How to Get an Indulgence

In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, which established new norms for the use of indulgences. This document introduced the classification of indulgences as partial or plenary—a simplification of an earlier system of reckoning how many "days" of penance an indulgence represented that led some to suppose that an indulgence represented getting a certain number of days "off" their time in purgatory.

Partial indulgence: Granted by the Church to "the faithful who at least with a contrite heart perform an action to which a partial indulgence is attached." These individuals "obtain, in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church" (ID, norm 5).

Plenary indulgence: "It is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intentions of the supreme pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent" (norm 7).

The conditions may be performed "several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work" (norm 8). The document also established that a single confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences. Praying for the pope’s intentions can be satisfied by saying a prayer of one’s own choosing, but it is also fulfilled by saying an Our Father and a Hail Mary (norm 10). "All attachment to sin, even venial sin" means a complete exclusion of sin by the action of the will. It does not mean the elimination of all temptation or concupiscence from one’s soul for, as Pope Paul notes, "all men who walk this earth daily commit at least venial sins" (ID 3). There is a limit of a single plenary indulgence per day, except in case of death (norm 6).

A special plenary indulgence is granted for the dying. This is normally included in the last rites, but in the event a priest is not present, the Church grants a plenary indulgence to the faithful "at the point of death, provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime" (norm 18).

Both partial and plenary indulgences can be applied either to oneself or to the departed by way of prayer (norm 3).

The Church’s official book of indulgences is known as the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, or the Handbook of Indulgences. The Apostolic Penitentiary also periodically announces indulgences for special occasions, such as World Youth Day, the World Day of the Sick, and anniversaries of Vatican II. Indulgences listed in the Enchiridion include prayers, the reading of Scripture, and eucharistic adoration.