This topic came up for me recently during the sede vacante period. In preparing a special Holy Hour for the Pope, I was asked if the papal intentions persist (yes), and if so, if you may still gain an indulgence under the usual conditions (yes). I thought to myself how awesome it was that someone was thinking about this!
Really, though, I do not think many Catholics today have any idea about indulgences. Among the things I have heard are: “oh Vatican 2 did away with that” or “the Church used to sell those but not anymore”.
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven…” (Catechism 1471)
This means it is taking away the punishment that we might have after death due to sins we committed in our lives. I do not mean hell (that is a different topic), I mean purgatory. Purgatory is basically the state after death of a soul that will eventually go to heaven, but must be purified first (and that purification is not easy or pleasant).
Sin has consequences. We may think, well, I confessed my sin, that’s it. The consequences of sin are twofold: first, grave sin deprives us of communion with God and makes us incapable of eternal life (damnation), and second, all sin involves an unhealthy attachment that must be purified to free us from the “temporal punishment of sin”(purgatory). We can overcome the first consequence easily: go to confession. The second consequence is overcome by conforming ourselves more to Christ, by works of mercy and charity, as well as by works of prayer and penance.
Think of it like this: you were playing ball, and you broke your neighbors’ window (maybe just through carelessness), and it is your fault. You go and ask your neighbor for forgiveness, and they are really nice and forgiving type of people, so they say, you know what, it’s okay, thanks for saying you are sorry. So you are forgiven! But you still have to pay for the window.
“Indulgences” through works of prayer basically involve a whole-hearted prayer stipulated by the Church, and you usually must have gone to confession and received the Eucharist in a state of grace in a short period of time before or after. Indulgences may be partial (some amount of time) or plenary (this gets rid of all your time in purgatory). One might think this is not needed, but I’m pretty sure most of us want to get to heaven as quickly as possible. This prayer may be applied to yourself, or it may be applied to anyone who has died.
There are plenty of souls in purgatory that do not have someone to pray for them… and they could get to heaven sooner if you helped them! Do you include them in your prayers? I sure hope that people pray for me when I die.
As a note: This is just a quick primer on purgatory and indulgences. I’d encourage everyone to find out some of the opportunities for indulgences. Here is a great one on the official Year of Faith website: http://www.annusfidei.va/content/novaevangelizatio/en/annus-fidei/indulgentia.html. Check it out!