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The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471-1479 teaches us 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.” CCC 1472
An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. We can perform simple holy acts that sanctify us and compensate for the temporal punishment that we would otherwise have to experience. If we seek indulgences often, our soul may even be able to bypass purgatory and fly straight to heaven.
A partial indulgence remits temporal punishment; how much depends on the intensity of our love as we seek it. The general conditions for a partial indulgence include true contrition and at least the general intention to receive an indulgence. There are four general ways we can earn a partial indulgence: prayer, service, abstention, and witness to Catholic faith before others.
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation. Christ taught us to pray always, to remain at all times very close to Him, to think of Him constantly. St. Paul told us, Col 3:17 “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” We are to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are ordered to the glory of God. For example, we can display the crucifix and other religious articles at our desk to remind us that every decision we make should be illuminated by Christ’s law of love. Our homes should be filled with sacramentals to remind us constantly that our highest responsibility is to know, love, and serve Christ. Our scientific and technical efforts should serve Christ by improving the condition of all men and women, especially the poorest among us.
A partial indulgence is also granted to the Christian faithful who, prompted by a spirit of faith, devote themselves or their goods in compassionate service to their brothers and sisters in need. Christ wants us to provide food and clothing for the body and instruction and comfort for the soul. We should constantly seek out persons who need our help, and offer it to them. As Christ went first to the lost sheep of Israel, Mt 10:6 we first help our own families and friends, but we also are ready for strangers who may need our assistance. Christ loves the people we have never met as much as those we know well; since our highest responsibility is to Him, we need to help as many of those He loves as we can.
Also, a partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them. We are to hold our appetites in check to obtain mastery over our bodies, as Christ did. For example, Holy Mother Church asks us to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We can abstain from meat on Wednesdays as well. This excellence of self-control stands out more when combined with charity. We are to spend on virtue what we take from our pleasures, eat at less cost than we could and donate the difference to a charity that feeds the poor.
A plenary indulgence remits all of our accumulated temporal punishment. To receive it, we start by meeting the general conditions: We must worthily receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, pray for the Pope’s intentions, consciously seek the indulgence, and be completely detached even from venial sin. Then we must meet the specific conditions for that particular indulgence. However, Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution On Indulgences, 1967, norm 7, explains: “To acquire a plenary indulgence … it is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial.” If we commit even venial sin during acquisition the plenary indulgence reverts to a partial indulgence. We can accumulate enough partial indulgences to fully balance our temporal punishment on God’s scale of justice by living holy lives and seeking indulgences as often as we can.
Plenary indulgences available any day of the year include:
Recitation of the Marian rosary (5 decades, with meditation) in a church or oratory, or in a family, a religious community, an association of the faithful and, in general, when several people come together for an honorable purpose.
Piously reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour.
The pious exercise of the Way of the Cross (legitimately erected) with meditation on the Lord's Passion and Death.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour.
We can donate an indulgence to a soul in purgatory. That soul will sooner be received into heaven, where it will adore God and pray for its earthly benefactor. If the soul is already in heaven, God puts the indulgence in a spiritual treasury and uses it to help someone else in purgatory.
Since an indulgence remits the temporal punishment for sins already forgiven, no indulgence can ever apply to sins not yet committed. Also, we cannot donate an indulgence to a person still in earthly life.
Further: Pope John Paul II catechesis.
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