An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.The custom of gaining indulgences for the living and the dead goes back to the early Church. As explained by Fr. William Saunders:
An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” (CCC, 1471)
From the earliest days of the Church, individuals have offered prayers and good works for the salvation of sinners. In those times, absolution was not granted until both confession and penance had been performed (and the penances were very lengthy in duration, even lasting months). Penitents oftentimes asked martyrs facing death for aid (to offer their sufferings for the atonement of the penitents’ sins) so that full reconciliation with the Church and re-admission to the sacraments could be obtained more speedily. When a martyr offered his sufferings to expiate the sins of a penitent, the Church recognized this charitable act and granted absolution. For example, St. Cyprian (d. 258) stated, "Those who have received certificates from the martyrs and are able to be assisted by their privileged position before God" may be absolved and "come to the Lord with the peace which the martyrs, as indicated in letters sent to us, desired to be given them" ("Letter to the Clergy," 18 (12), 1). In such cases, the penitents received an indulgence which satisfied their penance. Herein lies part of the basis for our belief. (Fr. William Saunders, The Catholic Herald, January 27, 2005)However, it is not only on All Souls Day but on every day of the year that Holy Mother Church prays for her departed children. Every Mass is offered for both the living and the dead. According to the Council of Trent, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the chief means of bringing succor to the souls in Purgatory. The prayers and good works of the faithful can also benefit the dead.
St. Teresa of Avila had a great love for the suffering souls, a love that was willing to bear the vicissitudes of life in order to aid them. We, too, can bear the pin pricks of inconveniences, of gossip, of calumny and misunderstanding, to gain deliverance from the chastisements of the netherworld those whom we have loved, family members, and even our enemies.
Purgatory is not inevitable, but we can undergo our purgation here on earth by our patient endurance of trials. It is not the intensity of the trial itself that expiates sin; rather it is the intensity of the love for God with which the trial is accepted. Love is what matters most.
(Published in the November-December 2008 issue of Canticle Magazine.)