Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. … So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
— The Gospel of Matthew, 24:37-39; 44
Unlike Lent, the Advent liturgical period starting today isn’t normally associated with the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. Yet both purple-themed Church seasons do call for seeking forgiveness and renewal.
That’s the very preparation urged by the Sunday Gospel mass reading, quoted above: getting ready to welcome Jesus Christ by cleansing our souls from sin, and showing mercy and charity toward the needy.
So, every sinner — that’s all of us — should make time to pray for divine guidance, examine his or her conscience, ask forgiveness for our transgressions, and resolve to mend ways. Rather than putting up a belen and lanterns, decorating the Christmas tree, and even attending nine dawn masses, turning away from sin and turning to Christ is the best way to welcome the Lord.
And one of the best ways to beat sin and its ill effects is what the good thief did on Calvary in last Sunday’s Gospel reading for the Solemnity of Christ The King. Dimas, one of the first saints in heaven, declared by our Lord himself, asked and received from Jesus himself the first plenary indulgence.
The indulgence way to holiness
In the Catholic Church, indulgences remove the ill effects and temporal punishment for sin already forgiven in confession (and whose eternal punishment was swept away). One can obtain indulgences for oneself or the dead.
How does one gain indulgences? Dimas showed how. He confessed his sinfulness: “We have been condemned justly.” He asked Jesus to save him: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Dimas showed compassion — for Jesus Himself: “This man has done nothing wrong.”
So Jesus granted him a plenary indulgence, removing further punishment for his sins, and brought him to Paradise that very day.
Through indulgences, we remove temporal punishment for sins forgiven in confession, and suffered by souls in Purgatory. And we repair the damage done to our souls by sin.
Partial indulgences take away part of the punishment, with no daily limit. Plenary indulgences, gained through special designated actions, remove all punishment. Only one plenary indulgence may be earned in a day.
We obtain indulgences through prayer, confession and communion, Bible study, church activities, works of mercy, and acts of sacrifice listed in the Vatican’s Enchridion of Indulgences, on which this guide is based.
In this way, we not only gain indulgences for the dead to go to heaven. We also become holier by confession, prayer, reflection, and acts of mercy.
Confession, communion, and closeness to Christ
To earn an indulgence, one has to ask for it, be in a state of grace (no mortal sin), and do the indulgenced act. Afterward, one has to pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, and go to confession and communion eight days before or after the act of indulgence.
Those who go to confession once a month, and receive communion at Sunday mass would fulfill this condition for partial indulgences for a whole month. And for plenary indulgences, one should say a special prayer for each one, and only one can be obtained in a day.
Here are selected indulgenced acts, with plenary indulgences indicated.
For the Eucharist: adoring the Blessed Sacrament (plenary indulgence for 30-minute visit in church), praying after communion.
For spiritual study and sacrifice: reading the Bible (plenary indulgence for 30-minute study); fasting and other acts of sacrifice (giving up something we like for at least a day).
Corporal Works of Mercy: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead, give alms to the poor.
Spiritual Works of Mercy: Counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the sorrowful, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, pray for the living and the dead
Church activities: parish fiestas (plenary indulgence for visiting parish churches on their feast days or on August 2), processions, retreats, Christmas, Lent and Easter events;p reaching the Word of God as lector, catechist and missionary; receiving first communion or assisting in first communion masses (plenary indulgence).
Devotions and prayers: the Rosary (plenary indulgence if recited in a group or in church); The Way of the Cross (plenary indulgence), Apostle’s Creed, Angelus, Hail Holy Queen, Magnificat, To You Blessed Joseph, and Prayer to the Guardian Angel; Te Deum (plenary indulgence on Dec. 31), Come Holy Spirit (plenary indulgence on Jan. 1 or Pentecost); prayers for the dead and church or cemetery visits (plenary indulgence for the dead on any day from Nov. 1 to 8)
Other acts of plenary indulgence: venerating the Cross on Good Friday; renewing baptismal vows at the Easter vigil mass or on one’s baptism day; attending retreats lasting three days or longer; receiving the Pope’s Easter blessing on TV; attending masses for the 25th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of a priest’s ordination.
What’s the point of all these rules?
Many a Catholic and even more outside the Church would wonder whether Christ really requires all these actions to wipe away sin and punishment. Isn’t it enough to do good and pray?
Believers, on the other hand, are glad that obtaining grace and wiping away sin and its damage and temporal punishment has been made simple and doable.
One thing is sure: If one follows the example of Dimas — confessing sin, performing acts of piety and mercy, and receiving Christ — one cannot but draw closer to Christ. And that can’t be a bad way to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man. Amen.