What is a Plenary Indulgence?
In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said: “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” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 1).
This technical definition can be phrased more simply as, “An indulgence is what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal (lasting only for a short time) penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven.” To understand this definition, we need to look at the biblical principles behind indulgences.
History of Plenary Indulgences
The pious use of indulgences dates back to the early days of the Church, and the principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself. Catholics who are uncomfortable with indulgences do not realize how biblical they are. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.
Indulgences are an important part of the life of the Church. Yet their purpose and goal are sometimes misunderstood. We might hear, “The Church doesn’t believe in those any more, does she?” or “If Jesus forgives my sins in Confession, why do I need an indulgence?” In actuality, indulgences are a tremendous gift to the people of God and are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance and God’s mercy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this amply clear when it states that “An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins.” The Church does this not just to aid Christians, “but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity” (CCC 1478).
Saint Teresa of Avila says it well: “If Christ Jesus dwells in us as his friend and noble leader, that each one can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desired that these graces must come from us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return. Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love him. For if at some time the Lord should grant us the grace of impressing his love in our hearts, all will become easy for us and we shall accomplish great things quickly and without effort.”
When can an Indulgence be granted?
- Every time the faithful go for devotion in groups to the Basilica of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea
- On all the solemnities of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God
- Once a year on a day freely chosen by each member of the faithful
- In order to receive an indulgence, the faithful must meet the following prescribed conditions: We must be in a state of grace (even venial sin), go to Confession, receive the Holy Eucharist, and pray for the intentions of the pope (an Our Father and a Hail Mary are suggested). It is appropriate but not necessary that Confession, Holy Communion and the prayer for the pope’s intentions take place on the same day as the visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea.