How many ways are there to earn a plenary indulgence?
Before answering the question, might we review what an indulgence is and consider its effects. Having done that we can consider “how many ways” there are to “gain” a plenary indulgence.
The granting of indulgences is a part of Church’s life that is closely linked to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins. According to the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, which takes its explanation from the apostolic constitution of Pope Paul VI entitled The Doctrine of Indulgences, an indulgence is the removal of the temporal (earthly) punishment due to sins. This removal of punishment is accomplished by God, is granted when one’s sins have already been forgiven, and is completed when the person who seeks such removal of punishment fulfills certain prescribed conditions. This removal of temporal
punishment is given through the Church, who has been given by Christ the authority to forgive sins. There are two types of indulgences stated here, either partial (removing of some of this temporal punishment) and plenary (removing of all temporal punishment).
To make sense of this teaching, we first have to realize that our sins have two sets of consequences. On the one hand, our sin separates us from God. This
separation is mended through forgiveness. However, this does not remove the hurt that may remain—the other set of consequences. For example, if you
intentionally injure another, you can be forgiven of your sin—but that does not take away the injury. Likewise with our sins, God forgives our sins in confession, but this does not remove earthly consequences of sin. In a spiritual way, therefore, the granting of indulgences to one who makes an offering for the sake of removing these consequences can indeed be assured by the Church that removal of punishments from their soul has taken place.
The granting of indulgences, while it seems like a quick fix, must be understood in the context of faith. For it is by way of God’s grace, received through the offering of prayers or acts of penance that indulgences attached to such prayers or actions can remove temporal punishments. Many prayer books, for example, will list the proper portioned indulgence, such as “3 days” or “7 days” that are gained by praying the given prayers—these are partial indulgences. Plenary indulgences,
because these remove all punishments, require three conditions in addition to the prayer or action: sacramental confession, receiving communion, and prayers for the intentions of the Pope. One example of such is that of the plenary indulgence attached to the praying the Stations of the Cross when these three additional conditions are fulfilled within a timely fashion after praying the Stations—that is, within a few days. However, it is absolutely necessary to keep in mind that these indulgences are gained not to be “stored up” or as a “free pass”— but for the sake of drawing us closer to God, through His grace. In addition, the most fitting application for seeking
indulgences is for the sake of someone who has already died—that the removal of these punishments from their soul will then free them for life in heaven.
While the question here asks how many ways can we “earn” a plenary indulgence, it is truly better to think of these gifts of grace as being “gained,” as these are gifts of grace that are given and not understood as based upon merits earned. To the issue of “how many,” risk I say that such is a fluid number – as there are many plenary
indulgences that remain consistent and readily available (such as the example above of the Stations of the Cross) along with other particular opportunities that may be granted for a special occasion or circumstance by the Pope or a bishop (such as the pilgrimage through the Holy Door for the Year of Mercy). I, therefore, don’t know that I can give an exact number; however, there are many that are easily accessible to all of us. These accessible ways include such acts as praying in Eucharistic Adoration [either during Exposition or with the Sacrament enclosed in the tabernacle] for at least 30 minutes and the praying of the Rosary in a group with others. The Church allows us to gain one plenary indulgence every day – and thus with the many regular opportunities to receive these graces for ourselves or for others as an act of charity, we should be encouraged to take advantage of what is offered to us through Christ and His Church.