was unusual to receive it as often as once every five or ten years. Everyone who entered the Church came in as adults - while the Church was happy to baptize children if the parents wanted, She spent most of her time teaching pagan adults the Faith.
If I were a pagan adult who was interested in becoming Christian, I would probably take between three and five solid years of instruction, being taught every day, practicing the Faith every day, having the community watch me practice every day. Everyone knew my name, and I would learn everyone’s name myself. Only after the whole community had seen me prepare and felt I was ready, only then would I be permitted to enter the Church.

The Church took this long because the bishop and the community wanted to make sure I really understood what I was getting into. They also wanted to make sure that I understood all the responsibilities I was undertaking. They wanted to see a real conversion in the way I approached the world, a real hunger for baptism and the washing away of sins.

Penance IS Purgation
What’s this got to do with indulgences? Well, once I was finally permitted to be baptized, the power of that baptism combined with the pre- and post-baptismal instruction was supposed to make me so solid in Christ Jesus that I would never commit another mortal sin.

Sure, I would be tempted - that went without saying. But I was not expected to commit any more mortal sins. I was an adult, I was giving my word to God that I had left that life of sin behind me, and God gave me His grace to empower me so that I would no longer succumb, so why would I sin?

And if I did commit a mortal sin, then I needed to show real remorse for it in order to demonstrate to the community that I had no plans to repeat the experience. So, if I had gone to confession in the early Church, this is the kind of penance I might receive: “Well, you’ve made a good confession,” the bishop might say, “so I will give you a light penance. For the next two years, you are not permitted to attend Mass or receive the Eucharist. Instead, you will spend every Sunday walking around the Church, praying the penitential Psalms while we are celebrating Mass.

Then, for the two years following that, you may attend Mass through the Gospel reading, but when all the unbaptized are ushered out of the Church after that Gospel reading, you will go with them and again walk about the courtyard praying the penitential Psalms.”

“If you do this faithfully, then for the two years following that, you are permitted to be present for the consecration, but you must be face down in front of the community, reciting the penitential Psalms.

And if all of this goes well and you continue to show true and deep remorse, then following this, you may be admitted to the Eucharist once again. Go in peace, my son.”

An eight or ten year penance was not at all uncommon. For certain sins, like murder or participation in abortion, you might be  told to perform penance for the rest of your life, not permitted to receive the Eucharist again until you lay dying.

A VERY Sweet Deal
So, the time periods associated with the indulgenced prayers were not meant to be time off purgatory after death, rather, they were indications that the Church had remitted the normal, early penance of 300 days or ten years in exchange for your saying this one prayer. She was promising to release to you the grace you would otherwise have had to spend a decade in prayer to win. Obviously, this was a pretty sweet deal. There was only one problem.

No one understood or seemed to remember the connection between the early penances and the current time values associated with indulgences. Instead, the faithful were getting a fairly silly understanding of how Purgatory and indulgences worked. Ultimately, after Vatican II, the Church threw up her hands and said, “Never mind the time periods. Every indulgence is just partial or plenary now. You can either win back for the world some of the grace you took out of it (partial) or all of the grace you took out of it.”

What Indulgences Count?
This leaves an obvious question. What do we do with all those old holy cards we have that say we get 300 days off? The Church also answered that question.
Since indulgences are matters of particular law, no prayer is indulgenced unless the Church says it is. Every generation or so, the Church releases a new handbook listing all the indulgences for which She opens the treasury of heaven.
These indulgences are listed in the Handbook of Indulgences, and that Handbook (aka Enchiridion) supercedes all previous rules. So, if you have an old holy card or book (like a Raccolta) that lists indulgences, none of those prayers carry the indulgence described unless that prayer also happens to be in the latest list from Rome.

And even if the prayer you are looking at is in the latest list, it no longer carries the indulgence the old list said it had. Now, it has only the indulgence - partial or plenary - that the Church has most recently assigned it. Don’t worry too much, though. All of the prayers have been retained with at least a partial indulgence. It’s only the plenary indulgences that may have been altered in a significant way.

So, if you want to do an indulgenced work or pray an indulgenced prayer, you have to have the latest handbook (currently, a translation of the 1999 edition) or you can use the prayers and acts conveniently described in the latest edition of the Beauty of Grace, Calendar of Indulgences 2010. We’ve gone through the book and laid out the rules in an easy-to-use calendar, so you don’t have to worry about all the details in the book. You can find it at www.bridegroompress.com

We hope you like it. We certainly enjoyed putting it together. Now, go and get some purgatory time out of the way.

Steve Kellmeyer
Bridegroom Press

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