Pope Francis is offering a plenary indulgence — what does that mean?

  • Written by Northwest Catholic
  • Published in International
Pope Francis looks over an empty St. Peter’s Square after leading a livestream of the recitation of the Angelus from the library of the Apostolic Palace March 22, 2020. The pope announced he will give an extraordinary blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) at 6 p.m. Rome time March 27 in an “empty” St. Peter’s Square because all of Italy is on lockdown to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Photo: CNS/Vatican Media Pope Francis looks over an empty St. Peter’s Square after leading a livestream of the recitation of the Angelus from the library of the Apostolic Palace March 22, 2020. The pope announced he will give an extraordinary blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) at 6 p.m. Rome time March 27 in an “empty” St. Peter’s Square because all of Italy is on lockdown to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Photo: CNS/Vatican Media

Pope Francis has announced that he will give a special blessing this Friday, March 27, at 6 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. in Western Washington), and that those who participate spiritually through TV, internet or radio may receive a plenary indulgence.

What exactly is an indulgence? Here’s a quick primer, drawn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (sections 1471–1479) and Pope Paul VI’s 1967 apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.

Indulgences are still a thing?

Yes.

What is an indulgence?

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.”

Christians obtain indulgences “through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins.”

Indulgences can remove some (partial) or all (plenary) of the temporal punishment due to sin. You can obtain indulgences for yourself or for someone who has died.

What does “temporal punishment due to sin” mean?

Sin has a “double consequence.”

1) “Grave [or mortal] sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life” — this is the “eternal punishment” of sin (i.e., hell).

2) Every sin also “entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin.”

These punishments are not “vengeance inflicted by God” but follow “from the very nature of sin.”

What’s the difference between an indulgence and confession?

In the sacrament of reconciliation, our sins are forgiven and our communion with God is restored — this is “the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains.”

An indulgence removes the temporal punishment.

How do you receive a plenary indulgence?

Here’s what you do:

  • Perform the work to which the indulgence is attached (e.g., listen to the pope’s blessing).
  • Go to confession.
  • Receive holy Communion.
  • Pray for the intentions of the pope (e.g., an Our Father and a Hail Mary).
  • Be free from all attachment to sin, even venial sin.

Generally, you can go to confession and receive Communion within several days before or after the indulgenced activity.

In this case, it is sufficient to intend to go to confession and receive the Eucharist as soon as possible.

If any of these conditions is not fulfilled, or if your detachment from sin is incomplete, the indulgence will only be partial.