Q. I was excited to watch the announcement of the new pope… I even got to watch it live. When it was over, I heard Pope Francis gave an indulgence even to people who watched on TV. I’ve heard of an indulgence, but I’m not really sure what that is. Can you explain it?
A. Indulgences are one of those gifts within our Church that few understand. I think, in the old days, they were practiced and spoken about far more often. But, perhaps because of confusion and misuse, they slowly drifted out of our regular church conversations. In recent years it is my experience that indulgences are being spoken of more often.
So, what is an indulgence? The official definition of an indulgence is this: “An indulgence is the remission in the eyes of God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose culpable element has already been taken away.” Hmmm, so what exactly does that mean?
I think the best way to understand this definition is to look at sin and its effects upon us. When we sin we need forgiveness. Forgiveness is offered to us freely through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If our sin is grave then we deserve eternal punishment. Confession eliminates this eternal punishment. Confession also forgives the guilt of our smaller sins. However, just because we have been forgiven does not mean that our attachment to that sin is eliminated also. For example, if someone confesses, with true sorrow, that they have been using foul language on a daily basis, then God will forgive them completely for all the times in the past that they have used foul language. However, this forgiveness does not necessarily mean that they have completely and totally broken the habit of sin. There is a good chance that, upon leaving the confessional, if they trip and fall down, they will be immediately tempted to use foul language. So what does this illustrate? It illustrates that we need not only forgiveness but also the grace to completely and totally detach ourselves from the habit of sin and the unhealthy attachment we have to sin. This is hard! It takes true conversion. But this is the reason for an indulgence.
The Church, specifically the pope, has the authority on earth to unlock the storehouse of grace in Heaven and let the faithful know that if they perform certain acts of piety, faith and devotion, they can be assured of the fact that God will pour down His graces upon them to help them enter more deeply into a complete detachment to all sin. So, for example, if someone spends at least a half an hour in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament they can receive a plenary indulgence as long as they also go to Confession and Communion within seven days before or after and offer prayers for the intention of the pope. When this is done, they receive a plenary (or full) indulgence. This means that every grace they need is available to them to completely detach from sin and to live in a perfect state of grace. Therefore, if they went to confession, received the indulgence and fully opened their heart to this grace through their conversion and love then, if they were to die at that moment, they would go straight to Heaven.
I think the most important thing to understand is that indulgences are simply another way of receiving the outpouring of grace that our God wishes to bestow upon us! This grace is given specifically for the purpose of detaching from our tendency to sin. And, it is for certain, that every grace we are given from God is necessary and should be sought out and received with much anticipation and gratitude. Hope that helps!