How Indulgences Work

August 8, 2021 • 5 min

From Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism, page 218

237 Q. What must we do to gain an indulgence?

A. To gain an indulgence we must be in a state of grace and perform the works enjoined.

“Works”—to visit certain churches or altars; to give alms; to say certain prayers; etc.

For a plenary indulgence it is required generally to go to confession and Holy Communion, and to pray for the intention of our Holy Father the Pope. When an indulgence may be gained by praying for the intention of our Holy Father, it will be sufficient to say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys for his intention.

Now, what does praying for the intention of the Pope or bishop or any one else mean? It does not mean that you are to pray for the Pope himself, but for whatever he is praying for or wishes you to pray for. For instance, on one day the Holy Father may be praying for the success of some missions that he is establishing in pagan lands; on another, he may be praying that the enemies of the Church may not succeed in their plans against it; on another, he may be praying for the conversion of some nation, and so on;—whatever he is praying for or wishes you to pray for is called his intention.

To gain an indulgence you should also have the intention of gaining it. There are many prayers that we sometimes say to which indulgences are attached, and we do not know it. How can we gain them? By making a general intention every morning while saying our prayers to gain all the indulgences we can during the day, whether we know of them or not.

For example, there is an indulgence of fifty days granted us every time we make the sign of the cross, being sorry for our sins; and if we make it with holy water we can gain one hundred days’ indulgence. Many may not know of these indulgences; but if they have the general intention mentioned above, they will gain the indulgence every time they perform tlie work. In the same way all those who are in the habit of going to confession and Holy Communion every week can gain all the plenary indulgences for which confession and Holy Communion are required conditions, and even when they do not know that they are gaining indulgences.

You sometimes see printed after a little prayer: An indulgence of forty days, or, an indulgence of one hundred days, or of a year, etc. What does that mean? Does it mean that a person who says that prayer will get out of purgatory forty days sooner than he would if he did not say it?

No. I told you how the early Christians were obliged to do public penance for their sins; to stand at the door of the church and beg the prayers of those entering. Sometimes their penance lasted for forty days, sometimes for one hundred days, and sometimes for a longer period. By an indulgence of forty days the Church grants the remission of as much of the temporal punishment as the early Christians would have received for doing forty days’ public penance.

Just how much of the temporal punishment God blotted out for forty days’ public penance we do not know; but whatever it was, God blots out just the same now for one who gains an indulgence of forty days by saying a little prayer to which the indulgence is attached.

But why, you may wonder, did the early Christians do such penances? Because in those days their faith was stronger than ours, and they understood better than we do the malice of sin and the punishment it deserves. Later the Christians grew more careless about their religion and the service of God. The Church therefore, wishing to save its children, made it easier for them to do penance. If it continued to impose the public penances, many would not perform them, and thus lose their souls.

Besides indulgences granted for saying certain prayers or doing certain good works, there are others granted for certain persons, places, or things. For instance, a pair of beads or a cross may have an indulgence attached which you can gain by using them. A church or altar may have an indulgence attached which you can gain by visiting them on certain days. A certain priest may have the power granted him by the Holy Father of blessing crosses, medals, etc., with special indulgences attached.

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