The catechetical topics have been varied. The last two days have reviewed the practice of plenary and partial indulgences. My husband is a convert to Catholicism and I sense his discomfort as this topic is broached. Shadows of the Reformation dance in his head. My 1960’s and 70’s catechesis is not that sharp on this subject so I struggle to reasonably explain the practice. I am always wary of letting my Catholic devotions and practices slip into the realm of superstition and I think the concept of indulgences lends itself rather easily to that. It can sound like we are saying “Follow this simple magic formula and you will wipe out your time in Purgatory!”
When in doubt, pull out the Catechism. Entry 1471 says:
The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
What is an indulgence?
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
In truth, if we approach indulgences like an accountant with a ledger we miss out on the value of this practice. This isn’t a matter of settling accounts. We really don’t know how long our temporal punishment or purification in Purgatory will be. In fact we don’t even know how time is measured in eternity. Almost any devotional or holy act, done with the proper disposition, can be worthy of an indulgence. Certain practices the Church finds particularly valuable are singled out for the faithful. The prescribed conditions the Church outlines sound like so much legalese but in reality are a way to make sure we approach the practice with a prayerful heart and proper understanding. So we should see the practice of indulgences as a way to join ourselves as the Church Militant with the souls in Purgatory, the Church Suffering. You never know whose suffering soul your piety releases. It could be your own.