Last Sunday, during our weekly 10 o’clock morning Café Ferrer discussions, a question came up about the role that indulgences play in the life of the faithful, particularly with reference to our spiritual lives today. This is especially timely during this penitential season of Lent. As we celebrate this time of repentance, we strive to become more aware of a desire to grow in the love of the Lord, and yearn to draw closer to Him and away from sin.
In his book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross compares our desire for union with God to the rays of sunlight shining upon a dirty window. The smudges of dirt and grime prevent the sun from illuminating the window completely. It would be different and so much better if the window were cleaned and polished. Then the sunlight would give the window clarity and transparency. We can apply this image to our desire for union with God.  The transfigured Jesus invites us to deal with those attitudes, events, and situations that prevent the Lord’s light from shining in and through us. What’s needed is a purification of our souls. One of the means of purification of the soul offered by the Church’s spiritual treasures endowed by Christ is known as indulgences.
The theological concept of indulgences is a longstanding Catholic doctrine, which itself is largely unknown and widely misunderstood even by many Catholics. Some people think that indulgences were abolished by the Second Vatican Council. That’s not true. Church teaching on indulgences was simplified and clarified by St. Pope Paul VI shortly after Vatican II. Far from eliminating this doctrine, he sought to reinvigorate it with a renewed understanding in order to make it clear that it’s purpose was not merely to help the faithful make satisfaction for their sins, but chiefly to induce them to greater fervor of charity.
To understand the origins of indulgences it helps to recall that the very early Church distinguished between the forgiveness of sins before and after Baptism. The ritual cleansing with water in baptism (by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection) was believed to signify and effect a rebirth involving the forgiveness of all past sins, as well as all punishment due to it; so, there was no need to do penance after baptism. Baptism was supposed to be followed by a life in which future sin was avoided. But the New Testament  attests to the fact that this ideal was not realized (1 Cor 5:1-6). That’s why we have the Sacrament of Penance.
In a 1966 papal letter, St. Pope Paul VI wrote that “an indulgence, given by the intervention of the Church, lessens or entirely remits the punishment, by which a person is in a certain sense prevented from attaining a closer union with God.” Then in 1967, he issued another papal document on the Doctrine of Indulgences, in which he wrote, “The doctrine and practice of indulgences which have been in force for many centuries in the Catholic Church have a solid foundation in divine revelation which comes from the Apostles and develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.” A renewed understanding of indulgences, rather than stress the repetition of formulas and acts, puts greater emphasis on the Christian way of life and focuses attention on cultivating a spirit of prayer and penance and on the exercise of the theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity).
The current Code of Canon (Church) Law codified recent papal teachings on indulgences, describing an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sin, the guilt of which is already forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and definite conditions with the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” So, an indulgence is partial or plenary in as far as it frees from the temporal punishment due to sin either partly or totally. The faithful can gain partial or plenary indulgences for themselves or apply them for the dead by way of intercessory prayer.
Jesus Christ gave the power to forgive sins to St. Peter and the other Apostles as well as to their successors, the popes and bishops, with the assistance of their collaborators ordained to the ministerial priesthood. So, venial sins are primarily forgiven and mortal sins are necessarily forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. However, even after sin has been forgiven and, as a consequence, the punishment it deserves has been meted out, the forgiven sinner can need further purification, i.e., can be deserving of temporal punishment to be endured in this life – or in a life to come, namely, Purgatory. The primary purpose of an indulgence is to remit this punishment and assist in reconciling the penitent to God.
In order to gain indulgences “one must be baptized and not excommunicated, and in the state of grace, at least at the completion of the prescribed works, and have at least the general intention of receiving them and fulfilling the prescribed works at the stated time in due fashion, according to the character of the grant. Normally, an indulgence can be attached, according to tradition, to various works of piety, both private and public, as well as works of charity and penance, which in our own times are accorded increased importance. The praiseworthy practice of gaining indulgences is especially helpful for attaining holiness.
All of this may still be somewhat confusing and subject to misunderstanding. People may wonder why remission of temporal punishment through an indulgence is needed if sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The notion of indulgences can be summed up as a remission of the temporal punishment for sins, whose guilt is forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and clearly defined conditions through the intervention of the Church.
As we celebrate this Lenten time of repentance, may we become more aware of our desire to grow in the love of the Lord and pursue the forgiveness of our sins through the reception of the Sacrament of Penance. May we then seek the fullness of God’s mercy through the removal of the punishment due to our sins through the spiritual treasury of indulgences.