Indulgences explained

Question: Indulgences used to be designated by time value: 100 Days, 500 days, etc. Now only the terms “partial” and “plenary” are used. Why the change?

Peter Stein, Everett, Wash.

Answer: This change to “partial” or “plenary” occurred in 1968 when the Enchiridion of Indulgences was issued. There are several reasons this was done. First, the designation of “days” did not originally reference that time in purgatory could be lessened. The origin likely had more to do with the penitential practices of the early Church, which were often lengthy and somewhat severe. Given this, one could visit the confessors of the Faith in jail, or those who had once been jailed for the practice of the Faith.

Given the esteem these confessors of the Faith were held in by the Church, such a visit, and the promise to say prayers, often resulted in time being knocked off one’s penance by the bishop. Where and when this designation of days, weeks and years came to be applied to the souls in purgatory by the faithful is not exactly clear.

The second problem of designating time values to indulgences is that we are not certain that purgatory runs on an earth clock.

The third problem is that the merit of a prayer or action depends not only on the action done, but also on the dispositions and states of the souls of those who do them. Exactly how fruitful the praying of a Rosary is may not be something we can simply gauge by assigning a number. Most prayers are not sacraments, but sacramentals. Even indulgenced acts related to the reception of the sacraments do not pertain to the sacrament itself but to the fruitfulness of the reception of it and the application of those fruits to another. Hence, we are not speaking of something that works automatically (ex opere operato), but rather something that depends for its fruitfulness to a large extent on the disposition of the one who does it (ex opere operantis).

Most people did find the old system of days, weeks and years to be helpful at gauging the general fruitfulness of certain acts or prayers. These days, however, the Church seems to prefer to leave matters such as this less clearly specified for all the reasons stated. And while common sense might value the Rosary above a brief prayer or aspiration, even here, it is sometimes best to leave things up to God who sees not only the appearance but looks into the heart.

All Souls Day ritual?

Question: I am told that on All Souls Day if we make six visits to six churches and say designated prayers, the souls in purgatory for whom we pray go straight to heaven. What do you think of this?

Name withheld, via e-mail

Answer: There are many danger signs in the practices you describe. We ought to be cautious about various spiritual practices or exercises that have many different moving parts or complex requirements. We ought to be even more suspicious of unqualified and overly certain promises of success. Prayer should not be reduced to superstitious practices. Every pious practice and prayer is always submitted to God’s will; through these things we commend ourselves to God’s good graces, knowing that he will answer in ways that are ultimately best for all involved.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.