Most people do not understand indulgences, including many Catholics. Many think that indulgences are a thing of the past, and even a doctrinal error that has been done away with. This is too bad because many grace filled opportunities are lost due to this ignorance.
Before I explain what an indulgence is, let me explain what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor is it a pardon of future sin. It does not prevent temptation or remove the possibility of future sin. It is not an exemption from any law or duty. It does not redeem someone who merits damnation (the damned go to Hell, and the redeemed go to Heaven, or, if they need purification, to Purgatory). Most of all, an indulgence is not the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer's salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.
These ideas are the product of abuses that were introduced by men, that were many times very pious and zealous, but unfortunately, were also very misinformed. One of the most notorious abuses was the so-called "sale of indulgences," which was one of the factors that led to the Protestant Reformation. At no time could someone buy an indulgence; however, in the past, indulgences were attached to the giving of alms to some charitable funds and foundations. At that time, abuses involving indulgences were widespread. To correct these abuses, the Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and in 1567, Pope St. Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions. Although there has been abuses involving indulgences, even at its worse corruption, sincere Christians sought indulgences with a right spirit, and sincere priests insist on the need of true repentance in obtaining them.
An indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin that has been forgiven, and is an exercise of the Church's authority to bind and loose.
The following illustration will make this clearer: If a young person hits a baseball through a neighbour's window by accident, the right thing for that young person to do is to confess the accident to his neighbour. If the neighbour is just, he will forgive the young person, but that does not mean that the young person does not have to pay for a new window.
God is just, and when we bring our sins to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, he forgives them, but this does not mean that we do not have to pay the penalty of our sins. The guilt of our sins is forgiven, but this does not release us from the temporal punishment due to sins. God graciously allows us to enter Purgatory so we can atone for our sins and be cleansed. This cleansing allows us to enter heaven.
The souls in Purgatory are not without our help. We can pray for them, and we can also gain for them a pardon of the temporal punishment due for their sins.
Christ said to St. Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19). And, little later he said to all of the apostles, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18). With these words, Christ gave the Church the power to pardon the temporal punishment due to sins. This pardon is called an indulgence (cf. Cannons 992 & 995 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law).
An indulgence can only be applied to the one seeking the indulgence, or to a soul in Purgatory; it cannot be applied to another living person (cf. Canon 994 of the Code of Canon Law). It does not have to be applied to a specific soul, but can simply be offered to God, who will distribute it. Gaining an indulgence for a soul in Purgatory is considered an outstanding act of supernatural charity.
An indulgence can be partial or plenary. A partial indulgence reduces only a certain portion of the penalty of sin, but a plenary indulgence grants the total remission of the temporal punishment due to sin so that no further atonement is required in Purgatory (cf. Cannon 993 of the Code of Canon Law).
As described below, it is not difficult to gain an indulgence; although it is not without effort. Many times, one can gain a partial indulgence for a work that one already normally does daily, such as praying the Rosary, simply by intending to gain the indulgence.
With a little more effort, a plenary indulgence can be gained. The most obvious obligations for gaining a plenary indulgence that require more effort are being free from all attachment to sin, and frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Being free from all attachment to sin, particularly venial sin, is a very difficult, but not impossible, requirement to meet. If there is some attachment to sin, the indulgence is only partial. However, frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the best ways to free one's self from attachment to sin; as is frequently receiving the Eucharist, which is also a requirement for a plenary indulgence.
If one is able to free himself from all attachment to sin, it is very easy to regularly gain a plenary indulgence. For example, if one goes to Confession once a month, assists at Sunday Mass, and reads the Bible or goes to Adoration for at least half of an hour during the week, one can gain 52 plenary indulgences a year. If one goes to weekday Mass, a plenary indulgence can be gained every day of the year, as long as a prescribed word is also done daily.
Regularly gaining indulgences, be they partial or plenary, for the souls in Purgatory is, as I already stated, an outstanding act of supernatural charity; however, it also has an added benefit for the one seeking the indulgence. The requirements for gaining an indulgence, especially a plenary indulgence, are excellent spiritual exercises, and a tremendous source of spiritual growth. Just the frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation would cause many graces in a person's life, not to mention the spiritual growth from the prescribed works, and attempting to be free of all attachment to sin.
It must be said, though, that one must approach indulgences with a right spirit. Superstition and insincerity will prevent the indulgence from being gained, and will be a detriment instead of a benefit. Just as an absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is invalid and ineffectual if the penitent is not contrite and sincere.
With the information below, I hope that you will look for opportunities to gain indulgences, both for yourself, and for those in Purgatory.
Any Catholic in good standing can gain a partial indulgence by performing a prescribed work while in the state of grace (free from mortal sin that has not been confessed and forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation) with the intention of gaining the indulgence. More than one partial indulgence can acquired per day, unless specifically indicated otherwise.
Any Catholic in good standing can gain a plenary indulgence by performing the following steps while in the state of grace (free from mortal sin that has not been confessed and forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and free from all attachment to sin (even venial sin) with the intention of gaining the indulgence:
Only one plenary indulgence may be gained per day, except in articulo mortis (at the approach of death).
Note: In the Great Jubilee Year 2000, the 8 day norm was relaxed to "about 20" days. Some say this was only specific to the Jubilee Indulgence; however, a communication received by EWTN from the Apostolic Penitentiary states that this relaxation remains in effect.
This being said, I suggest following the older 8 day norm. This would mean going to confession every two weeks even though the new norm says you only need to go every five weeks to be able to gain as many plenary indulgences as possible. Of course, once a month would fit nicely into the 20 day norm. However, I find much spiritual growth following the example of a great many saints, including Bl. Pope John Paul II, in going weekly to confession. That is, unless something prevents me, I go to confession every Friday or Saturday. This is usually before Mass, which, unless something prevents me, I assist at every day (usually twice on Sundays).
Most pious works have an indulgence attached to them. Although there are more, the Handbook of Indulgences lists 70 such works, of which the following have plenary indulgences attached to them:
3. Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament for at least one half an hour.
11. Visit one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome on its titular feast, any holy-day of obligation, or once a year, on any other day of one's choice, and recite one Our Father and the Creed.
12. Receive a Papal Blessing imparted to Rome and the World, even by radio or television transmission.
13. From the 1st to the 8th of November, visit a cemetery and pray, even if only mentally, for the departed. Indulgence is applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory.
17. On Good Friday, Adoration of the Cross during the solemn liturgy.
22. On each Friday of Lent and Passiontide, recite the prayer "Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus" before an image of Christ crucified.
23. Participate in the Closing Mass of a Eucharistic Congress.
25. Attend the spiritual exercises of a retreat for at least three whole days.
26. On the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, publicly recite "Most sweet Jesus -- Act of Reparation."
27. On the solemnity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the King, devoutly recite the "Act of Dedication to Christ the King."
28. At the Moment of Death, provided one is properly disposed and has been in the habit of reciting some prayers during his lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross to gain this indulgence is praiseworthy. Can be acquired even if one has already obtained another plenary indulgence on the same day.
35. On the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, use an Article of Devotion blessed by the Pope or by any Bishop, and make a profession of faith according to any legitimate formula.
41. Attend a Mission where one hears some of the sermons and is present for the solemn close of the Mission.
42. Receive Communion for the first time, or assist at the sacred ceremonies of a First Communion.
43. Assist at the First Mass of newly-ordained Priests. The priest also obtains the plenary indulgence.
48. Recitation of the Marian Rosary in a church, or public oratory, or in a family group, a religious Community, or pious Association. Five decades must be recited continuously. The vocal recitation must be accompanied by pious meditation on the mysteries. In public recitation the mysteries must be announced in the manner customary in the place.
49. Assist at a Jubilee Mass where a priest celebrates the 25th, 50th, or 60th anniversary of his Ordination and renews before God his resolve to fulfill faithfully the duties of his vocation
50. Reading of Sacred Scripture for at least one half an hour.
56. Visit one of the Stational Churches of Rome on its stational day as indicated in the Roman Missal, and assist at a sacred functions celebrated in the morning or evening.
58. Visit a church in which a Diocesan Synod is being held, and recite one Our Father and the Creed.
59. On Holy Thursday and on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, recite "Down in adoration falling."
60. On the last day of the year, publicly recite the hymn "Te Deum."
61. On the 1st of January and on the feast of Pentecost, publicly recite the hymn "Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest."
63. Exercise of the Way of the Cross before stations that have been legitimately erected. Nothing more is required than a pious meditation on the Passion and Death of the Lord, which need not be a particular consideration of the individual mysteries of the stations. A movement from one station to the next is required; however, if it is not possible for all taking part to go in an orderly way from station to station, it suffices if at least the one conducting the exercise goes from station to station, the others remaining in their place.
65. Visit a Parish Church on its titular feast or on the 2nd of August, when the indulgence of the "Portiuncula" occurs.
66. Visit a Church or an Altar on the day of its consecration and recite one Our Father and the Creed.
67. On All Souls Day, visit a church or oratory and recite one Our Father and the Creed. Indulgence is applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory.
68. Visit a Church or Oratory of Religious on the Feast of the Holy Founder and recite one Our Father and the Creed.
69. During the time of a Pastoral Visitation, visit a church or an oratory and assist at a sacred function at which the Visitator presides. Can be gained once only.
70. During the Paschal Vigil or on the anniversary of one's baptism, renewal baptismal promises according to formula in use.
There are other works not listed in the Handbook of Indulgences that have plenary indulgences attached to them. Some are only temporary, such during the year 2000 when the Jubilee Year Indulgence was attainable. Some are more obscure, such as receiving the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for the first time, enrol in the Militia Immaculatae movement, and on the day of one's OFS profession. Others are new, such as on Divine Mercy Sunday, when one take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy in any church or chapel; or, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, one recites the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus. With some investigation, one would find that most pious works have either a partial or plenary indulgence attached to them.
NOTE: to assist means to be present at and participate in the particular function.