Catholic News Service
The Code of Canon Law explains conditions for indulgences, which are extensions of God’s mercy.
Catholic News Service
The Code of Canon Law explains conditions for indulgences, which are extensions of God’s mercy.
During the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which continues through most of 2016, faithful Christians can take actions that will cancel  punishment due for specific sins on Earth and in purgatory. Think of indulgences as extensions of God’s mercy.

Why can the church extend indulgences? Because Jesus said it could. He told the apostles that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The church carries on Christ’s work in all kinds of ways, including canceling debt.

Indulgences do not forgive the sin itself. That is made possible in the sacrament of reconciliation, confession. Indulgences do put aside the punishment.

But indulgences don’t come cheap. There are conditions to be met, as set out in canon law:

• You must be detached from sin, even venial, or less serious, sin. This means you can’t still be thinking about sin, or planning to commit it again.
• The sin must be forgiven via sincere confession in the sacrament of reconciliation. The faithful must be in a “state of grace,” meaning not burdened with unforgiven sins.     
• You must receive Communion.
• You must pray for the intentions of the pope, who is the sign of unity among Christians.
• The Jubilee Year of Mercy brings special opportunity and requirements for indulgences. Pope Francis has asked that the faithful make a brief visit to a Holy Door at a cathedral or designated site “as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion.” There are holy doors at St. Mary Cathedral, The Grotto in Northeast Portland and at Sacred Heart Church in Medford.

An indulgence cancels “temporal” punishment. That is, punishment due on earth and in purgatory. That is distinct from eternal punishment, in which a person has cut himself or herself off from God.

On Portland’s Mater Dei Radio, “Living Stones” hosts Ken Hallenius and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers explained that some monks in early Christianity would take on severe penances for sins they had confessed, like two decades eating nothing but bread and water. Indulgences were a way to bring mercy in such cases. Sincere acts of prayer charity could reduce the penalty.

Burke-Sivers said some lay Christians in the medieval period could legitimately seek indulgences by performing charity. In addition to good acts, that sometimes meant donations to the church to help the poor or other causes. That’s the practice that was misunderstood, was sometimes abuse and which raised the ire of 16th century reformers. The problems were cleared up by the Second Vatican Council. Money is removed from the equation, but mercy remains.   

“The church in her mercy is very generous,” Deacon Burke-Sivers explained on the radio show. He said Jesus’ saving act and God’s generosity cause mercy to flow. “All the church is doing is tapping into that.”

There are partial indulgences, which remove some of the punishment, but also full, or plenary, indulgences.  

A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day.   

According to Church law, indulgences can always be applied either to oneself or to the souls of the deceased, but they cannot be applied to other persons living on earth.

What about people who can’t get out and about? Pope Francis has thought of them.

In a letter on the jubilee year, he said that the sick and frail elderly can obtain the jubilee indulgence by living through their suffering with faith and “joyful hope,” receiving Communion, and attending Mass, even if it is on radio, television or internet.

The pope said prisoners can gain the indulgence by fulfilling the general requirements as possible, attending chapels in their jails and thinking of their cell thresholds as Holy Doors and passages of conversion and freedom from sin.  

The pope emphasizes action for others. That’s why he has called for people to perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

“Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence,” the pope wrote.