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Joanne Balog wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have been reading about indulgences and I am still very confused.

It sounds like superstition. You have to say certain words on certain days and times for it to count, as if there was a wrong way to pray.

I would like to be able to explain this to my non-Catholic friends as well as in our parish middle school ministry.


  { How do I explain indulgences to my non-Catholic friends and parish students? }

Mike replied:

Hi, Joanne —

Here is a January 2010 posting. At the end, I give an example of how St. Paul himself issued an indulgence. Just before the end, is a web page from Catholic Answers that is a primer on indulgences.

You also may want to use our search engine to find more information. This page will bring up a set of related postings on indulgences but you may have to be patient while the search engine
does its thing.

Maybe one of my colleagues can suggest the best way to explain it to a Protestant.

This is what the Catechism states on the issue:

X. Indulgences

1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.

What is an indulgence?

"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

(Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 1.)

"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." (Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 2; cf. Norm 3.) The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (Code of Canon Law, canon 994.)

The punishments of sin

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. (cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1712-1713; (1563): 1820.)

1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man." (Ephesians 4:22- 24)

In the Communion of Saints

1474 The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God's grace is not alone. "The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person." (Indulgentiarum doctrina, 5.)

1475 In the communion of saints, "a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things." (Indulgentiarum doctrina, 5.) In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.

1476 We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church's treasury, which is "not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the 'treasury of the Church' is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ's merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy." (Indulgentiarum doctrina, 5.)

1477 "This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body." (Indulgentiarum doctrina, 5.)

Obtaining indulgence from God through the Church

1478 An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity. (cf. Indulgentiarum doctrina, 5.)

1479 Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.

Hope this helps,


Mary Ann replied:

Joanne —

I would like to add that the Church is the steward who administers the things of God, the one with the keys to the spiritual treasury. All of our spiritual benefits or gifts are held in common, because what is spiritual, not material, cannot be divided.

When graces comes to a soul, it comes as a participation in a grace that is present to all. For that reason, the Church, as steward of the graces that have been merited by her members (only through participation in the grace and merit of Christ), can freely apply them.

We can ourselves apply the spiritual benefit of our good works and prayers to others! but the Church can literally apply the spiritual treasure to sort of write a check to cover the damages we have done, to pay off the reparations we need to make, so to speak. This is a crass way of talking, but one which we are all familiar.

Spiritually, it says only that Christ has allowed the Church to participate in His office of priest and judge, and to apply, suspend, or cancel penalties owing for sin.

If you say that we owe no penalty for sin, because Christ paid it all, we must realize that we have harmed ourselves and others, and the penalty of repairing this harm — the work, prayer and suffering necessary to apply Christ's grace to ourselves and others — can be canceled because it is made up for by others, whose work, prayer, and suffering are given to all.

Of course, this work, prayer, and suffering is nothing other than a participation by personal choice and effort in the work, prayer, and suffering of Christ, which is the only, of itself, efficacious work and prayer and suffering that exists.

Mary Ann

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