I’ve often found myself annoyed at non-Catholic acquaintances who mock the idea of indulgences as corrupt or nonsensical, and when I was
yelling typing angrily at one on this subject earlier today, I figured what I was saying writing wouldn’t be a terrible blog post.
The way you get an indulgence, if I’m understanding it correctly, goes like this:
1. Take a concrete step toward what we’ll call moral or spiritual enlightenment. For example, diligently following the events and speeches at World Youth Day means exposing yourself to some intense stuff that will hopefully be of some spiritual benefit (if you don’t think it could, that just means that you should be paying more attention).
Another example: 5 years ago, I visited Lourdes during the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The indulgence associated with that visit was, if I recall correctly, attached to visiting several sites in the town that were associated with the apparitions. The hope was that this would help the pilgrims to contemplate what happened (and no, there were not, to my recollection, admission fees for any of the sites).
Even better example: the indulgence for the Year of Faith, which included studying the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For anyone who engages sincerely in such study, this should prove rather helpful.
2. Make a good confession. This means repenting of all one’s mortal sins. Bam. You’re going to Heaven.
3. Receive the Eucharist. In worthily receiving the Eucharist, we make that act of communion with the body of Christ, that is, the Church, as well as with Christ Himself, and venial sins for which one has repented are in and through that act concretely forgiven.
Every time I’ve sincerely engaged in an activity associated with an indulgence, it has helped to lay bare some of the ways in which I’ve failed to live up to the Gospel- that is, it has helped to show me venial sins of which I have not repented: one would expect that exposing one’s unrepented-for venial sins would help one to repent for them, meaning that Purgatory, which cleanses us of the temporal punishment due to us primarily for venial sins for which we have not sufficiently repented, is no longer as necessary.
The Pope’s attachment of an indulgence to an activity does not make it spiritually enlightening, but rather, points out spiritually enlightening activities, usually at times when these activities may be of particular benefit with regard to helping one reform one’s life and habits.
The bottom line is that an indulgence is not a coupon for reduced time in purgatory; rather, engaging sincerely in an activity associated with an indulgence should help to rid us of exactly that which makes that time in purgatory so necessary.