Lesson Notes: Sacramentals & Indulgences


Indulgences are one of those topics that have been and still are misunderstood, but the simple explanation is that when Jesus founded the Church, he gave the Apostles (and their successors) the ability to bind and loose sin (Matthew 16:18 Matthew 18:18).  This power given to the Church allows her to dispense graces in all sorts of ways and one of the ways she chooses to do it is through indulgences.

It’s critical to remember that all indulgences have conditions – things you must do to receive the graces.  To get a full indulgence, you must perform the action (go on the pilgrimage, complete the novena, etc.), you must go to confession within a few days of the required action, you must receive the Eucharist, preferably on the same day as the action, and you must pray for the Pope’s intentions.  When you look at any indulgence from that angle first, it’s plain to see that you are going to receive graces and grow in holiness simply by completing those virtuous actions.  The indulgence can be looked at as a value-added boost from the Church’s “bank” of dispensable graces.

In my mind, this analogy of a bank is helpful.  Everyone who uses a particular bank is part of a particular community.  We all deposit money and withdraw it periodically.  When I withdraw money, it’s almost certainly not the exact same dollars that I’ve deposited, but I get money nonetheless.


In a similar way, I’m part of a community of Christians (the Body of Christ) and I’m making hopefully frequent deposits through my prayers, works, joys and sufferings offered to Jesus each day.  I think of an indulgence as a withdrawal from this cosmic bank where someone else in the community can make a withdrawal – get the graces they need when they need them.

You may also find this analogy of a child who steals a candy bar to be helpful  (Read the complete article here.):

The Good parent and child

Holy Mother Church and child

the parent forgives the child for stealing and allows the child back into his good graces

the Church forgives the guilt through the Sacrament of Confession, thereby eliminating the eternal consequences by the grace of Christ, and restoring the penitent from being a “dead member” of the Church to a “living member” of the Church

the child desires to pay back the store (“make satisfaction” for his debt)

the faithful desires to make satisfaction for his debt to God which he incurred through sin

the child turns to his parent for help in making satisfaction for his debt to the store. The child doesn’t have the money to pay back the store, but to the parent, the cost of the candy bar is nothing

Holy Mother Church was given the power of the Keys and, therefore, the authority to make ways for the penitent to make satisfaction for his debts to God by tapping into the treasury of merits of Christ and the Saints

the good parent says that if the child is truly contrite and truly desires to make satisfaction for the debt, he can earn enough to pay for some of the candy bar if he does X, or enough to pay for all of the candy bar if he does Y

Holy Mother Church sets out certain prayers and works to be offered under certain conditions which will either pay for some of the debt owed to God (partial indulgence) or all of the debt owed to God (plenary indulgence)

the child does X or Y

the faithful performs the prescribed actions, under the prescribed conditions, to gain an indulgence

the good parent follows through on his promise, helping the child pay for his crime by opening his wallet and giving the child some or all of the money to pay back the store.

the Church mitigates punishmentincurred (temporal penalties) by opening the treasury of merit and applying those merits to the faithful.

Now, suppose there are two children. One child steals the candy bar and then dies. The other child — his brother, say — wants to help pay his dead brother’s debt, so he pays back the store in the name of his dead brother.  In this way, the Catholic can offer the benefits of the indulgence to the souls in Purgatory.  Indulgences can only be applied to oneself or to a soul in Purgatory, not to another living person.

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