Are They Still Important?

by Rev. Msgr. Thomas B. Falls, S. T. D., Ph.D.


In this booklet I hope to prove to you that Indulgences are indeed still in use in the Church today. Too many Catholics are not aware of this. It would appear that in the Church today a veil of silence has been cast over the ancient and yet modern practice of indulgences. The fact that very few priests ever preach or write about indulgences confuses the average Catholic, and even the priests who do write about indulgences sometimes add to the confusion. For example, I recently read in a Catholic Diocesan newspaper this headline: THE CHURCH IS CAUTIOUS ABOUT INDULGENCES. This was in answer to a reader's question: "Please address the subject of indulgences in your column. I am interested particularly in the ways in which a person can gain an indulgence ... We used to hear about them a lot but not anymore. When I was young there were many ways to gain an indulgence, but I now hear that is not true." The answer of the reverend columnist was "You're correct." If the columnist meant that in the Church today there are not many ways to gain an indulgence, his answer was incorrect. The reader asked: "I am interested in the ways to gain an indulgence." Instead of mentioning some of the ways to gain an indulgence, the columnist explained "that the Church is far more cautious than formerly in speaking of indulgences." This was a very negative reply and did not answer the reader's problem, which was to know if it is true today that there are not many ways to gain an indulgence. I hope to show that there are very many ways, and new ways, to gain an indulgence today. I will use as my authority the same document that the columnist used, namely, Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution on the Doctrine of Indulgences published in 1967. In that document Pope Paul tells us that the use of indulgences started back in apostolic times and is still in use today. He wrote: "The Church also in our days then invites all its sons to ponder and meditate well on how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and indeed all Christian society." (#9)

In that same document Pope Paul asked the Sacred Apostolic Pentitentiary to prepare a new collection of indulgenced prayers and works, which was done, and was published in the following year (1968) under the title ENCHIRIDION OF INDULGENCES. An English translation of the original Latin text was published in 1969. It is interesting to note that a third edition of the Latin Enchiridion was published in 1986. A copy of this third edition of the Enchiridion was sent by Pope John Paul 11 as a gift to all the bishops of the world both as a "sign of hierarchical communion and a way of underlining the meaning and the importance of indulgences." (The quoted statement was made at a press conference in Rome on July 15, 1986, presided over by Cardinal Dadaglio, Head of the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary.) Does this sound like "the Church is far more cautious than formerly in speaking of indulgences"? The columnist could not have been speaking of the Teaching Church, the Magisterium.

Since from Rome we get the clear message that indulgences are still an important part of a Catholic's spiritual life, and since so many Catholics are unaware of this, the purpose of this writing is to convince you Catholics that it is time for you to begin or to return to the practice of using indulgences.

You must be able to answer the many questions your contacts may ask you about indulgences. They may want to know what an indulgence is; or why it is called an indulgence; or they may ask you if the Church did or does "sell" indulgences; or they may want to know if the Church still approves of the practice of indulgences; and if so, why do the priests not talk about indulgences anymore; and why is there this great silence on the practice of indulgences?

A careful reading of what follows may help you to find the answers to those questions.


In simplest terms, an indulgence is the remission before God of all or part of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven. The grant of an indulgence is given by the Pope to certain prayers or good works from the spiritual treasury of the Church.

To understand fully this definition of an indulgence you must have a clear knowledge of what is meant by: 1) the Temporal Punishment due to sin; 2) the Mystical Body of Christ; 3) the Communion of Saints; 4) the Spiritual Treasury of the Church; and 5) the Pope's power of the Keys to open that spiritual treasury to the faithful.

1. TEMPORAL PUNISHMENT. To understand the meaning of the temporal punishment due to sin, we must first talk about sin - another subject which is getting the silent treatment these days.

Every sin, in the theological sense, is a transgression of the law of God. Every sin is an offense against God either directly or indirectly. Taking the name of God in vain is a direct offense against God - a transgression of one of His Commandments. Bearing false witness against one's neighbor is a sin against one's neighbor, but also a sin against God's law of love of neighbor and against one of His Commandments. So, there is no sin that is solely against neighbor or community. Some sins are against God and community. Thus sin can be not only a transgression of the divine law, and consequently a disturbance of the universal order established by God, but also a contempt or disregard of the friendship that should exist between God and the human community.

Every sin includes two elements: guilt and punishment: guilt is incurred by the sinner; punishment is inflicted by God unless the sinner avoids that punishment by acts of penance. To restore the friendship of God and to reach Heaven the sinner must have the guilt of his or her sin erased and the punishment expiated. That punishment can be either eternal (in Hell) or temporal (on earth or in Purgatory).

For the Catholic, the ordinary way of having the guilt of sin absolved is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But how does a Catholic gain the remission of the punishment due to his or her forgiven sins? In the case of serious sin, by the absolution of the priest in the confessional not only the guilt but also the eternal punishment is remitted; what remains is the temporal punishment.

How can we gain the remission of the temporal punishment? By prayer, by the performance of good works, and by the use of indulgences.

The best form of prayer for the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin is participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When we speak of the performance of good works as a means of gaining the remission of temporal punishment, we have in mind acts of penance, for example, the penance given by the priest in the confessional, acts of self-denial, acts of charity such as alms-giving, etc. From this we can see that the use of indulgences is one of the ways (not the only way) to gain the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

2. THE MYSTICAL BODY OF CHRIST. When we speak of the Mystical Body of Christ we mostly have in mind only the members of the Church Militant - those living on earth; we forget that the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, also includes the members in Heaven (Church Triumphant) and in Purgatory (Church Suffering) .

3. THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS. Thus when we speak of the Communion of Saints we mean that between the members of the Church in Heaven, in Purgatory and on earth there exists a mutual intercommunication of spiritual riches, and this by reason of their close union with one another in Christ, their Head. This means that we members of the Church on earth have a special relationship with the Saints in Heaven, for while we pay them honor and invoke their assistance, they pray to God on our behalf.

We also have communion with the souls in Purgatory, in as much as we can help them by offering to God for them our prayers and good works, and by gaining indulgences for them. They in turn can help us by their prayers to God.

4. SPIRITUAL TREASURY OF THE CHURCH. By the Spiritual Treasury of the Church we mean all the spiritual goods that have been left to the Church by the infinite merits of Our Divine Savior and by the superabundant merits of His Blessed Mother and all the Saints.

5. THE POPE'S POWER OF THE KEYS. The dispensing of these spiritual goods in the form of indulgences is in the power of the Pope for the universal Church, and by the power delegated by the Pbpe, of the bishops for their local dioceses. This power of the Keys was given to the first Pope, St. Peter, and to his successors, by Christ Himself, and is to be used to open the spiritual treasury of the Church for the benefit of the faithful.

With this foreknowledge we can better understand the following official definition of an indulgence as given by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences: "An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to 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 Redenption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the Saints." (Norm #1)

From this definition we can see that the living member of the Church may gain an indulgence whenever he or she performs the indulgenced works and prayers with the proper dispositions and by fulfilling the required conditions. Having the proper dispositions means being free of serious sin (i.e., being in the state of grace) and having the intention - at least a general intention - of gaining the indulgence.

It is interesting to note that a living member of the Church cannot gain an indulgence for another living member. Of course that member can be helped by other unindulgenced prayers and good works, or that person may gain his or her own indulgence.

Indulgences may be applied to the souls in Purgatory, but only by way of petition to God, for the souls in Purgatory are no longer subjects of the Church authorities who grant the indulgences.

Keep in mind that an indulgence is something that is added to the merit of certain good works and prayers, over and above what is already gained by the person performing those good works and prayers. In other words, when a person performs an action to which a partial indulgence is attached, he or she obtains, in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired from God by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Pope. So, as much satisfactory merits God grants for a prayer or good work, that same amount does the Pope grant ftom the spiritual treasury of the Church in the case of an indulgenced prayer or good work. Another way of expressing this truth is that the remission of the temporal punishment gained by the performance of a good work is doubled when that work is indulgenced.

Let us now consider the good works and prayers that are indulgenced. They can be indulgenced with either a partial or plenary indulgence according as the indulgence remits a part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Because the gaining of a partial indulgence can become a very vital part of our daily spiritual life and a very important means of our personal sanctification; and because a partial indulgence is much easier to gain than a plenary indulgence, let us first discuss partial indulgences.


The grant of a partial indulgence is now designated only with the words: partial indulgence, without any determination of days, months or years.

The Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary published at Rome on June 29, 1968 a new revised Enchiridion (or collection) of Indulgences. In the Enchiridion is found a complete list of all the indulgenced good works and prayers.

From this we can see that the Holy Father has given us three general grants and many special grants of partial indulgences.


"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."

This first grant gives us an easy way of putting into practice the commandment of Christ "to pray always." To pray always means to be always conscious of the presence of God and to turn our minds to Him not only in vocal community prayer, but also and chiefly in private mental prayer. When you do this in the performance of your daily duties or in bearing the daily trials and difficulties of life, whether it be at home, at school, at work or at play, you can gain a partial indulgence whenever you turn your mind to God and add some pious invocation. An invocation can be of the briefest kind, expressed in one or few words or only thought of mentally. Such invocations could be: My Lord and My God, help me; 0 God have mercy on me; Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I love and adore You, etc. Keep in mind that an invocation is no longer considered to be an indulgenced prayer in itself, but only as complementing an indulgenced action, by which the faithful raise their heart and mind to God in performing their duties or bearing the trials of life.


"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 second grant is intended to serve as an incentive to obey another command of Christ by perfomung more frequent acts of chanty and mercy. A partial indulgence is thus granted every time we help the needy by supplying them with food or clothing for the body or instruction or comfort for the soul. Remember that the merit we gain from God for our acts of charity can be doubled by gaining the partial indulgence from the Church.


"A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who in a spirit of penance voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them."

This third grant, which is something altogether new in the history of indulgences, is well suited to our age - an age not noted for its voluntary acts of sacrifice and penance. To make up for the mitigation of the law of fast and abstinence, by this grant of a partial indulgence the Church urges us to perform voluntary acts of penance and to make for ourselves voluntary crosses to be born patiently and cheerfully.

From this discussion of the three general grants of partial indulgences we can readily see that the faithful daily practice of indulgences can be an easy means of making great progress in holiness, for by the practice of indulgences we turn to God when we care for the needy, when we perform acts of penance, and when we give generously of ourselves in the service of others.


Besides the general grants, the Holy Father has attached partial indulgences to many prayers and good works.


Among the many indulgenced prayers listed in the Enchiridion (pages 43 to 78) the following may be of special interest to you devoted to Mary. A partial indulgence may be gained by reciting the following prayers: The Magnificat; Hail Holy Queen; Come Holy Spirit; We Fly to Thy Patronage, 0 Holy Mother of God; the Angelus; the Litanies (especially of the Sacred Heart and of the Blessed Virgin Mary); the Little Office of the Blessed Mother; Look Down Upon Me, Good and Gentle Jesus; the Creeds (either the Apostles' or the Nicene); Mental Prayer (especially meditation); and any approved prayer for Priestly or Religious Vocations.


Here are some of the works to which the Holy Father has attached a partial indulgence:

The faithful, who devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular or medal) properly blessed by a priest or a deacon, obtain a partial indulgence. These are the only articles of devotion which may be used to gain an indulgence.

A partial indulgence is also granted to those who give some time to the reading of Sacred Scripture, and to those who recite privately at least five decades of the Marian Rosary. The same is true for those who make the Sign of the Cross; or visit the Blessed Sacrament; or make an Act of spiritual Communion; or attend Novena devotions of the Immaculate Conception, Christmas or Pentecost; or teach and learn Christian Doctrine.


An indulgence is plenary when it remits all of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven. It is much more difficult to gain a plenary indulgence than a partial one. A partial indulgence may be acquired many times during the day, whereas a plenary indulgence may be gained normally only once in the course of a day; and the conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence are much more demanding.

To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill the following three conditions: 1) sacramental confession; 2) Eucharistic Communion; and 3) a prayer for the intention of the Holy Father. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.

The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; it is, however, fitting that Communion be received and the prayer for the intention of the Pope be said on the same day the work is performed. It should be noted that a single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences; but Communion must be received and the prayer for the intention of the Holy Father must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence. One confession suffices to gain several plenary indulgences on different days. To gain a daily plenary indulgence one should go to confession at least once every two weeks.

The condition of praying for the intention of the Pope is fully satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary; nevertheless, you are free to recite any other prayer according to your piety and devotion.

You should always remember that if the proper disposition is lacking, or if the three prescribed conditions are not fulfilled, you can still receive a partial indulgence by the performance of the work.

It is interesting to note that Confessors can conimute either the prescribed work or conditions, in favor of those who, because of a legitimate impediment, cannot perform the work or fulfill the conditions. And local bishops can grant to their faithful who live in places where it is impossible or at least very difficult to go to confession or Communion, permission to gain a plenary indulgence without confession and Conununion, provided they have true contrition for their sins and have the intention of receiving these Sacraments as soon as possible.


A plenary indulgence is attached to the following works:

1. A visit to and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one half an hour.

2. A devout spiritual reading from Sacred Scripture for at least one half an hour.

3. The recitation of the Marian Rosary in a church or public oratory or in a family group, a religious Community or pious Association. The recitation of five decades of the Rosary suffices; but the five decades must be recited continuously. The vocal recitation must be accompanied by a pious meditation on the mysteries, and in a public recitation, the mysteries must be announced in the manner customary in the place; for private recitation, however, it suffices if the vocal recitation is accompanied by meditation on the mysteries.

4. The pious exercise of the Way of the Cross. This must be made before the fourteen stations of the Way of the Cross. A movement from one station to the next is required, at least by the one conducting the exercise. The vocal prayers should lead to a pious meditation on the Passion and Death of the Lord. Those who are legitimately impeded from being in the church or from being a part of the public exercise of the Way of the Cross can gain the same indulgence, if they spend at least one half an hour in pious reading and meditation on the Passion and Death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

5. A devout assistance at the solemn liturgical rite of Good Friday, especially at the adoration and kissing of the Cross.

6. A devout visit to a cemetery with a prayer, even if only mental, for the departed souls, from the first to the eighth day of November.

7. A pious visit to a church, a public or semipublic oratory (chapel) on All Souls' Day with the prayers of one Our Father and the Creed; this indulgence is applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory.

8. The making of a spiritual retreat of at least three whole days.

9. Hearing some of the Mission sermons and being present for the solemn closing of the Mission.

10. Receiving the Papal Blessing, even by radio or TV, when imparted to Rome and the World.

11. Receiving Holy Communion for the first time, or assisting at the ceremonies of a First Communion.

Here are some other occasions where a plenary indulgence may be gained:

12. A plenary indulgence is granted to a priest on the occasion of the First Mass he celebrates with some solemnity and to the faithful who devoutly assist at the same Mass. The same is true for a priest's Jubilee Mass.

13. 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 plenary indulgence, the Church nevertheless grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross to gain this indulgence is praise-worthy. The condition, "provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime," supplies in such cases for the three usual conditions required for the gaining of a plenary indulgence.

14. A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who renew their baptismal promises in the celebration of the Easter Vigil or on the anniversary of one's baptism.

15. A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who devoutly visit the parish church on the titular feast of the church or on the second of August, when the indulgence of the Portiuncula occurs.

16. A plenary indulgence is granted on each Friday of Lent to the faithful who after Communion piously recite before an image of Christ crucified the prayer: "Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus." On the other days of the year the indulgence is partial.

17. A plenary indulgence is granted to all the faithfid when an Act of Consecration is publicly recited on the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This, of course, is not a complete list of the pious works indulgenced with a plenary indulgence, but it may give you an idea of how many ways you can receive a plenary indulgence if you have the proper dispositions and fulfill the required conditions.


We have seen that one of the ways to gain the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven, is to perform the penance given by the priest in the confessional. In most cases today that penance is relatively mild. It was not always so. For example, in the early days of the Church, in the days of the Roman persecutions, the Church was fighting for its very existence and was very careful not to have the scandal of serious sinners mar the image of the Church. Lest others would follow the example of those sinners, the Church adopted a very severe penitential system. Although the guilt of the sin was forgiven by sacramental confession, the penance imposed by the confessor was very severe. This penance was called canonical because the penance for different sins was set by canons of the Church Law. If the sin had been public, the penance had to be public. The penance, for example, might have been to stand outside the place where the Holy Eucharist was being celebrated, and to beg for the prayers of those entering. This public penance might be for 30 days or 100 days or a year or several years, according to the seriousness of the sin. As time went on and peace came to the Church, a more lenient penitential system began to take form. To those who were sick or for other reasons could not perform the severe public canonical penance, the Church gave an indulgence, that is, a favor - a favor of commuting the severe public penance to a milder private penance. Thus the word "indulgence" came into Church Law as a special favor or grant of the Church to help the penitent gain the remission of the temporal punishment due to his or her already forgiven sins.


Abuses can and do happen in almost every sphere of life - even in the Church, and even in holy things. In his day St. Paul complained about abuses in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In our day we too have seen or heard of abuses in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is not surprising then to learn that there were abuses connected with the practice of indulgences in times past. But the Church always corrected the abuses with the proper legislation.

When we speak of abuses in the practice of indulgences we must keep in mind that the power to grant an indulgence comes from the Pope. He can empower bishops to grant certain specified indulgences to the faithful in their dioceses; and he can grant to Religious Orders certain indulgences that the Religious priests could grant to the faithful.

In the Middle Ages abuses could and did take place when these papal grants were not used properly, especially when they were used by some ecclesiastics for financial gain. For example, among the good works which were indulgenced at that time was that of almsgiving for the poor. The money was given to the clerics, and unfortunately not all of it reached the poor. This abuse was corrected by St. Pius V back in 1567 when he cancelled all indulgences involving any fees or other money transactions. This decree of the Pope is strictly observed in the Church to this day.

There was also the abuse of falsifying the indulgence grants. This occurred when some ecclesiastics, who had been empowered by the Pope to grant a partial indulgence of, let us say, 30 days, would announce falsely to the people that it was an indulgence of 300 days. They thus falsified the papal grant and multiplied the value of the indulgence with the hope of a greater financial profit. This abuse is not possible today because since Pope Paul VI's revision of the practice of indulgences there is no longer any designation of days, months or years. The partial indulgence is simply called partial.

There were also abuses by those receiving indulgences. For example, at one time certain privileged churches could be used by the faithful to receive a plenary indulgence "toties quoties", that is, as often as they went into the church and said certain prayers they could receive a plenary indulgence. Some of the faithful abused this grant by entering and re-entering the church many times on the same day in order to gain many plenary indulgences each day. This abuse can no longer take place since Pope Paul VI's revision of indulgences in 1967 when he declared that only one plenary indulgence may be acquired in the course of one day.

Back in the sixteenth century the construction of churches, monasteries and hospitals was often made possible by the offerings of the faithful which were made at the time of receiving an indulgence. Unfortunately this sometimes gave the appearance of purchasing an indulgence when abuses occurred.

In Martin Luther's time, in the sixteenth century, there took place in some German cities and towns a preaching of an indulgence for the re-building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

We can imagine the preaching of an indulgence as somewhat similar to a week-long Mission in one of our churches today. These Missions today are conducted mostly by priests of a Religious Order, who preach a conversion of sinners, celebrate Holy Mass and hear confessions. They thus make it possible for everyone who wishes, to receive the Mission plenary indulgence. Remember that at the end of the Mission a collection of money is taken up, mostly for the benefit of the Missions serviced by the Religious Order whose priests preached the Mission. Who today would say that the Mission Plenary Indulgence was received only because of the monetary offering that was made? What Catholic today would believe that this is a selling of an indulgence?

Now in Martin Luther's time the preaching of an indulgence was similar in a way to the modem-day preaching of a Mission for it was conducted by priests of the Dominican Order, who went in procession from town to town, stopping at the church in each town for a week-long preaching of repentance and conversion. They celebrated Holy Mass and heard confessions, thus preparing the faithful for the reception of the Plenary Indulgence. At the end, the faithful placed their money offerings in the slot of a locked money chest which eventually was to make its way to Rome, where the money would be used to help pay the cost of re-building St. Peter's Basilica. Abuses took place when some of the Dominican priests put too much stress on the importance of the money offering. It was also rumored that not all the money reached Rome.

Martin Luther, who did not like to see German money going to Rome, started to preach against the Dominican priests claiming that they were selling indulgences and that indulgences were worthless. As a Catholic priest Luther knew and preached the correct teaching of the Church on indulgences, but now he had changed his teaching on the subject. He had been gradually forming his own doctrine of justification which rejected the value of good works for salvation. He believed that faith alone in Christ, without good works, was sufficient for eternal salvation. Our human nature, he said, is so corrupt that we cannot perform a good act meritorious of salvation. So, he said, sin as often as you wish, but have faith in Christ and you will be saved.

Indulgences, therefore, had no place in Luther's theological teaching. You can understand why he then changed his teaching on indulgences and claimed that "indulgences are pious frauds of the people", and why indulgences would have no place in the church that Luther founded.

How did the Catholic Church react to Luther's accusations?

Pope Leo X in his document Exsurge Domine of 1520 condemned as errors Luther's assertions that: "Indulgences are pious frauds of the faithful; indulgences are of no avail to those who truly gain them; and the treasures of the Church, from which the pope grants indulgences, are not the merits of Christ and of the saints."

The Council of Trent in 1563 issued the following decree concerning indulgences: "Since the power of granting indulgences was conferred by Christ on the Church, and she has made use of such power divinely given to her, (cf. Matt. 16:19; 18:18) even in the earliest times, the holy Synod teaches and commands that the use of indulgences, most salutary to a Christian people and approved by the authority of the sacred councils, is to be retained in the Church, and it condemns those with anathema who assert that they are useless or deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them." (Council of Trent-IX, 1105)

And now in our time Pope Paul VI, in order to prevent any further criticism and to give greater dignity and esteem to the use of indulgences, introduced some innovations in the practice of indulgences.


In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued his Apostolic Constitution on the Doctrine of Indulgences. The first part of this document, which is doctrinal, explains certain theological truths which are basic to the Church's teaching on indulgences, such truths as the nature of sin, the punishment due to sin, the Communion of Saints, the spiritual treasury of the Church, and the Pope's power of the Keys. Then he reviews the earlier history of indulgences in the Church, after which he describes how under the guidance of the Magisterium, the teaching of the Church on indulgences and their use progressively developed during the last seven centuries.

In the second part of the document Pope Paul gives 20 norms or rules for the practice of indulgences. These norms provide us with a revision and simplification of the many papal regulations of the past.

The principal points of the revision are three:

1. a new standard of measurement for partial indulgences;

2. a reduction in the number of plenary indulgences; and

3. a rearrangement in regard to indulgences which, because of their relation to persons or objects or sacred places, were known as personal or real or local indulgences.

1. In regard to partial indulgences, their measurement by days and years has been abolished. Only the term partial indulgence is now used. Thus the new standard of measurement depends on the action itself of the faithful. So that the amount of the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin which the faithful merit by their very action, now serves as the standard in measuring the remission of the temporal punishment which the Church freely grants with a partial indulgence.

2. As to the reduction in the number of plenary indulgences, the rule now is that we can gain no more than one such indulgence in the course of one day. The only exception to this, as was stated above, is when a Catholic at the point of death can receive a plenary indulgence even though he or she had already received one on the same day.

3. In former times indulgences were attached to persons, objects or places. As a result of this the faithful could gain many plenary indulgences on the same day, for example, by visiting and re-visiting an indulgenced place (such as a church) and praying there. As often as this was done with the proper dispositions a plenary indulgence was received. This is no longer possible today because Norm 412 of Pope Paul's Revision reads: "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." So a church can now be the occasion for the faithful to receive a plenary indulgence when they, for example, recite their five decades of the Marian Rosary. Although religious objects are no longer indulgenced they do continue to be the occasions for gaining an indulgence, when a Catholic uses them while gaining an indulgence. Only the following articles of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular, or medal) if property blessed by a priest or a deacon and devoutly used by the faithful, can be the occasion for acquiring an indulgence.

In the third edition of the Enchiridion which was approved by Pope John Paul II and published on May 18, 1986 there is an interesting addition which affects this writing. It is something completely new. In the first edition of the Enchiridion (1968) there is the grant of indulgences connected with the use of articles of devotion. This grant was worded thus: "The faithful, who devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular or medal) properly blessed by any priest, obtain a partial indulgence." The third edition of the Enchiridion (1986) adds, after the words "properly blessed by any priest" the words "or a deacon." From this we see that a deacon now has the power to bless those articles of devotion.

Both editions of the Enchiridion have the following: "But if the article of devotion has been blessed by the Sovreign Pontiff or by any Bishop, the faithful, using it (devoutly) can also gain a plenary indulgence on the feast of the Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, provided they also make a profession of faith according to any legitimate formula."


Besides the above three, there are other points of revision of indulgences; for example, the third general grant of partial indulgences (that is, voluntarily denying oneself of what is permissible and pleasing), is something altogether new but most suited to our present age when, with the mitigation of the law of fast and abstinence, it is more than ever imperative that penance be practised in other ways.

Another innovation of Pope Paul's revision is that now all indulgences, whether plenary or partial, may be applied to the souls in Purgatory by way of petition to God. On this matter Pope Paul reminds us that the faithful departed may be assisted, not only by means of indulgences, but also by many other ways, such as by prayers, especially by participation at the celebration of Holy Mass, and by the performance of unindulgenced good works.

Pope Paul VI continued to grant the faculty that Canon Law gave to confessors to commute either the prescribed work or conditions for a plenary indulgence, in favor of those who because of a legitimate impediment cannot perform the work or fulfill the conditions. Thus a person who is sick or travelling can ask a confessor, either in or out of the confessional, to change the condition of receiving Holy Communion to some other action, perhaps the making of a Spiritual Communion. Furthermore, Pope Paul gave to local bishops the faculty to grant to their faithful who live in places where it is impossible or at least very difficult to go to confession or receive Communion, permission to gain a plenary indulgence without confession or Communion, provided they have true contrition for their sins and have the intention of receiving these Sacraments as soon as possible.

Pope Paul VI also reduced and revised the number of plenary indulgences that had been granted through the years to Religious Orders, Congregations, secular institutes and pious associations.

Thus, although there has been a simplication and reduction in the number of indulgences that may now be gained, it is very evident that there are still many ways, and many new ways, of receiving indulgences.

We do have to be careful, however, in our use of indulgences. We must be careful that we don't concentrate on and use only indulgenced prayers and good works, while neglecting those prayers and good works that are not indulgenced, such as the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments. We must keep in mind that a prayer, whether indulgenced or not, is more valuable than an indulgence in itself because a prayer can be the means of gaining not only the remission of the temporal punishment, but also an increase of sanctifying grace; whereas an indulgence can give only a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. We should continue with our customary prayers and good works, keeping in mind that most of them are indulgenced.


Since it is quite evident that the Church approves of the use of indulgences, why don't priests talk or write more about them? Why this general silence on the subject of indulgences?

One of the causes of this silence may be that the practice of indulgences suffered the same fate as so many of our private devotions after the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. In those days there was much emphasis placed upon community liturgical prayers and services, while private non-liturgical devotions, such as the Rosary, Novenas, Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, were discouraged and ignored. This came about through some false interpretations of the Vatican II documents. Some of those private devotions are now being revived as more and more Catholics realize that Vatican II never suggested that we abandon those devotions which were approved by the Church through the centuries, on the contrary, the Council told us to continue and cherish those devotions.

Another contributing cause of this silence on the use of indulgences may be the general spirit of ecumenism that was so prevalent after the close of the Council. In its DECREE ON ECUMENISM the Council urges all Catholics to pray for the unity of Christians which is the goal of the ecumenical movement. We are also urged to acquire a clearer understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren and, at the same time, in dialogue, to give them a clear explanation of our Catholic doctrine in its entirety. "Nothing," the Council states, "is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded." (#11) What Vatican II is telling us is that in ecumenical dialogue there should be no watering down of any part of our Catholic doctrine. Our Catholic ecumenists should not purposely avoid giving the full Catholic teaching on even delicate subjects, such as indulgences.

It is truly difficult to talk to Protestants about indulgences because most of them have such a misconception of our teaching on the subject. The general Protestant notion of an indulgence is the direct opposite of what an indulgence really is, for they still believe that we sell indulgences; that an indulgence is the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; a permission to commit sin; a pardon of future sin; and a purchase of a pardon which guarantees eternal salvation.

From this, and from the fact that most Protestants do not accept many of the teachings connected with indulgences (such as Purgatory, the Pope's power to grant indulgences, etc.), one might understand why Catholic ecumenists, who are engaged in dialogue with our separated brethren, would avoid and ignore the subject of indulgences; but this silence should not carry over to our Catholic faithful. And that is what has happened. I hope that this writing will help to break that deadly silence on the Church's teaching on the important subject of indulgences.

N.B. This article originally appeared at and is given here modified by removing references to the Legionaries of Mary