Indulgences explained in detail

i Catholic
Edited by Pat Miron
Indulgences Explained in Detail

Confused about Indulgences

Please forgive me, I was poorly catechized and I sometimes have trouble wrapping my head around cannon. I need layman’s terms

I am a bit confused about indulgences. I think I finally understand the difference between plenary and partial indulgences. But now I am trying to figure out how exactly does one earn or get an indulgence? If someone could, I would appreciate either having how to get an indulgence explained or I would appreciate a good link to a list?



Roman Catholic theology for Souls in Purgatory

Church teachings explain that individuals who experience trials and tribulations in this world by God’s grace may have them serve as their temporal punishment for forgiven sins (Catechism 1473); other individuals die without having served the full temporal punishment for their sins. These individuals do not have guilt for sin, because it has been forgiven either through reconciliation or perfect contrition before death, and therefore they will attain Heaven. However, they are not yet ready to enter Heaven, as their punishment has yet to be served. Therefore, these individuals “enter” Purgatory, and the punishment they owe is “purged.” The Church teaches that the souls in Purgatory desire to be there because they have realized that they are not yet ready to attain Heaven. Purgatory may be illustrated as a place of preparation for the deceased; they know they will enter Heaven, and Purgatory is a place in which the deceased are cleansed for God.

In Catholic theology, the salvation made possible by Jesus allows the faithful sinner eventual admittance to Heaven. Baptism forgives all of the baptized person’s existing sins; any sin committed after baptism incurs both guilt and a penalty that must be addressed. These are the sins addressed in reconciliation. With the act of penance after reconciliation, both the guilt and eternal punishment for the confessed sins are canceled, though not necessarily the entire temporal punishment. Furthermore, human beings by nature commit many venial, “light” sins daily which are unconfessed and, though they don’t break communion with God, do damage one spiritually, and temporal punishment remains for these. This punishment may be remitted in Purgatory, or by indulgence. The granting of an indulgence is the spiritual reassignment, as it were, of existing merit to an individual requiring that merit.

Indulgences occur when the Church, acting by virtue of its authority, applies existing merit from the Church’s treasury to an individual. The individual gains the indulgence by participating in certain activities, most often the recitation of prayers. By decree of Pope Pius V in 1567, following the Council of Trent, it is forbidden to attach the receipt of an indulgence to any financial act, including the giving of alms. In addition, the only punishment remitted by an indulgence is existing punishment, that is, for sins already committed. Indulgences do not remit punishment for future sins, as those sins have yet to be committed. Thus, indulgences are not a “license to sin” or a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card; they are a means for the sinner to “pay” the “wages” of sin.

Indulgences are “plenary” or “partial”:

“plenary” indulgences remit all of the existing temporal punishment due for the individual’s sins. An individual can only earn one plenary indulgence per day.

“partial” indulgences remit only a part of the existing punishment.

Before the Second Vatican Council, partial indulgences were stated as a term of days, weeks, months, or years. This has resulted in Catholics and non-Catholics alike believing that indulgences remit a specific period of time equal to the length of the soul’s stay in Purgatory. This was not true, rather the stated length of time actually indicated that the indulgence was equal to the amount of remission the individual would have earned by performing a canonical penance for that period of time. For example, the amount of punishment remitted by a “forty day” indulgence would be equal to the amount of punishment remitted by the individual performing forty days of penance.

The original reasoning for the “days” notation was, in the early days of the Church, a person’s only means of returning to the state of grace was performing penances equal to the actions he had committed. Because a person may not receive Eucharist while not in a state of grace, he must perform these penances if he wished to be Catholic. However, because some people had been professional thieves, prostitutes, or some other sinful individual, he would have to undergo hundreds of years of penance to get remission for his sins. To alleviate this, the Church instituted certain actions or prayers which would cleanse him for the amount of time noted.

In addition to remitting punishment for the individual’s own existing sins, an individual may perform the actions necessary to gain an indulgence with the intention of gaining the indulgence for a specific individual in Purgatory. [2 Mac. 12: 36-45] In doing so, the individual both gains the indulgence for the soul in Purgatory, and performs a spiritual act of mercy.

To gain an indulgence the individual must be “in communion” with the Church, and have the intention of performing the work for which the indulgence is granted. To be “in communion,” the individual must be a baptized Catholic without any un-reconciled mortal sins (if there are any un-reconciled mortal sins, the individual has cut himself/herself off from God and cannot receive the indulgence) and must not be dissenting from the Church’s teaching. The individual must also intend to receive the indulgence.

Generally, a plenary indulgence requires the following conditions in order to be valid (in addition to the acts performed to earn the indulgence).

reconciliation, which is required for all indulgences
receiving the Eucharist
All attachment to sin must be absent.
pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the intentions of the Pontiff is sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choice.

It is recommended that the Communion be received at Mass on the same day that the indulgence is earned. Reconciliation may be within a prudent period before or after the act (typically, one week, though during the Great Jubilee, the Vatican specifically allowed confession within three weeks of the act). Several indulgences may be earned under the same confession (reconciliation). If any of these additional conditions is missing, the plenary indulgence will instead be partial.

Penitential redemptions were a milder form of indulgence that cut down the time of penance.

Indulgenced acts

The following acts are examples of those which result in the award of an indulgence:

An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.
A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.
A plenary indulgence is granted when the rosary is recited in a church or oratory or when it is recited in a family, a religious community, or a pious association. A partial indulgence is granted for its recitation in all other circumstances.
A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
A partial indulgence is granted for the recitation of the Angelus.
A partial indulgence is granted to Christian faithful who on day of the liturgical feast of any saint recite in that Saint’s honor a prayer taken from the Missal or other prayer approved by legitimate authority.
A partial indulgence is granted for reading the Holy Scripture at least 15 minutes per day


What is an Indulgence?

To understand what an indulgence is, we have to know what our sin does to ourselves and the world. 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.


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.

II. 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 with our souls, it is much easier to do this repair work here. In Purgatory, our bodies and souls are separate. The suffering of Purgatory is always much more painful than suffering on earth because it’s harder to do the necessary repair work when the body isn’t around to help.

III. The Storehouse

John Cardinal 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… However, through God’s grace, the holiness of even the lowliest saint far exceeds the harm that even the greatest sinner could 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. When I perform an indulgenced act, I act in obedience to God through His Church. The Church responds to my obedience by making available the grace necessary to render my punishment unnecessary and heal the world. The effects of my sin in the world… can be brought to an end. A plenary indulgence heals all of the effects of one person’s sins. A partial indulgence heals part of the effects. I can win indulgences only for myself 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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471-1473)

First we must understand what indulgences are so we don’t lapse into superstition. To do this, basic concepts must be understood, but before we get to that, let’s get a basic definition:

“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.” (1983 Catechism ¶ 1471)

And here is what indulgences are not: they are not permission to commit sins in the future; they are not “get out of Hell free” cards; they are not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin. They have nothing to do with eternal salvation; they are only for the temporal effects of sins that have already been forgiven through Penance (or a perfect Act of Contrition, as the case may be).

Sin has two different types of effects — eternal and temporal

Sin has both eternal consequences and temporal consequences. As an example, if I were to take an innocent life, an objectively gravely sinful matter (one of the three conditions for mortal sin), under the subjective conditions of mortal sin (full knowledge, full consent of the will), and died unrepentant, I would go to Hell. My going to Hell would be the eternal consequence of my sin.

The temporal consequences of that sin range from the death of the innocent person; the suffering of my family who endured the shame and ramifications of my arrest and incarceration or enduring capital punishment; the effects of the loss of the innocent person on the family of the innocent person; the costs to the community of the loss of the innocent person; the costs to the community of litigation; the spiritual effects on the weaker members of the community whose view of the world and God’s Justice and Mercy could be affected knowing that innocent life can be taken so easily; the tarnishing of the image of the Body of Christ and the bringing of scandal upon the Church; the loss of grace in my soul and the predisposition to sin again as sin can become habitual, penance I would have to do to pay for the effects of my sin (this includes penance given to me during Confession, personal penance, and the penance assigned to me by God to be paid on earth and/or in Purgatory), etc

OK, let’s move on to the concepts involved here:

First we must understand what indulgences are so we don’t lapse into superstition. To do this, basic concepts must be understood, but before we get to that, let’s get a basic definition:

“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.” (1983 Catechism ¶ 1471)

If I were to repent and receive forgiveness through the Sacrament of Penance, the eternal consequences — satisfied for by Christ at Calvary — are no longer an issue (Deo gratias!) because I receive the effects of His atoning Sacrifice (I will have been justified) when I reconcile with the Church through a good Confession. But I still have to pay for the temporal consequences of my sin because God is not only merciful, He is just. An example I use in the Apologetics area of this site is that of a child who steals a candy bar and then tearfully, with true contrition, confesses his crime to his parent. The parent, being loving and good and merciful, as our Father in Heaven is, will forgive that child and allow the child back in the parent’s “good graces” — but he will also still expect the child to pay back the store from which he stole. Another example is the common one of, say, an imprisoned murderer repenting and coming to know Christ — but who still must serve out his time in prison or give up his life as punishment.

The temporal effects of repented sins that are not paid for in life through the effects of natural law, personal penance, penance given by the priest at Confession, or mystical penances given to me by God, are paid for in Purgatory. St. Augustine, in City of God (A.D. 419), sums up Catholic thinking on such things:

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment [i.e. when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead]. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment.

Purgation — the process of making satisfaction for debt caused by sin so that we may become perfect, divinized, and enter Heaven — is quite Scriptural, of course. Allusions to purgation are found all over the Bible; but it is summed up most clearly in the following two verses:

Matthew 5:25-26
Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15
Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire. And the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any mans work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

The temporal effects of sin affect others not only in natural, but in mystical ways

As far back as the Old Testament, it is made clear that the temporal effects of sin affect others who may not have committed personal sin. The greatest and first example is that of the sin of Adam and Eve which resulted in the fall of man from grace and in his propensity for corruption and personal sin which we call “original sin.”

The Pentateuch (i.e. Torah, the first five Books of the Bible) also speaks of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children:

Exodus 20:5 …I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.

I Corinthians 12:26 demonstrates that what affects one member of the Body affects another: And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.

These concepts seem foreign to those who live in the modern Western world’s radically individualistic culture, but they are Scriptural fact. They may seem “unfair” (as though life with our fallen nature is supposed to be fair), but that it is true is obvious by looking at the often sad lives of the poor children of “crack-whores,” or the parents of those who tend to end up in and out of Juvenile Hall, etc. This is not to say that those who suffer the consequences of their ancestors’ sins are doomed! No! All are called to Christ and His Church, and Jesus will judge us as individuals by looking at our hearts, wills, deeds, and intellect, taking into consideration factors which mitigate culpability. Nonetheless, the basic idea that our sins affect others not only in obvious temporal ways, but in mystical ways, is Bibilical.

All of these temporal punishments, though painful, are merciful. Without discipline and punishment from God, we would continue in our ways, remain unrepentant, and then suffer the eternal consequences of doing so. A father who does not discipline his children is a bad father who is setting up his child for greater troubles down the road. God, though, is a good Father:

Hebrews 12:5-11 And have you forgotten the consolation which speaks to you, as unto children saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord: neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by Him. For whom the Lord loves, He chastises: and He scourges every son whom he receives. But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, not sons. Moreover, we have had fathers of our flesh for instructors, and we reverenced them. Shall we not much more obey the Father of spirits and live? And they indeed for a few days, according to their own pleasure, instructed us: but He, for our profit, that we might receive His sanctification. Now all chastisement for the present indeed seems not to bring with it joy but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield to them that are exercised by it the most peaceable fruit of justice.

Grace and good works affect others in the same way

Continue reading the Exodus 20 Torah portion mentioned above:

Exodus 20:5-6 …I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.

The good we do, by the grace of Christ, ripples out into the universe and builds up His Body:

Colossians 1:23-24 If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven: whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church…

When we cooperate with grace — when we pray, give alms, fast, offer up our sufferings, etc. — we literally strengthen the Body of Christ in a mystical way! Christ Himself and all the Saints of 2,000 years (by the grace of Christ) have built up His Mystical Body and laid up a “treasury of merit” or “spiritual treasury,” as it is also called. In the same way we or others detract from the Body of Christ through sin, we and others add to this treasury — and receive the fruits thereof when we receive an indulgence, for we are one in the Body of Christ:

Romans 7:5 We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another

And read once again I Corinthians 12:26: And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.

The Church was given the power to bind and loose

To Peter was given the Keys to the Kingdom (Matthew 16: 15-19) and the power of binding and loosing (forbidding/permitting, condemning/acquitting). In exercising this power of the Keys, the Church has the authority to determine certain practices which help us to benefit from the treasury of merit and alleviate the temporal effects of sins we’ve confessed and are already forgiven for. This is an indulgence.

That the Church was given the power to forgive the eternal effects of sin through the Sacrament of Penance makes it easier to understand how the Church also has the power to alleviate the lesser, temporal effects of sin. The Church whose priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive the guilt of sin and thereby, by the Blood of Christ, eliminate the eternal punishments for sin, surely also has the authority to pardon the temporal punishments of sin.

The Good parent and child Holy Mother Church and child
the parent forgives the child for stealing and allows the child back into his good graces
the child desires to pay back the store (“make satisfaction” for his debt)
the child turns to his parent for help in making satisfaction for his debt to the store. The child doesn’t have the money to pay back the store, but to the parent, the cost of the candy bar is nothing
the good parent says that if the child is truly contrite and truly desires to make satisfaction for the debt, he can earn enough to pay for some of the candy bar if he does X, or enough to pay for all of the candy bar if he does Y
the child does X or Y
the good parent follows through on his promise, helping the child pay for his crime by opening his wallet and giving the child some or all of the money to pay back the store.

Now, suppose there are two children. One child steals the candy bar and then dies. The other child — his brother, say — wants to help pay his dead brother’s debt, so he pays back the store in the name of his dead brother.

In this way, the Catholic can offer the benefits of the indulgence to the souls in Purgatory. Indulgences can only be applied to oneself or to a soul in Purgatory, not to another living person. When applied to the souls in Purgatory, it is done only by petition to God, for those no longer of the Church Militant (the living members of the Church on Earth) are not subject to the Church hierarchs who’ve been given the authority to grant indulgences.

Indulgences are either Partial or Plenary

An indulgence can be either partial, which remits only some of the temporal punishment due to sin, or plenary, which remits all temporal punishment due to sin.

Partial Indulgences:

Partial indulgences can be acquired as often as one desires. To gain a partial indulgence, one must do the following. These are “the usual conditions” for receiving a partial indulgence:
be in a state of grace (free of mortal sin). A good Confession isn’t otherwise necessary, but a contrite heart for even venial sin is.

intend to receive the indulgence
perform the prescribed action of the indulgence
There are three General Grants of partial indulgences and many Special Grants.

The General Grants:

First General Grant:
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.
Second General Grant:
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.
Third General Grant:
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.

Special Grants:

indulgenced prayers, either recited alone, alternately with a companion, or by following it mentally as another recites it
indulgenced works, such as the devout use of a properly blessed article of devotion (Crucifix, Rosary, scapulars, or medals), reading Scripture, making the Sign of the Cross, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, etc.


Plenary Indulgences can be acquired only once each day for the same work (unless one is at the moment before death, in which case he may acquire another. Another exception is on All Souls Day — November 2 — when the faithful may gain a plenary indulgence, only for the souls in Purgatory, as often as they want). Plenary indulgences are much more demanding than partial indulgnces, for they require one to do the following. These are “the usual conditions” for receiving a plenary indulgence:

have the intention of gaining the indulgence
receive the Sacrament of Penance (within several days before or after the prescribed action of the indulgence, though the same day is best, if possible)
receive the Eucharist (within several days before or after the prescribed action of the indulgence, though the same day is best, if possible)
pray 6 Paters (Our Fathers), 6 Aves (Hail Marys), and 6 Glorias (Glory Bes) for the intentions of the Holy Father (within several days before or after the prescribed action of the indulgence, though the same day is best, if possible). The most recent Enchiridion prescribes at least one of each, but 6 is the traditional number.
perform the prescribed action of the indulgence. If the prescribed action of the indulgence requires a visit to a church or oratory, one must visit devoutly and recite 1 Our Father and the Creed. This doesn’t refer to any visits to a church for Confession or the Eucharist in order to fulfill the requirements listed above; it refers to such indulgences as those granted to the faithful for visiting a church on the day of its consecration, visiting their parochial church on its titular feast day, visiting the stational churches of Rome, etc.
be free from all attachment to venial sin
This last is most difficult, but if it can’t be fulfilled, a partial indulgence will be gained.

Some examples of ways to gain a plenary indulgence:

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one hour
Making the Way of the Cross or, if unable to get to a church, the pious meditation and reading on the Passion and Death of Our Lord for a half an hour
Private recitation of five decades of the Rosary. This must be done vocally, continuously, and while meditating on the Mysteries
Public recitation of five decades of the Rosary. This must be done vocally, continuously, and with the Mysteries announced out loud and meditated on.
A plenary indulgence is granted on each Friday of Lent to the faithful who after Communion piously recite before an image of Christ crucified the prayer: “Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus.” On the other days of the year the indulgence is partial.
A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who renew their baptismal promises in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil
A plenary indulgence is granted when an Act of Consecration is publicly recited on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
A plenary indulgence is received by those who publicly make the Act of Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart on the Feast of Christ the King (last Sunday in October per the traditional calendar, last Sunday of Pentecost per the Novus Ordo calendar)
A pious visit to a church, a public or chapel on All Souls’ Day (November 2) with the prayers of one Our Father and the Creed; this indulgence is applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory.
A devout visit to a cemetery with a prayer, even if only mental, for the departed souls, from the first to the eighth day of November.

With any of these indulgences, one’s confessor (i.e., the priest one goes to for the Sacrament of Penance, not just any priest) may commute the work or conditions of receiving them if there is hardship.

The complete list of indulgenced prayers and works are contained in a book called the “Raccolta” or the “Enchiridion” (pronounced “en-ki-RID-ee-un” and which means “handbook” or “manual.”) There are other enchiridia for other purposes, but if one speaks of “the Enchiridion” with no qualifiers, one generally means the Raccolta.

When looking at an old Enchiridion, or when reading old prayer books, one might see a period of time attached to a partial indulgence, e.g. “indulgence of 100 days.” This number indicates an amount of time of penance one was given in the early Church after a Confession, i.e., the priest would give someone a penance of a certain amount of time before he could be fully re-admitted into the Church (penances were much harsher back then!). After 1968, the indication of days in such a manner was done away with because it was not clear to some uneducated persons that the days did not refer to “time in Purgatory” Some were under the very mistaken impression that, say, “indulgence of 100 days” meant that one would spend 100 fewer days in Purgatory instead of its true meaning: that performing the prescribed action amounts to doing a penance of 100 days

Well My friend,

I hope you find this information useful?

If you’d like to be added to my weekly mailing list let me know. We cover a very broad range of topics covering our Catholic Faith, and I’ll respond personally to any and questions or concerns that you may have.

God Bless,


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