"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plenary Indulgences – But Were Afraid to Ask!

The Catholic Church is blessed with a richness of tradition that spans thousands of years.  Many of us11062010326 – especially those of us who are converts – have heard about these traditions, but we don’t always understand their significance.  For me, one such tradition was the plenary indulgence.  During the month of November, we have many opportunities to obtain indulgences (either full or partial).  But what does this mean?  And what do we need to do in order to obtain an indulgence?

Keeping this in mind, I have tried to answer a number of questions that you might have about plenary indulgences and why we undertake this special devotion on behalf of ourselves and the souls of the faithful departed.

What is a plenary indulgence?

A plenary indulgence is the full or partial remission of the temporal punishment (i.e. the suffering that occurs either in this life or in purgatory) that is due for sins that we have committed.  We can seek this indulgence for ourselves, or on behalf of a person who has already died.

How do you receive a plenary indulgence?

You can receive a plenary indulgence by visiting holy sites, such as a cemetery, or by attending special events such as World Youth Day. During the Year of Faith (which ends on November 24th, 2013), the faithful can obtain a plenary indulgence by visiting certain specified churches in the diocese of Calgary that are dedicated to Mary.1 Other means include reading Sacred Scripture, reciting the Rosary, taking part in the Way of the Cross, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Divine Mercy Devotion, etc.2 You can only receive an indulgence once a day, and only if certain conditions are met.

What are the conditions for receiving an indulgence?

You must be in a state of grace (that is, without serious sin) at the time the indulgenced work is completed. If possible, the following conditions should take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed:


  • Go to Confession.
  • Have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin.
  • Receive Holy Communion.
  • Pray for the intentions of the pope. The Holy Father’s prayer intentions can be found at http://www.apostleshipofprayer.org/2013english.html.

If it is not possible to meet these conditions on the particular day, it is sufficient to carry them out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act.

Do I need to fulfill these conditions each time I would like to receive a plenary indulgence?

One sacramental Confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and a separate prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions are required for each plenary indulgence.

What is the difference between a full and a partial indulgence?

When a person receives a full plenary indulgence, it is as though the person has just been baptized and would go immediately to heaven if he died in that instant.  If a soul in purgatory receives the benefit of a full plenary indulgence, their soul would be immediately taken up into heaven. A partial indulgence means that only a part of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sins is remitted.

Doesn’t the Sacrament of Reconciliation do the same thing as a plenary indulgence?

Although sacramental absolution forgives the eternal guilt of sin, it doesn’t necessarily remove all the temporal punishment.  Depending on our degree of sorrow, absolution may result in the atonement of all the temporal guilt of sin.  However, if there is any part that it does not repair, we must offer further reparation.  This can take the form of prayer, penance, carrying the Cross etc., or it can happen after death by being purified in purgatory.

holy_soulsHow does the plenary indulgence work?

The EWTN Network explains the plenary indulgence as follows:

“What an Indulgence does is to take an occasion of such expiation (a certain prayer, penance, charity or other designated work) and add to its intrinsic merit before God an additional value based on the treasury of merits of Jesus Christ, and those perfectly united to Him in heaven (the saints). This can either partially – or under certain conditions, totally – remit the temporal punishment due to sin. This depends, naturally, on our openness to God’s grace. A mechanical performance of an indulgenced work would not have effect. Performing an indulgenced work should have the consequence of fixing our will away from our sins and entirely on God. This is why among the most important of the conditions for receiving a plenary indulgence – and the hardest to satisfy – is the complete detachment or detestation of our sins. By detesting our sins, we orient our will away from creatures (to the degree we love them inordinately) towards God. In this way we open our will to the action of His mercy flowing into our souls, which alone is able to effect the complete remission of the temporal punishment to our sins.”3

 Still confused?

Perhaps this little story will help. “A boy is playing ball and he breaks one of the windows in his home. Contrite and sorrowful, he goes to his father, who forgives him. However, although the boy has been forgiven, the window is still broken and must be repaired. Since the boy doesn’t have enough money to pay for a new window, the father requires him to pay a few dollars from his savings and forego some of his allowance for several weeks. He, the father, will pay the rest. This balances justice and mercy (generous love). To ask the boy to do nothing, when it is possible for him to make some reparation, would not be in accordance with the truth, or even the boy’s good. But even this temporal debt is beyond the boy’s possibilities. Therefore, from his own treasury the father generously makes up what the child cannot provide. This is indulgence. Unlike the theologies that say, “We are washed in the blood of the Lamb and there is nothing left to do,” Catholic teaching respects the natural order of justice, as Jesus clearly did in the Gospels.  At the same time, we recognize that man cannot foresee or undo all the temporal consequences of his sin. However, God in His mercy will satisfy justice for what we cannot repair.”4

–  Sharon van der Sloot

1 For more information, go to http://www.calgarydiocese.ca/the-centennial-year/centennial-pilgrimages.html.

2 A complete list of plenary indulgences (The Enchiridion of Indulgences, issued by the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, 1968) can be found at http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/indulgw.php.

3 The Divine Mercy Devotion, “What is an Indulgence?” EWTN Global Catholic Network; available from http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/mercy/what.htm; Internet; accessed 15 October 2013.

4 Cf. Ibid.


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