What is a plenary indulgence?

Sr. Mary Kathleen Ronan of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan joins Adam Wright of Covenant radio for an in-depth look at the practice of obtaining indulgences and some special opportunities that exist in this Year of St. Joseph. Sr. Mary Kathleen is the Director of Lay Formation for the Archdiocese of St. Louis

Listen now




What is a plenary indulgence?

An indulgence is a favor granted by the Church because of the suffering and death of Christ. The Church offers an encouragement/help/incentive (a bonus free gift) to those who, with love for God, true and sincere sorrow for sin carry out actions specified by the Church (Pope or the Bishop) seeking remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

 What is temporal punishment?

Scripture teaches us that God’s Justice and holiness require that there is now, or after death, punishment for sin. This punishment is called temporal punishment. Punishment carried out during our earthly lives can be now through pain, misery, and hardships, including death. Punishment not borne during life on earth will be fulfilled in Hell or Purgatory.

Why do we need indulgences?

There are several essential principles upon which we can understand why indulgences are vital, valuable opportunities to grow spiritually:

  • God has created us in love that we might love him and one another. When we sin, we act contrary to God’s will for us and interrupt, obstruct, put chaos into that order. Our loving relationship with God and others, for which we were created, is wounded by sin.
  • Sin has consequences, both for ourselves, for others, and all creation. Sin (acting against God’s will) leaves traces in our being (intellect, will, imagination, memory). It leaves traces that affect others and all creation. These traces remain even after we confess the sin and it is truly forgiven by God’s mercy. Indulgences concern reducing or eliminating these “traces” in us by removing our debt of temporal punishment.
  • Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead to take away our sins and give us eternal life.  When He entrusted the Apostles with His mission of salvation through His Body the Church, this included the right to impart forgiveness and the full merits of His passion to everyone who repents of sin.
  • We cannot be saved without our cooperation. We must use our free will (the same will that sinned) to make up for the consequences of our actions. We call that penance. 

Important notes:
  • With great seriousness, the Church cautions that a plenary indulgence is not magical/mechanical, but based upon the understanding that we cannot save ourselves. Rather, the Church recognizes that Christ left all power of salvation to the Pope and Bishops. 
  • We can gain an indulgence once a day for ourselves or for someone who has died—only if we are in a state of grace. More on the conditions for receiving a plenary indulgence is included in the below sections of this document.
  • We cannot gain an indulgence by our actions and prayers for someone who is living—and therefore still has a capacity to choose to love or to sin. We should instead pray for them!


Why is a plenary indulgence offered for the Year of St. Joseph?

St. Joseph was declared Patron of Universal Church 150 years ago (Dec 8, 1870). The plenary indulgence is offered this year to mark the anniversary of the Holy Father, Pius IX giving St. Joseph this title in Quemadmodum Deus.

Who can gain an indulgence?

A person in the state of grace, who is truly repentant for past sins and resolved to avoid all habits of venial sin, can receive an indulgence given that the additional requirements for the particular indulgence are fulfilled (see below).

What should one do in order to receive an indulgence?

In addition to being in the state of grace as mentioned above, the one seeking an indulgence must:

  • Carry out any one of the suggested devotional actions for the Year of St. Joseph (see list below)
  • Pray for the Pope’s intentions
  • Receive Holy Communion
  • Go to Reconciliation or Confession 20 days prior to or after an act of devotion

Regarding the timing of the bulleted items above, on January 29, 2000, His Eminence Cardinal William Wakefield Baum wrote:

“It is appropriate, but not necessary that the sacramental Confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the Pope’s intentions take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed, but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act. Prayer for the Pope’s intentions is left to the choice of the faithful, but an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” are suggested.  One sacramental Confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and a separate prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions are required for each plenary indulgence.”

In addition to the above conditions, in order to receive the plenary indulgence during the Year of St. Joseph, one must do one or more of the following actions:

  • Especially for the elderly, sick, suffering, and those unable to leave the house: Recite an act of devotion in  honor of St. Joseph (Comfort of the Sick and Patron of a Happy Death) and offer to God your suffering and the hardships of your life “with a soul detached from any sin and with the intention to fulfill as soon as possible the conditions for obtaining the indulgence.”
  • Visit any one of the designated sites in the Archdiocese of St. Louis provided by Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski and pray to St. Joseph at that site. (See suggested prayer linked below in number 11.)
  • Carry out a spiritual or corporal work of Mercy.
  • Contemplate the Lord’s Prayer for 30 minutes.
  • Participate in a spiritual retreat for one day which involves meditation on St. Joseph.
  • Recite the Rosary with your family.
  • Recite the Rosary as an engaged couple.
  • “Entrust your life daily to the protection of St. Joseph.”
  • Invoke through prayer the intercession of the “Worker of Nazareth,” that those in search of work may find employment and that the work of all people may be more dignified.”
  • Recite the Litanies (all or in part) of St. Joseph in all traditions (Latin, Byzantine).
  • Pray to St. Joseph [link to prayer card] from other Liturgical traditions “in favor of the Church persecuted intra and ad extra and for the relief of all Christians who suffer any form of persecution.”
  •  Recite “any prayer legitimately approved or any act of devotion in honor of St. Joseph, especially on days dedicated to honoring St. Joseph.” (See suggested prayer in number 11 linked above.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: This plenary indulgence, as with all plenary indulgences, is available once per day only—and no more than once per day—to any person who has fulfilled all of the above requirements in each instance.

For more information on indulgences, see The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1471-1473, and the document referred to in footnotes 81 and 82 Indulgentiarum doctrina.