Q: “I have a few related questions: What are indulgences? What do they do for you? What is the difference between a plenary and partial indulgence?”
A: I have this friend who is convinced that indulgences were when she was able to skip classes, go to the mall, and buy a dress that she would never wear and then spend the rest of the day watching “soaps” and “Oprah.” That would be more indulgent than an indulgence. An Indulgence is the remission of punishment for sins that that have been committed or confessed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way, “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance,” (paragraph 1471). And that every sin has a double consequence, in that it involves both spiritual and physical effects, so “every sin, even venial…must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state of Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called ‘temporal punishment of sin.” (paragraph 1472). So the Church is given the graces to help the faithful overcome this punishment and “intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due to their sins.” (paragraph 1478). So basically you can see them as a backup plan, or extra credit, so you can avoid going to Purgatory.
You also asked what the difference is between Partial and Plenary Indulgences. Well, let’s start with Partial Indulgences. They are actions or prayers that a person does and in return they receive a partial reduction of the punishment of Purgatory. This started back in the Middle Ages when people called “pardoners” who were licensed or certified preachers given the task to solicit alms for building of churches and sponsoring for the crusades. Partial Indulgences include the following.
1. Praying the Magnificat or Hail Holy Queen
2. Praying the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love, and the Creed
3. Making the sign of the cross
4. Visiting the Blessed Sacrament
5. Visiting a cemetery
Now the Plenary Indulgences is when you perform an action or prayer along with meeting certain conditions that will bring along full remission of punishment. The conditions are that you have to do all of the following three things:
1. Go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation
2. Receiving Communion at Mass
3. Praying for the Holy Father
And they doing one of these following actions of prayers:
1. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least one-half hour
2. Scripture reading for at least one-half hour
3. Recite the Way of the Cross
4. Rosary praying in a church or with a family group or religious community
There are also a whole bunch of other Indulgences that are out there and plenty of resources to find them. But since I’m just giving short answers I hope this helps clear up what Indulgences are and how to use them. Have a Blessed Day.