Before explaining the meaning of indulgence according to the catholic religion, it is important to start from the concept of Sin. Every time a worshipper offends God, disregarding his teachings, he commits a Sin. There are two different categories: the original and the actual Sin.
The original Sin was committed by Adam who disobeyed God and it is inherited by each man at his birth and cancelled through the sacrament of Baptism.
The actual Sin, on the other hand, is committed willingly through “thoughts, words, deeds and omissions” and it is divided into two further categories: the mortal and the venial Sin.
The mortal and the venial Sin
The mortal Sin consists of a severe disobedience to the law of God, committed with resolute will. Cursing against God, not taking part in the Sunday church service and adopting a lifestyle against the Christian precepts are some examples of mortal Sins. The only way to re-earn God’s mercy after committing a mortal Sin is to rue through sacramental confession.
The venial Sin also consists of a disobedience to the law of God but with no awareness nor consent when committing the Sin. In this case, regret and good deeds are sufficient to prove repentance with no need to draw upon the sacramental confession.
What is the temporal punishment?
A Sin always implies a detachment from God and therefore the eternal punishment which can be cancelled through the sacramental confession. To obtain true forgiveness it is necessary to purify the soul by an atonement consisting in the temporal punishment. A sinner who proves sincere repentance can have the consequences of his sin cancelled thanks to the doctrine of indulgence.
What is indulgence? Historical overview
Indulgence is a total or partial absolution of the temporal punishment. Its implementation has changed throughout time and can be divided into four main phases. Initially, from the apostolic age to the 8th century, indulgence could be obtained through martyrs’ supplication at the point of death.
They asked the bishops to cancel the temporal sin of one or more penitents in their writings (supplices belli Martyrum). The martyrs’ sacrifice relieved the sinners from the burdensome path of public penance to obtain the redemption of sins. Also those who had refused faith and were condemned to severe punishments could ask the bishops indulgence sending them a sort of recommendation letter (libellum pacis) by means of their confessors. Since the 8th century, punishments became less strict and, above all, the path of penance became private, allowing also those who took part in Crusades or in a pilgrimage such as the first Jubilee to obtain Indulgence. In that occasion Pope Boniface VIII gave indulgence to pilgrims visiting Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Basilicas. The third phase goes from the 14th to the 16th century when the Church overindulged in giving indulgences that were often bought with money that was supposed to represent the sinners’ repentance. Exactly those indulgences obtained through money payment led Martin Luther to start his Protestant Reformation (1517). The catholic Church put an end to “the market for indulgences” at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which was convened in the attempt to reconcile the catholic and the protestant Churches forbidding the collecting of aims and repealing the figure of professional pardoners (quaestores in Latin).
The forth and last phase is the contemporary age which started with the Council of Trent and was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI’s Reform (1967) which definitively ruled the concession of indulgences by means of the “Indulgentiarum doctrina et usus”.
Plenary and partial indulgence
Plenary indulgence (from Latin plenus) frees the sinner from the whole burden of the temporal punishment hailed from his sins. It is an extraordinary concession given in special occasions such as the Jubilee, or during a papal election as it happened for Pope Francis. Before 2000, to receive Indulgence, believers had to be physically present in Saint Peter’s square at the moment of the new Pope’s benediction or go to Rome during a Jubilee and visit Saint Peter and Paul’s Basilicas. John Paul II put an end to this custom, granting plenary indulgence also to those connected via Radio or Television
Partial indulgence is given by the ecclesiastical authority to those sinners who proved to have distanced themselves from the evil by asking for God’s forgiveness, by making themselves at the service of the others or by willingly deprive themselves of a pleasure, proving their spirit of sacrifice in the name of God.
Plenary Indulgence: how it works
In order to receive the plenary indulgence you must be catholic and baptised, of course, and therefore freed from Adam’s original Sin. You must also confess and take part in the Holy communion within 7 days before or after the benediction. Obviously, praying according to the Pope’s intentions is also essential.