The media has been having a field day reporting on the Pope’s issuance of a plenary indulgence to World Youth Day pilgrims—even if your pilgrimage consists of following the events of World Youth Day online.
While it is amusing to watch the media try to figure out indulgences, I have to wonder how many Catholics understand them. Sadly, I would guess not many. Most Catholics probably think of indulgences as an artifact from a more primitive age of the Church—something irrelevant to modern Catholics.
But this isn’t true. Indulgences are an important part of the faith (though they have been basically ignored for about 50 years), and a Catholic Gentleman should know how they work. We will be talking more about indulgences in the future, and their place in the life of faith, but for now, here’s a brief layman’s guide to indulgences.
What does “indulgence” mean?
In Latin, “indulgentia” is the word for kindness, compassion, and gentleness. Indulgences are not a way of buying your way out of purgatory or obtaining a license to sin (as is the caricature), but rather a way of receiving our Lord’s mercy, kindness, and compassion. He is quite literally our “indulgent” father who grants his mercy to us through his body, the Church.
But how does this work? An analogy might help. Imagine a little boy has been warned that stealing cookies from the cookie jar will result in a spanking. The little boy decides to steal the cookies anyway (he has a sweet tooth), and his father must now give him a spanking in punishment. To the teary eyed boy, the father says, “I forgive you, but I still have to give you a spanking.”
But what if the dad decided he would spare the spanking, even though it was the punishment the boy deserved for his naughtiness? He would be considered an indulgent, or kind and merciful, father. He pardoned the just punishment due for the sin.
In short, that’s what happens with an indulgence. God is merciful, but he is also just. Every time we commit a sin, we deserve temporal punishment. God pardons the guilt of the sin, but his justice demands that he still give us a spanking, so to speak. And yet, in his mercy, Jesus has made it possible for us to be freed from even this temporal punishment. Through the authority given to her by Christ, the Church gives us very easy ways to completely wipe out this temporal punishment, and these are called plenary indulgences.
How about you? Did you understand indulgences? Have you ever thought about trying to obtain one? Are they still applicable to Catholics today? Leave your thoughts in the comments.