What is a plenary indulgence?
The granting of indulgences is a part of the Church’s life that is closely linked to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins. According to the Catechism, 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), or 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. Thus, praying the Stations of the Cross gains a plenary indulgence when these three conditions are fulfilled within a timely fashion of 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.
to remember the particular intention for a given Mass, along with many others persons and prayer intentions. To that end, I recognize how I am much more attentive to praying the Mass for the assigned intention (as this deliberate pause helps me keep the intention at the front of my mind), while also keeping in mind those people or needs that any have asked me to pray for in the present day. It is a beautiful way to bring to mind and heart even more persons and needs at every Mass – more than the other Eucharistic prayers will naturally allow – and therefore, I hope you will continue to grow in your own hearing/meditating upon this prayer as it is prayed, especially by bringing your own intentions to mind in silence in these moments of pausing and calling to mind persons whom we love.