Indulgences are making a welcome reappearance in the spiritual life of Catholics. After centuries of slow decline in their use, punctuated by decades of almost complete neglect after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the power of indulgences to enliven a sense of charity and to sharpen a healthy sorrow for sin is finally being rediscovered.

Three popes have led the way.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI (1962-1978) laid the foundations for this renewal by simplifying the rules on indulgences and redrafting the list of designated works and prayers. The pope’s aim was to help Catholics see indulgences not as some sort of special projects to be performed apart from their daily life, but rather as ways to foster charity and a sense of repentance throughout an ordinary day.

Pope Paul’s reorganization of indulgences left in place some of the older and more ambitious forms of indulgences, such as pilgrimages to shrines and participation in Eucharistic Congresses. But he also made it possible to share more deeply in the Church’s “treasury of merit” by doing simple things such as bearing patiently the inconveniences of daily life in reparation for sin.

Pope Paul reminded us that, because God works through the little things in our lives as well as the great, something as trivial as being stuck in rush-hour traffic can become an opportunity to move closer to God if we offer it up for love of Him.

During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) oversaw two revisions of the “Enchiridion of Indulgences” and frequently extended indulgences to Catholics participating in special events in their local area.

In 1991 the Polish pope recognized the Akathist hymn of Eastern Catholics as an indulgenced prayer on par with the Marian Rosary prayed by Roman Catholics. Then, in 1998 he withstood strong criticism from some Protestant leaders when he announced that participation in millennial celebrations of the Catholic Church would be enriched by a plenary indulgence.

Finally, Pope Benedict XVI  made several references to indulgences in his informal addresses. He granted a plenary indulgence to those participating in person or in spirit in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes.

There seems, in short, little doubt that today indulgences are emerging from the pall under which they have labored since the Protestant reformer Martin Luther repudiated them early in the 16th century. As a better understanding of indulgences spreads among Catholics and other Christians, they seem set once again to contribute to the welfare of the whole Church.

An Ancient Practice

We can say “once again” because indulgences are, in fact, quite an ancient part of Christian life. The actual word “indulgence” was first used in its modern sense in the 11th century, when they were offered as a spiritual reward for soldiers volunteering to join the efforts to free the Holy Land from Muslim invaders. But the actual practice of indulgences, if not the name, can be traced back much earlier in Church history, indeed, back to the times of the ancient Roman persecutions.

In those dark days, a practice grew up in which Christians suffering in prisons for the faith would sometimes send a letter to a bishop on behalf of a given penitent. The letter would ask the bishop, in recognition of the willingly accepted tribulations of the letter writer, to lighten the penance of a confessed and sorrowful sinner.

These requests, known as libelli pacis, were a beautiful example of the faithful putting into practice one of St. Paul’s most famous admonitions: to share one another’s burdens (see Gal 6:2).

The context in which such letters were written and rewarded underscored the close connection the Church has always sensed between the sacrament of confession and indulgences. To this day, both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 1471-1479) and the Code of Canon Law (Canons 992-997) explain indulgences immediately in the context of the Sacrament of Confession.

It’s ironic, then, that because the practice of sacramental confession evolved over the centuries, while the theology of indulgences was lagging, the disconnection between penances for sins and indulgences grew over time to the point where confusion set in. Here’s one example.

“Seven Years Indulgence”?

Older Catholics likely recall when the description of each indulgence in the Raccolta (forerunner of today’s Enchiridion) was followed by a specific indication of time, for example, “300 days indulgence” or “seven years indulgence.”

The problem was (and Pope Paul VI saw this) that no one could say for sure what those time periods meant. All sorts of theories grew up about them, but most folks guessed that the time period of an indulgence must indicate time off from purgatory.

This was not an unreasonable guess. If nothing else, it honored the real connection between indulgences and reparation for sin.

But it assumed much more detail about how purgatory works than the Church has ever declared. (Purgatory is probably not an experience in time, but even if it were somehow associated with time, we don’t know how time might be measured in the next life.)

The suggestion, then, that a given indulgence might free one from, say, 300 days in purgatory was never correct.

As it happened, the time designations associated with indulgences were originally based on the lengthy periods of penance that were imposed after sacramental confession many centuries ago. But as those very long penances disappeared, the reckoning of indulgences as some sort of equivalents to what would have been offered up during such lengthy penances made less and less sense, and, eventually, the connections were lost.

Today, indulgences are grouped into only two types, partial and plenary. The category depends on whether the indulgence in question applies to some or all of the punishment a given member of the faithful owes for sin.

Other Misconceptions

While the connection between indulgences and post-sacramental penances no longer applies, the fact that indulgences apply only to the punishment for sin, and not to the forgiveness of sin itself, should not be overlooked.

Indulgences are not, and never have been, ways to seek forgiveness for sins. Much less are they ways to get “permission” to sin in advance! The Church has never taught anything so ridiculous.

To tell the truth, however, some of the popular explanations of indulgences lent themselves to just these sorts of misunderstandings. By the late Middle Ages, the stage was set for indulgences themselves to be attacked by the Protestant reformers because of some faulty explanations of what they really were.

Today, however, the Church’s constant teaching should be clear: Indulgences can be applied only to the punishment that is due for sins already forgiven, either in sacramental confession (in the case of mortal or venial sins) or by personal expressions of sorrow (in the case of venial sins only).

Further study of the Church’s carefully developed doctrine on indulgences can be rewarding and should be encouraged. But we shouldn’t leave the impression that only those with a thorough understanding of indulgences can make use of them.

Any Christian who, in a spirit of penitence for sins, asks God for the deeper share in the infinite merits of Jesus Christ that indulgences offer can use them to move ever closer to God — who wants nothing else than for us to be happy with Him forever.

Edward N. Peters, J.C.D., holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, in Detroit, Mich. His book, “A Practical Guide to Indulgences,” is available from Liturgy Training Publications; call 800-933-1800.