What Are Indulgences?

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Question: How can I explain indulgences to my grade-school children? — Newbie Catechist


Dear Newbie: Indulgences can be understood and taught by starting with the fact that God is perfectly merciful and perfectly just. Because God is perfectly merciful, he will forgive any sin for which we ask pardon. Yet because God is also perfectly just, he requires that we repair the injury caused by our sins. That’s why the priest gives us penance to do after confession. Penance helps to heal and repair this injury.

When the injury caused by our sins needs more reparation (repair) than the penance given in confession, we end up owing this reparation to God. The Manual of Indulgences, available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, teaches that indulgences can help us pay off whatweowetoGod. Togainan indulgence, we humbly ask God to allow us — or indulge us, so to speak — to share in the powerful merits (the good works that have earned rewards) of Jesus and Mary, in order to make our reparation.

Gaining indulgences

Partial indulgences are the easiest to gain. A partial indulgence pays part of what we owe — we can gain many partial indulgences every day. When we choose to do something good, we gain merits. When we choose to do something good and ask for an indulgence at the same time, we receive double the merits. These merits can pay off what we owe for our sins.

How do we gain a partial indulgence? There are many ways, but the easiest way is through pious invocations (short prayers). First, we must be baptized and trying to live a good and holy life. Then we raise our minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation. This means that we lovingly think about God and say a simple prayer such as:

■■Blessed be the Holy Trinity.

■■Heart of Jesus, in you I trust.

■■Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

■■Lord, increase our faith.

■■My Lord and my God!

These are just some examples of invocations that can be said. You can also make up one that is your own, one that has special meaning to you or to your situation. Not only do indulgences help you pay what you owe in a shorter time, they also help you grow in holiness.

A child or catechist who is taught to devotedly raise their mind and heart to God throughout the day cannot help but grow in holiness!

Learn more

There is more to learn about indulgences. In addition to partial indulgences, one can also
receive a plenary indulgence where one receives complete reparation and restoration. For
a plenary indulgence, one must perform a good work or act of devotion as prescribed by the Church. Further steps are also required:

  1. Make a sacramental confession.
  2. Receive Holy Communion.
  3. Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
  4. Be completely detached from all sin.

For more about indulgences, go to CATmag.us/2XFSA7O to download the booklet created by the USCCB. Or, find the Manual of Indulgences at USCCB.org.


Therese L. Salazar, MA, recently retired after 15 years as director of Religious Education with 45 volunteer catechists and 400 students at Our Lady of Belen Church in Belén, New Mexico. She and her husband have six children and 26 grandchildren. She hopes to continue teaching the faith as a retiree.

This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, October 2019


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