Indulgences 101


In the last days of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, he met with some American bishops in May of 2004 and recommended that U.S. Catholics recover “devotions of popular piety as a means of personal and communal sanctification.” Sadly, many wonderful Catholic devotional treasures had been discarded, by and large, during the rebellious days following the Council of Vatican II. But, by the grace of God, the practice of gaining indulgences for ourselves and the holy souls in purgatory is being restored.

Catholic Answers’ Primer on Indulgences teaches:

“Those who claim that indulgences are no longer part of Church teaching have the admirable desire to distance themselves from abuses that occurred around the time of the Protestant Reformation. They also want to remove stumbling blocks that prevent non-Catholics from taking a positive view of the Church. As admirable as these motives are, the claim that indulgences are not part of Church teaching today is false. This is proved by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, ‘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 punishment due for their sins.’ The Church does this not just to aid Christians, ‘but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity’ (CCC 1478).”

What is an indulgence? The word comes from the Latin indulgentia, which means “to be kind or tender.” “To understand what an indulgence is,” writes contemporary author Steve Kellmeyer, “we have to know what our sin does to the world and ourselves. When we commit sin, two things happen. First, we kill the life of grace within us. This deserves punishment. Spiritually, a sinner is a dead man, walking. Second, by removing grace from ourselves, we also remove grace from the created universe. Thus, each sin, no matter how venial, attacks both the moral order of the universe and the very material of creation itself.”

The following explanation of indulgences comes from Steve Kellmeyer’s Calendar of Indulgences:

“Forgiveness: When God pours out mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, He does something we have no right to expect — He forgives our sins and restores the life of grace within us, resurrecting us from death. As a result, we must act (penance) to change our life and renew our way of living (amendment of life). However, though we have been resurrected, we still deserve punishment for the attack we made on God’s creation. Further, the horrible consequences of our attack, which removed grace from creation, continue to affect the world even if we ourselves have been healed through the sacrament. God expects us to help repair the damage.

“Repair Work: We can do this repair work either here on earth or in purgatory. Since God intended us to live with our bodies united to our souls, it is much easier to do this repair work here. In purgatory, our soul and body are separate. The suffering of purgatory is always much more painful than suffering on earth because it is harder to do the necessary repair work when the body isn’t around to help.

“The Storehouse: Cardinal John Newman said, ‘The smallest venial sin rocks the foundations of the created world.’ That is, even our smallest sin can cause devastating consequences in creation; famine, disease, natural disaster. However, through God’s grace, the holiness of even the lowliest saint far exceeds the harm even the greatest sinner can do. Further, Christ’s work on the cross is infinitely greater in merit than that of the greatest saint in Christendom, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus, the graces won by Christ and the saints are an infinite treasure that can be used to heal the wounds of the world. God intends us to use this treasury — indeed; we could not help wipe out the effects of our sin without the divine treasury God established. An indulgence, then, applies the graces won by Christ and the saints to the world so as to heal the wounds I caused by my sins.

“A plenary indulgence heals all of the effects of one person’s sins. A partial indulgence heals part of the effects. One can win indulgences only for oneself or those in purgatory who have need of assistance because they currently lack bodies. Indulgences cannot be applied towards other living persons. Every living person is supposed to do his own acts of obedience to help heal the worldly effects of his own sinfulness (CCC 1471-1473).”

Requirements for obtaining a plenary indulgence:

Do the work while in a state of grace

Receive sacramental confession within 20 days of the work (several plenary indulgences may be earned per reception)

Receive Eucharistic communion (one plenary indulgence may be earned per reception of Eucharist)

Pray for the pope’s intentions (an Our Father and Hail Mary, or other appropriate prayer, is sufficient)

Have no attachment to sin (even venial) — i.e., the Christian makes an act of the will to love God and despise sin.

Requirements for a partial indulgence:

Do the work while in a state of grace

Have the general intention of earning an indulgence

Spiritual Strength Conditioning

While Holy Mother Church unlocks her spiritual treasury she, like any good mother, utilizes these prescribed acts of obedience as an occasion to teach her children (“spurs us to works of devotion, penance, and charity” CCC 1478). In other words, when we look at each of the indulgenced good works and prayers granted to us, as well as the conditions necessary for obtaining them, we see that these acts and conditions are the favored ways in which God desires us to grow in holiness, confront evil, and rescue souls.

Consider the conditions required for obtaining a plenary indulgence. If our state in life allows it, the ideal is to obtain one plenary indulgence every day (Mother Church offers one plenary indulgence, and only one, each day). By setting the following conditions, Holy Mother Church is teaching that these conditions reveal what is a rock solid foundation for the interior life:

Sustain and guard your state of grace

Go to Confession frequently (at least once a month)

Hear Daily Mass and receive Communion

Prayer support for our leader (pope)

Free from the slavery of unresolved sin

Like athletes or soldiers dedicated to their training, these “conditions” are our way of maintaining sound spiritual strength conditioning, empowering us to be the qualified contenders God can trust for His missions to battle dark forces and rescue souls. Apart from these basic “conditions,” we are weak and vulnerable and God is unlikely to choose us for His missions or bless our endeavors. We are, in essence, sidelined (benched) until we desire to choose His fundamental conditions to get in good spiritual shape.

By elevating certain prayers and good works to the level of gaining an indulgence, Mother Church is identifying which of these she most highly values and, therefore, which ones she urges us to prioritize. This is the best way for us to practice sincere obedience. These indulgenced prayers and good works are all listed in the Manual of Indulgences (and easily accessible online). Also, a calendar listing of plenary indulgences and conditions is available on page 268 of this Field Manual.

The ‘Big Four’

However, we must draw special attention to what I call the “Big Four.” Remarkably, Holy Mother Church has elevated only four activities for which a plenary indulgence can be gained on any day (though, as we said, only once a day). Highlighting these four reveals the great esteem in which Mother Church holds them, and, therefore, she urges us to rank these as highest among our daily devotions. The “Big Four” are:

Adoring the Blessed Sacrament for at least one half hour

Devoutly reading Sacred Scripture for at least one half hour

Devoutly performing the Stations of the Cross

Reciting the Rosary with members of the family, or in a church, oratory, religious community, or pious association

The great significance of the “Big Four” is that Mother Church has provided a way for us to gain that one plenary indulgence every day for ourselves or for a poor soul in purgatory. This then raises the question: Why would we squander this incredibly generous gift? Why wouldn’t we accept Mother Church’s gracious provision and seek this plenary indulgence every day?

No Man is an Island

Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “As we enter heaven we will see them, so many of them coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are, and they will say a poor soul you prayed for in purgatory.”

“God has given us the power and privilege,” writes best-selling author Susan Tassone, “to relieve and assist the holy souls and hasten their uniting with Him. He places in our hands the means necessary to help them reach heaven. Unless these holy ones are released by the good works of the faithful, God in His ineffable justice is resolved to purify them in purgatory. It is also a duty of personal interest since one day we may expect others to help us in the same way. Souls must undergo purification necessary for heaven, and they beg for our prayers, suffrages, and good works. Their time of personal merit is up. They can do nothing — nothing — for their deliverance. These suffering friends of God cannot do penance. They cannot gain indulgences. They cannot receive the sacraments. They cannot perform new meritorious acts. They depend entirely on our charity. Are we listening?”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

“We should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do, and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other — my prayer for him — can play a small part in his purification. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: How can I save myself? We should also ask: What can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

Building Your Holy Alliance

How many of us had grandparents who had their stack of holy cards in their prayer book? These favorite saints were their friends, their prayer warriors! How many of our ancestors knew to pray for the holy souls in purgatory, especially the souls of family and friends? The holy souls would then, in deep gratitude, return many prayers for those who cared to pray for them. This is why our ancestors never faced evil alone or prayed for anything or anybody alone — they had their comrades in the heavenly realm, their Holy Alliance of saints and holy souls, with them at all times. The devil never stood a chance against this united force!

What’s stopping us from building upon the great example of our ancestors who called upon the saints to pray with them for the poor souls in purgatory? If they invoked (recruited) their handful of favorite saints, what’s stopping us from building an enormous personal Holy Alliance of saints (as we learn about each one) by recruiting a new saint each day to pray with us? And, while our ancestors had a handful of deceased family and friends for which they prayed, what’s stopping us from going deeper in our family tree (as we learn about each one) by helping more and more generations of our family to reach heaven? These deceased relatives and friends (holy souls) would also be considered recruits in our Holy Alliance as they become “very grateful” holy souls who now pray for us because we prayed for them.

There is something special about invoking (recruiting) each of these saints and holy souls mano-a-mano (hand to hand — to give it in person) as opposed to a general calling out for “all the saints” or “all the holy souls.” The former is a more loving and personal act of reaching out to each saint and holy soul as we get to know him or her. The latter tends toward more of an impersonal, face-in-the-crowd relationship.

This means that on day one that you begin this practice of praying with a saint for a holy soul in purgatory, you grow from a force of one (just you) to a force of three (the saint you chose, the holy soul you prayed for, and you). On day two, you will add another saint and holy soul to your personal Holy Alliance, and grow to a force of five. And so on.

Different units and formations organize the military. It’s interesting to think that, as our Holy Alliance grows, it will be akin to these units:

Your Holy Alliance:

  • Fire team: 2-4
  • Squad: 8-13
  • Platoon: 26-55
  • Company: 80-225
  • Battalion: 300-1,300
  • Regiment: 3,000-5,000
  • Division: 10,000-15,000


Stealth Evangelization

This method only orders what we have been practicing together for centuries. It is hoped that this new order offers greater accessibility and spurs more to utilize the Sancta Sanctis! (“God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people!”) and pray each other into heaven.

Here is the plan for our daily “special ops mission” of search and rescue:

Step One: Choose a Saint and Holy Soul. First, choose a deceased loved one for whom you wish to pray into heaven. This can be a great nudge to get you to explore your family tree. Now, choose a saint to pray with you for your deceased loved one. You might choose a saint that was your loved one’s favorite saint, or you might pick the patron saint of fishing because your loved one liked to fish, or possibly the saint whose feast it is that day. Look on page 97 of this Field Manual to see a listing of over 400 saints. There is a checkbox alongside each saint name, which can be a great way for you to keep track of which saints you’ve recruited into your Holy Alliance. This devotion is a great opportunity to take the time to learn about each saint you are recruiting for your personal Holy Alliance. These days, that’s as simple as a quick Internet search to read a paragraph or two about your new recruit.

Step Two: Pray with your saint for your holy soul in purgatory by choosing one of the “Big Four” (Rosary, stations, scripture, or adoration) that allow for a plenary indulgence. Be sure the conditions are present for receiving a plenary indulgence (again, see page 267). If not, offer a partial indulgence that day for your holy soul in purgatory. (But always try your best to earn that one plenary indulgence offered each day.) Having offered an indulgence for a deceased loved one, that holy soul in purgatory now becomes a “grateful” holy soul who will now offer his/her prayers for you. Conclude your prayer with the St. Gertrude prayer.

Step Three: “Never Leave A Fallen Comrade.” After completing this indulgenced prayer, ask today’s grateful holy soul, today’s saint, and all those in your Holy Alliance to join you as you all pray together for a living loved one you believe needs to receive God’s grace to grow in faith, hope, and love — who, in some ways, is caught in the clutches of worldliness. Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy (see page 237). If the “fallen comrade” (living loved one) is a family member, add the “Prayer for Healing the Family Tree”. This can also be a great time to begin exploring your family tree.


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