As we know, God desires to forgive us of sins (and we hopefully are seeking to forgive each other). However, in many cases the forgiveness of a sin does not remove the damage done. Whenever we sin there are wounds inflicted upon our own souls and those of others, called “temporal punishments,” that also have need of healing. Toward the healing of these wounds, the Church offers us an important remedy that aids in the restoring of our souls in the life of grace by removing temporal punishments toward perfecting our souls – these remedies are called “indulgences.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an “indulgence” is the removal of the temporal (earthly) punishment of sins that are already forgiven. This removal of punishment is accomplished by the Church through the ministry of “binding and loosing” as given to her by Christ for the forgiving of sins. An indulgence is completed when the person fulfills certain prescribed conditions – usually involving prayer or related acts of faith. There are two types of indulgences: those which are “partial” (removing some of the temporal punishments), and those that are “plenary” (removing all temporal punishments).
Our sins have two sets of consequences. First, our sins separate us from God; forgiveness of sin in confession heals this separation. However, sins also inflict harm on our own soul as well as on others – which may remain even after we have been forgiven. As a comparison: if one intentionally causes physical injury to another, forgiveness (though essential) does not heal the injury inflicted. So too with sins: God forgives our sins in confession, but forgiveness does not necessarily remove the wounds inflicted. In a spiritual way, receiving an indulgence is a way toward removing the wounds or punishments from one’s own soul or from the souls of others toward more complete healing.
The reception of an indulgence usually takes the form of particular prayers or pious acts carried out with the intent to make reparation for sins. Please know: indulgences must be understood in the context of faith and not as a quick fix. It is by way of God’s grace that one receives through the offering of prayers or acts of penance that indulgences remove temporal punishments. You may have seen prayer books, for example, that list a proper portioned indulgence, such as “3 days” or “7 days” that are gained by praying the given prayers—these are called “partial indulgences.” Such partial indulgences are viewed in terms of reducing time in purgatory by that length of time. Meanwhile, “plenary indulgences” are able to remove all punishments. Plenary indulgences usually require three additional conditions beyond the given prayer or action: that the person make a good confession, that they receive Holy Communion, and that the person pray for the intentions of the Pope. As an example: by praying a Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, a plenary indulgence can be gained when the three other conditions are fulfilled in a timely fashion of praying that Rosary—that is, within a few days. However, these indulgences are not meant to be gained to be “stored up” or as a “free pass”—but are for the sake of drawing us closer to God in grace. In addition, it is very fitting as an act of love of neighbor to seek indulgences for the sake of someone who has already died—that the removal of any punishments on their soul will free them from purgatory for life in heaven.
Thus, minding the primary importance of confession for forgiveness, we also acknowledge that God can more fully heal us through such indulgences – that even the effects of our sins would be healed, uniting us more perfectly to Him in love.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1471-1479 speak of indulgences and the right reception of them.