-by Br John Bernard Church, O.P., English Province
“Indulgences occupy a curious place in the Catholic world. While readily appreciated by some, to many they are simply a peculiar oddity, a relic of a medieval imagination. So, when the Apostolic Penitentiary announced that, due to COVID, it was extending plenary indulgences for November throughout the whole month, unsurprisingly the news didn’t make the morning newspaper splash.
I would certainly count myself among those who have hesitated to find a fitting place for indulgences in the spiritual life. But they are a part of the faith we profess, so there is every reason to try to understand what they’re about and why they matter. A good starting point is to turn to the Apostles’ Creed, and the two articles that form the basis of a theology of indulgences: “I believe in…the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins…”.
To take the latter first, the primary means of forgiving our sins lies in the confessional. But when sins are forgiven, they still leave a trace: an attachment to vice remains even when the life of grace has been renewed. Thus at their simplest, indulgences extend the logic of the Sacrament of Penance, by addressing the residue of sin. Hence the formal definition of an indulgence is the “temporal remission of the penalties due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven (CCC 1471)”.
Perhaps a helpful analogy would be the physio that follows an operation. If I break my arm in a bicycle accident and do some serious damage, the primary means of healing is the necessary operation that restores functionality to my arm. And although this operation may be sufficient for getting me back on my bike, some physio exercises will aid the healing process and strengthen my arm. Indulgences are similar, in that they work to accompany the restorative healing we receive in the Sacrament of Penance.
The analogy is of course imperfect, but there is another aspect of it worth considering. If you want a healthy arm, physio and strengthening exercises are good to do anyway, even if you haven’t just fallen off your bike. And the same is true of indulgences: the sorts of acts to which the Church attaches them are those which are good to do anyway.
Spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, reading scripture, praying a rosary, saying the Divine Office, or even something as simple as making the Sign of the Cross, are all means by which divine charity grows within us. The indulgences attached to these acts simply encourage their practice. Healing the wounds in our relationship with God comes about through an openness to His grace, enabling His love to grow within us. Making room for that love to grow is always a worthy pursuit, no matter the circumstances.
There is further aspect to indulgences that relates to the other article of the creed, the one we are yet to consider: the communion of Saints. Our incorporation through Baptism into that supernatural community which is the Mystical Body of Christ means our actions are efficacious well beyond the narrow circle of our own lives. As we grow in charity, that divine currency of our sanctification, we can apply the gifts we receive to those who have gone before us. The bond of love that ties together the entire Christian community (Ed. the Church is ONE, militant, suffering, Triumphant). empowers us wayfarers on earth to cooperate in the salvation of the souls in purgatory.
This is especially worth considering given the Vatican’s extension for indulgences for November is for those that apply to the deceased. Such is the power of the Cross that our salvation is both deeply personal and fundamentally communal: each can be the beneficiary of the charity of the other.
As we reach the halfway point for November, it is perhaps worth considering whether there is time in the latter half of the month to obtain a plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory. After all, surely Confession, Communion, prayers in a cemetery, and prayers for the Pope are all good to do anyway…”
Love, & His mercy,