TO APPRECIATE THE BENEFIT OF AN INDULGENCE, one must recognize that every sin, because it is an injustice against God, merits punishment. Moreover, one must understand that the forgiveness of sin is one thing but the removal of punishment is something else. After the fall, for example, Adam was forgiven his sin (cf. Wisdom 10:1-2) but he still had to suffer the punishment of death. Even though King David’s adultery was pardoned, he nonetheless had to endure the death of his child as a penalty for his offense.
Mortal sin and the eternal punishment due to it are removed by a sacramental confession. But just as Adam and David, having been forgiven their mortal sins, underwent temporal punishment (i.e. a punishment that lasted for a time), so also, the Church’s theologians affirm, according to the ordinary law the sorrow of the penitent does not remove all the temporal punishment. This punishment must be endured either here in this world or in purgatory.
An indulgence, however, is one way that the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is removed. The Council of Trent pronounced that Christ had given to His Church the power of granting indulgences and that the Church had used this power since the earliest times. Recognizing that the use of indulgences is especially salutary for the Christian people as well as approved by the authority of the holy councils, Trent condemned those who either claimed that indulgences are useless or who denied the Church’s power to grant them.
Besides maintaining the Church’s authority to grant indulgences, Pope Clement VI explained the existence of the Church’s treasury. He said that through the death of Christ there was established an infinite treasure by which those who use it become partakers of God’s friendship. Christ entrusted this treasure, the pontiff continued, to be dispensed to the faithful through Peter and his successors either for the total or for the partial remission of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sins (cf. Denzinger 551). Not only do the merits of Christ belong to this treasury but also those of our Lady and the saints. There can be no fear of any diminution of this treasury not only because Christ’s merits are infinite but also because when merits are applied they bring many to justice and this increases the treasury (cf. Denzinger 552).
Transferring the merits from one member to satisfy for the punishments of another strikingly illustrates the doctrine of the communion of saints. As Saint Paul says, “And if one part is suffering, all the rest suffer with it; if one part is treated with honour, all the rest find pleasure in it. And you are Christ’s body, organs of it depending upon each other” (I Cor. 12:26-27). “Because all the faithful, under Christ’s head, form one mystical body,” Father A.M. Herve, S.J., wrote, “the merits of Christ and the satisfactions of Christ and the saints are, in a certain sense, the property of the individual members and these members can grant them for the benefit of one another” (cf. “De Indulgetiis, Herve, Vol IV, p.69). By granting indulgences, the Church through the Vicar of our Lord on earth applies the merits of Christ and the saints to the souls in purgatory and to the faithful on earth to satisfy for the punishment their forgiven sins deserve. Those in purgatory are members of the mystical body whose bond is love. Because they cannot help themselves, they depend on the charity of the faithful on earth to gain indulgences for them. Unlike some remission of temporal punishment from the prayers, fasts and almsgiving of an individual member of the faithful, the value of the indulgence is much greater because it is derived from the intervention of the Church Herself.
Three things are necessary for an indulgence: (1) the one granting it must have legitimate authority; (2) there must be a just cause for granting it; (3) the one acquiring the indulgence must be in the state of grace and subject to the one granting the indulgence.
In practice the entire power of granting indulgences belongs to the Sovereign Pontiff. Since he is not the lord but the administrator and distributor of the Church’s treasury, he cannot arbitrarily dispose of it but requires a just cause. Any cause, however, which inclines to the honour of God and the benefit of the Church is a just cause. The weight of the indulgence is not measured by the difficulty in performing the work but by the end intended by the one granting the indulgence. Consequently, a great indulgence is attached to the stations of the cross, a work of minor difficulty, because it is considered exceedingly useful for the Church. The subject who is capable of gaining indulgences should have the general intention, which once made is never retracted, of acquiring them.
Indulgences, which remove temporal punishment due to forgiven sin, may be gained by the living for themselves or applied to the souls in purgatory but they cannot be applied to other living persons. Indulgences are called plenary if they remove all temporal punishment and partial if they remove only some of it. A plenary indulgence can be acquired only once in the course of the day but a partial indulgence may be acquired more than once a day. To gain an indulgence for oneself one must be baptized, in the state of grace at least at the completion of the prescribed work and subject to the one granting the indulgence. He must also have at least a general intention of gaining them and must perform the works enjoined at the time and in the manner prescribed.
“To acquire a plenary indulgence,” the 1999 Enchiridion of Indulgences, issued by the Sacred Penitentiary, states, “it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.
“If the latter disposition is in any way less than perfect or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be partial only…”
The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; it is, however, fitting that Communion be received and the prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff be said on the same day the work is performed. The condition of sacramental confession may be fulfilled within a period of about twenty days before or afte the work is performed.
“A single sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences; but Communion must be received and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence.
“The condition of praying for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff is fully satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary; nevertheless, each one is free to recite any other prayer according to his piety and devotion.”
Some works to which are attached plenary indulgences are: a visit to the Blessed Sacrament which lasts for half an hour, the Stations of the Cross, recitation of five decades of the Rosary while contemplating the mysteries, and reading Scripture for one half hour.
In the revesion of indulgences the measurement of partial indulgences by days and years has been abolished. Pope Paul VI, however, made three general grants for partial indulgences. (1) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, in the performance of their duties and in bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding — even if only mentally — some pious invocation. (2) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who in a spirit of faith and mercy give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need. (3) A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who in a spirit of penance voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them.
– From the 2017 Liturgical Ordo and FSSP Directory (Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Santi Petri – The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter)
PRAYER BEFORE A CRUCIFIX OR AN IMAGE OF CHRIST CRUCIFIED
BEHOLD, O kind and most sweet Jesus, I cast myself upon my knees in Thy sight, and with the most fervent desire of my soul I pray and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity, with true repentance for my sins and a firm desire of amendment, whilst with deep affection and grief of soul I ponder within myself and mentally contemplate Thy five most precious wounds, having before mine eyes that which the Prophet David spoke of Thee, O good Jesus: They have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones. Amen.
Plenary Indulgence on the Fridays during Lent: if the preceding prayer is said before a Crucifix or an image of Christ Crucified, & with the usual conditions for gaining a Plenary Indulgence (see above).