Dear reader, if you are a non-Catholic you have probably heard a lot of nonsense about indulgences and if you are a cradle Catholic you might not have heard anything at all. I will try here to give you some compact information about what Indulgences are and why they are so important in the life of a Catholic. If you want more detailed information you’ll find it here.
To understand the indulgences you must realise that sins demand – even after they have been forgiven – a temporal punishment. When the sin was forgiven the soul was cleansed, but the necessity for the punishment remained. You can make a parallel with everyday life by thinking that if by parking on the street you damage your neighbour’s car, you or your insurance will be expected to pay for the damage even after your neighbour has wholeheartedly accepted your excuses.
As human nature is, in the course of our life we accumulate many such parking accidents and even if we regularly go to confession and have our sins forgiven, the list of the temporal punishments for which we are liable is destined to grow. Instead of paying this debt in its entirety in Purgatory after our death, the Lord’s mercy allows us to – as it were – start paying this debt whilst we are alive, either reducing it or – in extreme cases – cancelling it in its entirety. This partial or total anticipated payment is called “indulgence”. In order to profit from the indulgence, you are required to do something special that shows your willingness to accept that you own the debt and to pay it. In His turn, the Lord reacts to your willingness by remitting your debt with extreme generosity. Indulgences are a deal on exceptionally favourable conditions or – to put it in financial terms – the equivalent of redeeming your IOUs at a peppercorn for the pound. Every Catholic does well to profit from such a generous deal as long as it is available, because the offer ends at the moment of our death and we will afterwards have to rely on the deals other people can get for us.
The main distinction concerning indulgences is between partial and plenary. Partial indulgences gain you a partial remission of your debt, plenary indulgences the remission of all the debts you have accumulated up to that moment. The deal is, though, not as easy at it may seem as the criteria to get a plenary indulgence are so strict – namely the absence of all attachment to sin, even venial sin – that only the most saintly among the faithful will be in a position to gain it. If a plenary indulgence cannot be obtained, a partial indulgence will apply. Indulgences can never be sold.
You can easily see, dear reader, how just and at the same time merciful the indulgences are. The Lord in His justice does not allow us to escape the punishment for the sins we have committed, but in His mercy He allows us to pay our debt on, shall we say, extremely favourable terms. As in real life, we get a better deal if we pay before the time the debt is due and have an easier life if we show ourselves willing to do our best to clean ourselves of our obligations.
The Enchiridion of Indulgences contains a catalogue of indulgences that can be obtained at any time and explains the conditions necessary to profit from them. The conditions are generally: 1) contrite heart; 2) confession; 3) communion and 4) prayer for the intention of the Pope, but further conditions may be attached to particular indulgences. In addition to this, there are indulgences that are made available only within a certain time frame and with the conditions attached to them from time to time. As I write, there is a plenary indulgence granted for the 12th June, the day of conclusion of the Year for Priests. In case you decide to pay particular attention to plenary indulgences, a catalogue is published here.
Dear reader, you can easily see that in your lifetime you will never get another deal as good as this one. He is a wise Catholic (or better still: traditional Catholic) who pays attention to the debts dues to the Lord. The offer is on extremely favourable conditions and available every day; it requires to do some little extra, but this extra is almost nothing compared to the benefit obtained. It also trains the faithful to keep his eyes on his eternal destiny, which will help him to go through his day and will slowly but surely improve his habits. Once again, Catholicism discloses to the faithful a world where justice and love meet, both contributing to keep him on that straight and narrow way built to lead him to his eternal reward.
Indulgences are, truly, the deal of your life.
“Memorare, o piissima Virgo Maria….”
It is sad to think that these words, once devotedly pronounced by countless faithful every day, nowadays rarely adorn Catholic lips. One cannot avoid noticing that when prayers where recited in the allegedly so tough Latin the faithful actually prayed a lot more than today that everything has been made easy for them. There is a lesson to be learned here, I think: you don’t do any favour to the faithful by making things shallow; you merely encourage them to become shallow themselves.
The neglect of the Memorare is particularly unfortunate, because this is a powerful prayer. I see in it the fundamental optimism and the simple but solid faith of the Catholic knowing that the Blessed Virgin will intercede for him without fail and just for the asking. This is not the prayer of one who hopes, but of one who knows that his prayer will go straight to the Queen of Heaven. The key words of the prayer are “non esse auditum a saeculo” (“that never was it known”) and “esse derelictum” (“was left unaided”). If you hear this prayer once or twice you will probably instantly remember this powerful statement and its far reaching promise: that given the proper attitude, the Blessed Virgin intercedes without fail for anyone who addresses her.
This is powerful stuff. This is the Catholicism of our forefathers, who were less used than us to rely on secular institutions to sort out their problems and rather accustomed to look heavenward in their troubles. The Memorare forces us to face the fact that Mary’s intercession is not something existing in an undetermined dimension somewhere between a child’s tale and a vague hope, but a very concrete reality in which we can take refuge every day.
Our ancestors – solidly rooted in Catholicism irrespective of their education level – were naturally familiar with such a concept, but the present generation vastly ignores the very notion of the Communion of Saints, nor will you find many priests willing to take care that such basics elements of Catholicism are universally and thoroughly understood. This ruthless massacre of everything specifically Catholic – and his substitution with a protestantised, simplified and banalised undersatanding of Catholic prayer and devotion – was perhaps not positively encouraged, but certainly made possible by the “aggiornamento”. Some fifty years later, Catholic desolation is what this passion for “change” has engendered: once commonly used devotions have disappeared, once beloved prayers are almost forgotten and mainstays of Catholic thinking, powerful tools in a world of insecurity and trouble, have been utterly and wilfully neglected.
I may be wrong, but my impression is that the rediscovery of this and other beautiful ancient prayers is the result of the rediscovery of Latin and of the growing awareness that together with Latin a rich patrimony of Catholic traditions and devotions has been thrown into the dust bin. I wonder how one can rediscover traditional Catholicism without recovering Latin, and vice versa.
The Enchiridion of Indulgences states that a partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who recite the Memorare.
You can find here both the Latin and English version, together with the most succinct and easy to understand historical information I could find.