You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
— The Gospel of Saint Matthew, 5:43-45, 48
For Christians, sainthood is the greatest human achievement. By giving all for God and neighbor, and living His precepts and example, the devout climb the heights of holiness.
That pinnacle of divinely graced humanity, however, is anything but easy. Indeed, hardly anyone tries in this day and age. Yet there are ways for even ordinary Christians to live virtuous lives and, more important, actually help bring souls to heaven, as the greatest saints have done.
So how can believers with no great inclination and ability in preaching, healing, theologizing, and otherwise espousing religious knowledge and morals, lift souls heavenward, while turning away from sin and toward goodness and charity?
In a word, indulgences.
By actively and constantly working for indulgences or the remission of punishment for sins, one can not only help souls reach heaven, but also rise in personal virtue.
If the word sounds somewhat in the news, it is. In the Special Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, plenary indulgences or the remission of all penalties for sin may be obtained by passing through designated “holy doors” in churches worldwide.
Indulgences lift souls to God
Here’s how indulgences work. When sin is removed through the Sacraments, so is the eternal punishment of being separated from God for all time. But temporal punishment remains: the ill effects of sin and sinful tendencies, which must be removed before the soul can fully be one with God.
To use a medical analogy, Christ’s sacrifice removes the deadly cancer of sin, giving believers new life with God, But the damage done to our souls by our transgressions must still be repaired.
For example, a thief who repents in confession would obtain remission of his sin and eternal separation from God. But his will to break laws must still be excised. Similarly, an adulterer who ends his illicit relationship, cannot just switch off wayward urges to which he once gave in. Those desires must be expunged in this life or the next.
Such selfishness. disobedience and desire for worldly things engendered by sin go against our full union with the Divine. Hence, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called purgatory.”
Indulgences harness the infinite merits of Christ, along with graces won by countless saints over millennia, to erase sinful burdens or penalties remaining after absolution. This removal of temporal punishment or effects of man’s offenses can benefit those performing acts of indulgence, as well as the souls of the dead whom they wish to help.
Are you still with us?
Okay, those who’ve gotten this far might say, so indulgences expunge selfish, sinful ways keeping us from oneness with God. Now how does that help us become saints?
Three ways. First, as explained, indulgences diminish selfish and worldly ways and wishes, and that makes the faithful receiving indulgences move closer to sanctity.
Second, in offering indulgences for the dead, we help souls who are, in a sense, our enemies, since their sinful ways and tendencies oppose the good ones we have or seek. Thus, we perform the act of caring and praying for our adversaries. And that’s the very act of divine perfection urged by Jesus in the passage opening this article.
Moreover, those of us obtaining indulgences for the dead are God’s partners in liberating souls from sin, just like the great saints exhorting others to holiness with their preaching and living.
Obtaining indulgences to free souls in purgatory from the burdens of sin must count for something in assessing saintliness.
Roadmap to purity and charity
The third way indulgences help make saints of us lies in the requirements to obtain them.
To earn indulgences, not only must we perform prescribed acts, like entering a Porta Sancta in a jubilee church. We must also be in a state of grace with no mortal sin, receive communion close to the act of indulgence, go to confession within 20 days before or after, and pray for the Holy Father’s intentions, saying one Our Father and one Hail Mary or another prayer.
Moreover, acts of indulgence involve the kind of piety and charity seen in saints. Besides entering holy doors, indulgences are obtained by saying certain prayers, performing temporal or spiritual acts of mercy, adoring the Blessed Sacrament, reading the Bible, saying the Rosary or the Way of the Cross, and attending big church events.
The Lenten acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are designated as general ways of obtaining partial indulgences, which remove some of sin’s temporal penalties. For a full list of ways to obtain indulgences, go to: http://www.dominicanidaho.org/indulg.html . And here’s a helpful guide: https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/PRIMINDU.HTM .
Notably, those seeking plenary indulgence must turn away from all sin, even venial ones. This means resolutely fighting wayward ways and urges, constantly avoiding occasions of sin, and praying for divine aid and grace during temptation. This utter detachment from sin is a core trait of saintliness.
In sum, by constantly working for indulgences, we not only gain grace to erase our selfish, sinful ways, but also help free the deceased from such burdens. And for plenary indulgences, the required detachment from sin is central to a saint’s job description.
So enter a holy door, worship the Blessed Sacrament, read Scripture, show mercy, pray, fast and give alms. Then confess, receive the Eucharist, reject sin, and pray for the Pope’s intentions. That’s what saints do. Amen.