Plenary Indulgences Are Possible

I love All Souls’ Day. I’m a few days late, but yes, I meant All Souls’, not All Saints’. One of the best things about All Saints’ Day is that it acknowledges that, although the Church has canonized thousands of saints, there are many more that we will never know. I always feel a little awkward when people refer to uncanonized/unrecognized saints with the title “saint,” though, since that technically only applies now if it was given officially, but I digress.

photo by Niall McAuley

I have a devotion to the holy souls in purgatory, but I don’t talk about it very often because it’s more foreign than one to a saint. I think that means I’m going to end up in purgatory someday (if I don’t go straight to hell), so I need to build up as large a reserve as possible of saints I helped pray out of purgatory who will do the same for me. All Souls’ Day, therefore, being dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory, is one of my favorite feast days.

This year, I decided to make All Souls’ Day special by working on an indulgence. Any world history class will note that one of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation was controversy over the practice of “selling” indulgences. Most such classes won’t bother to mention that the main problem was abuse, not theology. There was an indulgence attached to almsgiving, so it would have appeared to anyone that you could buy your way out of time in purgatory. In the first place, that’s not what they were doing; and in the second place, purgatory doesn’t actually have time, so you can’t get measurable “time off for good behavior.”

The second problem with secular discussions of indulgences is that they make very few people realize that (a) they still exist, and (b) they’ve been reformed. Purgatory is no longer discussed as though it has time, which is good because even secular scientists acknowledge that time is a distinctly human concept. There are two categories of indulgences instead, partial and plenary. To get an indulgence, you must do the indulgenced act, receive the Eucharist, pray for the Holy Father, and go to Confession. Ideally, you’d do them all on the same day, but the Confession requirement in particular has been expanded to within 20 days before or after all the rest. If you add another condition, “freedom from attachment to all sin,” the indulgence is plenary and wipes away the punishment due for actual sins committed (like a purgatory reset button). Without that, the indulgence is partial. All indulgences can be applied to the person doing them or to the dead (in purgatory).

Many people, including me, struggle with that “freedom from attachment to all sin” bit. It seems like, short of leaving Confession with your eyes closed and your hands over your ears reciting “Jesus” over and over in your head, it’s impossible to be free from all sin for very long after you’ve gone to Confession. As I was checking the Endichiron (Big List) of Indulgences last week, though, I encountered a blog post that insists plenary indulgences are not impossible. It’s the word “attachment” that is left ambiguous. The author’s main point is that the Church wouldn’t offer so many pathways to plenary indulgences knowing we’d almost never be able to get them. I read elsewhere once that “attachment” is less about having any sins than liking any of them. You can’t go to Confession and say what you did, be sorry for it, promise never to do it again, but still think it was nice. You have to hate your past sins, no matter how small, for the plenary indulgence to “stick.”

I specifically did the All Souls’ Day indulgence (number 67) for the holy souls this year, and I believe it worked, so to speak. Appropriately, that knowledge takes faith, because I’ll never really know if I “got it” this side of heaven. Yet I believe.


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It seems there are always sins in my life that I’m more sorry are sins than I am sorry I commit them. It seems like once I get over that with one sin,there is another there to take its place.

[…] the reading I’d prepared, and I remembered to check the requirements for the All Souls Day plenary indulgence. I did not plan any of this. I am convinced that the souls for whom I have been praying these many […]

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