By Phillip Novotny
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to avoid large groups, the Plenary Indulgence applicable to the deceased by those who visit a cemetery has been extended beyond the normal dates of November 1-8. This year, the indulgence can be obtained by anyone who visits a cemetery, even if only mentally, on any day in November, and devoutly prays for the faithful departed. Seminarian Phillip Novotny dives into the question “What is an indulgence?” below:
“Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart.” Psalm 36 helps us better understand Christ’s teaching that, “everyone who sins becomes a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Every sin we commit will make us more susceptible to temptation, more likely to sin again. Sin can be very attractive; it knows how to charm our hearts. Vices, like virtues, are strengthened by practice.
God alone forgives sins. But He forgives sin through His Church, through the ministerial Priesthood He Himself established. Sins are forgiven, but punishment due to those sins remains. Think about being a child: your parents tell you not to take a cookie from the cookie jar, but you do anyway. Whether you got caught or turned yourself in, it matters not, you are guilty of cookie theft, which you know is wrong. So you confess, you own your sin, your guilt, and your parents forgive you. Does this forgiveness mean that the punishment for the crime has been lifted? No. God is the perfect parent; He is parenting par excellence. Any good parent knows that if the punishment is not carried out, the behavior will continue. Nothing learned=no growth. So you receive your just punishment (let’s say quiet time in your room). No parent stops loving their child at any point of this process. To the contrary, it is love that drives a parent to punish, willing the good of the child for the child’s sake. Good parents do this because God does this. He loves us so much He is willing to watch us suffer so that we might become better persons.
But what if you do something fantastic whilst doing hard time in the slammer (your room)? Not only are you quiet and well-behaved, you far exceed the mandate of your sentence by making your room superbly clean. Your punishment may be drastically reduced due to this act of love, presuming you do this because you know how upset your parents are and you are grieved to see them so. This is an indulgence, a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, whose guilt has already been forgiven. But note that it is done out of love; this demands true contrition, which is sorrow for sin and desire (as well as intention) to never commit that sin again. This is also called firm purpose of amendment: to wholly intend to amend your ways, to change your life, to turn away from sin and vice. We are sorry for sin because it hurt the One against whom we sin, the One we love. Don’t we regret hurting our loved ones? This should not only include God, but He must be the primary beloved.
What is this temporal punishment? Indulgences may be partial or plenary, which means complete or absolute and unconditional. In either case they are reducing the “time” we must spend or the amount we must suffer to make satisfaction for our sins. Every sin entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures (creature=created thing) and by choosing the creature over the Creator we must be purified either here on Earth or after death in the state called Purgatory (final purification before entering Heaven).
These punishments must not be viewed as vengeance inflicted by God, but as the natural consequence of sin; moreover, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace, an undeserved gift. And this gift can be applied for ourselves or can be passed on to the poor souls in Purgatory, to remit the temporal punishment of their sins.
Mortal sin can only be forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, whereas venial sin can be forgiven through the penitential act at the beginning of almost every Mass. But all sin has a double consequence. The first is that we sever Communion with God in the case of mortal sin and merely damage it in the case of venial sin. Even when Communion with God is restored and the eternal punishment is washed away (hell), temporal punishment, the second consequence of sin, remains. Prayer and sacrifice, penances, pilgrimages, works of mercy and charity all have indulgences that can relieve this. Indulgences are granted to the faithful only through the prescribed conditions of the Church, which usually involve, in addition to Reconciliation, Praying for the Pope and his intentions, and detachment from sin. A few other examples: kissing a crucifix, giving alms, tithing, and the stations of the cross.
To be clear, no one can earn their way to Heaven. We can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven only through the merits of the Cross of Christ, through His passion, death, and resurrection. Anything whatsoever we merit, we merit because He first merited it for us. We merit indulgences through the suffering of Christ. Questions about indulgences? Read Paragraphs 1471-1479 in the CCC or talk to a Priest or a seminarian.