Indulgences in Holy Scripture

     An Indulgence is the pardon of an offense by treating the offender as if it had not been committed, both in the sight of God and in the sight of God’s Church. An Indulgence is both a payment and a remission. It is a strict payment of the debt, which the sinner has incurred, and to “the last penny” (Matt. 5:26). It is a remission, for the “last penny” is taken, not from the sinner, who is penniless, but from the inexhaustible treasure of Christ and of His saints.

In ancient days, the usual document in which indulgences were published used to state: “We remit the penalties enjoined so many days.” This meant that the penitent obtained from God as much of the remission of his debt, as he would have been able to discharge through the means of the canonical penances, had they been imposed upon him, or of the penance, which the priest might have imposed upon him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The Church has always believed that an indulgence, when received, stood, either partially or totally, in lieu of the penances which otherwise would have been imposed in accordance with the penitential canons (laws) or by the priest confessor.

An indulgence is not the remission of sin, for it presupposes the sin to have already been forgiven. Sometimes, however, it is called remission of sin, but the word sin is understood to signify the punishment due to sin. Scripture often uses the word sin in this sense (2 Macc. 12:46; 2 Cor. 5:21) and St. Augustine taught that the word sin can be taken in many and various ways, of which punishment for sin on one.

Consequently, when an indulgence is granted in these terms: “from guilt and from pain,” – a culpa et a poena, - the first part of the clause refers to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the second to the power of indulgences; or according to Cardinal Bellarmine’s interpretation (De Indulg., 1. i. C. 7.), it indicates that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a presupposed condition for gaining the indulgence. And so the Pope remits the guilt by granting to his priests the power of absolving, of freeing the penitent from penalty when his guilt has already been forgiven.

An indulgence does not free the repentant sinner from the consequence of his sin; for example, he would still have to return stolen property, or retracting false statements, or avoiding similar sins in the future. Nor does it keep at bay the natural consequences of sin such as poverty, shame, sickness, the loss of reputation, of friends, etc.

The word indulgence is found in Scripture several times, but with different meanings. Sometimes is refers to release, deliverance, remission, as in Is. 61:1, where the prophet says, in the person of Christ, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”. This implies an action of freeing, of releasing, of remitting.

The same passage, with a slight change of words is repeated in Luke 4:18-19, which our Lord quoted for the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me…to preach deliverance to the captive.”

Sometime the word indulgence is taken in Scripture to mean mildness, condescension, as it is used by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7:6: “I say this by way of concession, not of command.

It is evident that the word indulgence is only a blending of two signs; for we call an indulgence a remission of a punishment due to sin, after the sinner has already obtained the pardon, which remission is prompted by the motherly mildness and condescension of the Church, sympathizing with our spiritual illness. Hence we often find indulgence called by the name remissions in Church documents.

If a temporal (in time) punishment is still due to the sinner who has been forgiven; if there exists in the Church a treasury of satisfactory merits,1 composed of the superabundant merits of Christ and of His saints; if the unity of faith and charity places us in direct communion with the Church in heaven and in purgatory, it is natural to say that a part of these satisfactions can be applied to us by the lawful authority of the Church for the payment of our debt, and that this can also be applied to the souls of those in purgatory.

It now remains to see whether such a doctrine has any foundation in Holy Scripture, and in the practice of previous centuries.

Before we set out to examine these proofs, we must bear in mind that Holy Scripture is only part of the revealed Word of God. Christ established a living authority in His Church and He entrusted this authority with the care of representing and continuing His own mission. It follows that what the Church holds and practices is to be held and practiced no less than the word of Christ Himself. Remember, St. Paul in his Letter to the Thessalonians, charged them to, “hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).

Suppose the Scriptures were silent about indulgences, we would still not have the right to conclude that this is a false doctrine. Such a doctrine is contained in the teaching of the Church, commonly called Sacred Tradition. Even Protestants acknowledge Sacred Tradition in practice. They believe in the descent of Jesus into hell, and keep holy the Lord’s Day rather than the Sabbath, only because of the traditional teaching of the Church, for no word on these points is found in Scripture.

However, the Scriptures are not silent on the subject of indulgences. For the sake of clarity, I will show that the doctrine in contained indirectly and directly in the Scriptures.

Again, let’s review the general idea of an indulgence. An indulgence is the remission of a temporal debt, made by God to a sinner, in consideration of the satisfactory merits of His Divine Son and His saints. This is the same as saying that God in His mercy is willing to overlook a person’s debt, on the consideration that other have sufficiently atoned for that debt.

The compassionate acceptance of other person’s satisfactions on the part of God is found in Scripture. When God declared to Abraham that He would spare the sinful city of Sodom, if only ten just men were found there; when at Moses request, he delayed the punishment which He had decided to inflict on the children of Israel because of their sin of idolatry – what were these, but proofs that God is willing to forgive man his debt of temporal punishment, in consideration of the satisfaction of others.

Actually, we do not need such proofs to show that God readily accepts the satisfactions of some as a compensation for the sins of others. God has punished entire kingdoms for the sin of only one person, such as in the case of King David, in numbering his people. How can we doubt that God, who is much more prone to forgive than to punish, will overlook the infinite satisfactions of His beloved Son, and those of His elect, who are so dear to Him? This cannot be. For God is a severe Judge, He is equally clothed with the attributes of a tender Father; and if He has threatened “to visit the iniquities of the fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation (Deut. 5:9), He has no less pledged Himself not to leave unrewarded even the smallest good work, even if it is only giving a cup of water in His name (Mk. 9:40).

If so, we have to acknowledge the general idea which is implied by the doctrine of indulgences, that not only is it not inconsistent with the tenor of Scripture, but that it cannot be denied without a grievous affront being offered to God’s infinite goodness and mercy.

The Apostle Paul believed in this kind of communication when he wrote to the Corinthians, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less?” (2 Cor. 12:15). And to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). And to Timothy, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

This consideration, drawn from the general aspect of the Scriptures, may be sufficient to show how reasonably in can be said that God may, in consideration of the merits of some of His saints, remit to others the temporal debt due to their sins, but it does not provide evidence of such a power in the Church. However, even this can be inferred clearly, though indirectly, from the teaching of the New Testament.

Here we find that Jesus first said to St. Peter, and then to all the Apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt. 16:19). By these words, Jesus gave to the first pastors of His Church what is called the power of the keys,2which gave them the power of opening or closing the gates of heaven.

Now there are two things, and only two things, which shut the gates of heaven against a soul: first is the souls own unworthiness, and the other is the temporal debt, which the souls may have to pay to God’s justice. For the removal of the first, Jesus ordained the Sacrament of Reconciliation; for the removal of the second, the Church claims that some other remedy has been instituted.

In fact, the Church can wash guilt from the soul and thereby prepare it to meet the Creator. She can also exonerate the soul from the lighter guilt of debt, which it may still have to pay to His justice. If she has power over the precious Body and Blood of Jesus for the remission of sin, she also has the power for the atonement of the punishment. To grant the one and to deny the other is to limit Christ’s gift. This is the consequence a person must face if he acknowledges the power to remit sins, but will not agree that the Church has any authority to release the sinner from the debt of temporal punishment, and to grant indulgences. 

Henry VIII, before he broke away from the Church, in the book he penned against the apostate priest, Martin Luther, in defense of the Sacraments,3 acknowledged that the power of granting indulgences was implicitly contained in the words of Christ to St. Peter and to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But, there are more than indirect hints; we have explicit evidence in the New Testament. There is nothing more touching in the New Testament than the history of the woman caught in adultery. According to the Jewish law, she was to be put to death. The scribes and Pharisees knew it, and for them, this was a sufficient pretext for tempting Jesus. They knew how gentle He was toward sinners, and they wondered if this gentleness would make Him forget the demands of justice. “What do you say?” they asked insidiously.

The just Judge, who knew the amount of guilt that lay on the conscience of each of the accusers, put them to shame: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Confounded, convicted by their own consciences, they withdrew one by one. “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again."

Here, the Son of God, within His divine authority, released the woman from the pain to which she was subject according to the Law of Moses. We know little about what might have passed between the woman and Jesus. We can only guess about the torrents of grace, which flowed from the Sacred Heart into the soul of the woman. We do not hesitate to infer that He forgave her out of the fullness of His mercy. When He sent His apostles, He invested them with His own authority. It follows that they and their successors must have possessed the power of remitting the penalty due to sin, just as Jesus possessed it.4

There is even more explicit evidence. In his first letter to the faithful of the city of Corinth, (1 Cor. 5:5) St. Paul rebuked them for allowing a man charged with incest to live in their midst and speak to them. Making use of his apostolic authority, he had solemnly excommunicated that sinner. He had him cut off from the company of believers, and forbid them to eat with them and to deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now it happened that shortly afterwards St. Timothy, whom St. Paul had sent to Corinth, came back to the Apostle, and related to him what progress the Corinthians had made in the faith, and how they had profited by the admonitions he had given them in his first letter. He spoke in particular of the sorrow, which the faithful had experienced, when St. Paul had cut off that sinner from their communion, of the signs of compunction and repentance this poor sinner had given, and of the desire and prayer of the Church to readmit him to their fellowship.

St. Paul’s heart was gladdened, and giving vent to his feelings, he wrote from Macedonia to the Corinthian community. The tone of the second letter was quite different from the first. It was sent by the Apostle through his disciples Timothy and Luke.

In the second chapter, St. Paul begins by apologizing for the sorrow, which he unwillingly caused them. He then tells them that he is satisfied with the trial to which the sinner had gone through, exhorting at the same time the faithful relax their severity, and to show him mercy and forgiveness. “For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8).

The faithful had anticipated the Apostle’s desire, as they had already mitigated the severity of the chastisement inflicted, or were about to do so. St. Paul approved of the determination, and endorses it with the fullness of apostolic authority: “Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (vs. 10-11).

Consider the importance of these words. Here we have St. Paul, an Apostle, not of men, neither by men, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, (Gal. 1:1) entrusted with power from above over the Church, indeed an “ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), who in the name and in the very person of Christ, grants to a man who had already shown proof of repentance, that there was a fear that the sorrow for his sin might overcome him, a solemn remission of that penance which had been imposed upon him, and which consisted in being cut off from the community of the faithful for a just reason. St. Paul was justly concerned that the depth of sorrow for the sin might plunge the man into a pit of despair.

Here we see verified to the letter the definition of an indulgence, and the existence of the three conditions required for its validity: authority in him who grants it, a just and pious motive for granting it, and the state of grace of the person to whom the indulgence is to be applied. Therefore, St. Paul granted a formal indulgence, no different to the indulgences that the Church has granted in all ages.

Such a pardon, granted in the person of Christ, must have freed that man from the burden of his debt of temporal punishment, not only in the sight of the Church, but also in the sight of God. For Christ is the invisible and spiritual Head of the Church. He, therefore, has an invisible spiritual action upon the members, an action which consists in the interior sanctifying and cleansing of the soul.

That this is the way, in which St. Paul’s pardon is to be understood, is evident from the absurdity, which would follow a different interpretation.

Had the Apostle released the man from the debt he owed to the Church, and not from that which he owed to God, he would by freeing him from his penitential exercise, have deprived him of the means of atoning for his debt before God, and this would have made him suffer less in this life, in order to make him liable to suffer more in the next. Would not such a pardon have been a mockery rather than a forgiveness?

Such are the evidences in Scripture about indulgences; evidences which cannot fail to strike any man of simple faith and sound judgment. The doctrine is in accordance with the general tone of Scripture; it flows as a natural and necessary conclusion from some of its doctrinal points; and we find it practiced by the Apostle of the Gentiles.

However, Scripture is not the only source of faith. Many truths are not explicitly contained therein, but are handed down by word of mouth from Christ and His Apostles, through successive generations in the Church down to our own times. This we call Sacred Tradition. It is a teaching no less divine than Scripture; the only difference is that the latter is written and the former is the unwritten Word of God.

Obviously, Protestants will not agree to this premise, as they hold to the doctrine of Scripture alone. As regards indulgences, if Scripture alone is a sufficient guide to our belief, then we do not have to look further. The doctrine of indulgences is Scriptural.

In addition, the doctrine of indulgences is supported by the tradition of the ages that have preceded us. Sacred Tradition is divine revelation. The Word stems from God; He is the fountainhead. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are simply two streams from the same source, a twofold aspect of the same Word of God spoken to man. Tradition and Scripture have the same root of faith, a mutual exposition of the same divine doctrine – Scripture ministering to Tradition the elements of revealed truth; Tradition clothing them with its own multicolored garb, and illustrating them in various ways to those who have eyes to see.

Concerning the matter at hand, one of the greatest difficulties, which hinder Protestants from acknowledging the validity of indulgences, is the absence of guarantees from the writings of the Fathers and the practice of the primitive Church.

This is a serious charge. It is equivalent to asserting that when the Church codified the doctrine of indulgences, she departed from the purity of the doctrine of Christ, and substantially changed from what Jesus meant her to be, and error was introduced in place of divinely revealed truth.

If the doctrine concerning indulgences is a false doctrine, contrary to the Word of God, and if the Church from the 13thcentury has taught something that she was not commissioned to teach, then on that point, she has been in error and taught heresy. If the Church taught heresy, it means that she deserted her spouse and has given herself over to the powers of darkness. It means that she has made a compromise with the sons of Satan, and that the gates of hell finally prevailed against her.

Let’s examine this charge more closely. Suppose that, in reality, the Church never granted indulgences prior to the eleventh century, from this fact we cannot infer that the Church has no power to grant them. Should we conclude that the Church did not have the power simply because she did not use it?

The question answers itself. The non-exercise of a right is no argument against the existence of that right. On the contrary, the mere use of a right confers no claim to the right. The person who exercises this right may or may not have the right to do so. Since the use of a power confers no power, it is illogical to assume that the absence of such a display infers the absence of the power itself.

Our Divine Lord was not bound to pay earthly kings the legal tribute. If the children of kings were exempt from this law, how much more would be the eternal Son of the King of Glory. But for the sake of instruction, He did not exercise His right of exemption. On one occasion He even performed a miracle in order to be able to pay the tribute. “When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, "Does not your teacher pay the tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?" And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself" (Mt. 17:24-27). By paying the tax, Jesus did not relinquish His right not to do so. He remained the one great Lord, who is not required to pay tribute to any man.

St. Paul had the right to be financially supported by the Christian communities to whom he preached. Yet, he chose not to make use of that right. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). By no means did he renounce his natural right. The absence of the exercise of a right is no argument against its existence. If a child does not use his reasoning abilities, this does not mean that he does not possess them.

Even though we grant that the Church, previously to the eleventh century, had never granted indulgences, this is not proof that in reality such a power did not exist.

The Church is a living body, which, “the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col. 2:19). It is natural for a human body to grow from the dependency of childhood, to the vigor of youth, and to the strength of adulthood.

In fact, the supernatural order is similar to the order of nature. As the perfection of the whole depends upon the perfection of the parts, and the parts themselves attain their own perfection only by the force of natural growth and development, so the perfection of a living body depends on the perfection of its members, and the members themselves reach their proper degree of perfection when they acquire that strength and development which befits their nature.

So it is in the Church. When Jesus created the Church, He did not give her each and every detail of her practices and traditions, which we now hold. He left her to attain, by the working together of time, of circumstances, and especially of grace, that degree of development, which it was His intention, she should reach. When Jesus established the Church, she was still wrapped in her swaddling clothes.

Keeping this in mind, it will be easy to understand how it is possible that, the doctrine of indulgences developed. The Church, while maintaining her unchangeable nature, may have varied in the disciplinary or practical part, on account of the changes, which Christian society has undergone.

The Church, long before the thirteenth century, granted indulgences similar in kind to those she now grants, although the form in which she not grants them is different that it was then. This proof should be sufficient to any fair-minded inquirer. The Church exercises the same authority today as she did as an infant. The doctrine of indulgence was received from an unbroken tradition.

There are two ways to look at the tradition on indulgences. On the one hand, we might enter into the vast field of patristic scholarship, examine the Father’s writings, consult the innumerable works they have left us – books, tracts, letters, questions, etc. – and examine all they have said on the subject and compare it to the present practice of the Church.

But this is a long and winding way. We know that the first Fathers, just as the Apostles, never had the intention of writing theological treatises; there was no need at the time to go into detail, and besides, there was the law, jealously kept among the Christians, the law of secrecy by which it was strictly forbidden to lay open to profane ears the mysteries of Christianity. It was not considered becoming to. “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt. 7:6).

Anyone who is acquainted with the writings of the Fathers, especially those of the early Church, will not have failed to observe that the writings were of a highly spiritual nature. And so, the course of study, which suggests itself, to the student of tradition, is the study of what the Church practiced in her discipline, and performed in her liturgy, from the beginning of her existence. This will give us the key to the understanding of the more obscure passages of the Fathers. It will make us live with our ancestors in the faith, and by comparing our practices with theirs, we shall be able to decide what is truly apostolic and built upon the foundation of Christ and what is extraneous growth and varied addition.   

In order to understand how the Church granted indulgences since her beginning, it is necessary to take a general view of the public penances required by the sacred laws as an punishment for the more serious sins.

In the beginning, those among the faithful who were guilty of lesser sins were simply deprived of the right to bring their gifts to the altar and receiving Holy Communion. Those who were guilty of more serious sins were excluded from the Christian assembly, while others, guiltier still, were banished forever from the Church, and their names were struck from the roles of the faithful.

Later, four degrees of penance were established, each of which gave origin to a special class of penitents.

In the first class, were included those among the faithful who were denied entrance into the church. They were condemned to stand outside the sacred place, and even outside the entrance hall, and to remain in the exterior narthex5during the celebration of the sacred mysteries. They were clad in mourning clothes, and wore sackcloth as a sign of their penance; their hair was disheveled and covered with ashes. They would often mingle their tears with their prayers and supplications, hence their name flentes, or “weepers,” and their degree was called “a weeping.” Sometimes they would kneel and kiss the feet of the faithful, entreating them to speak to the bishop on their behalf, in order that they be admitted to the penitents of the Church, for, rather than true penitents, they were candidates for penance. This stage could last several years.

The second degree included the lower class of penitents, properly se called, whom the bishop, at the request of the deacons and of the faithful, had released from their painful and humiliating penance outside the church, and allowed to go through the regular course of rehabilitation.

They had a place in the interior narthex; but they were still separated from the community by the wall of the church, and could not see what was going on inside, and could only listen to the reading of Holy Scripture, and to the homilies and sermons preached by the sacred ministers.

This was the proper place set aside for catechumens, but where, at times, Jews, and also heretics, and schismatics, and even pagans, were allowed to penetrate, to hear the word of the Gospel, in order that they might be converted, if God deigned to touch their hearts. This stage of penance was called “a hearing,” and the penitents were called audientes, “hearers.”

When the readings and instructions were over, the deacon, from an elevated place, asked the “hearers and infidels retire.” The word infidel was used to describe all those who were not baptized. It would be difficult to understand the emotions that must naturally come to those who were in this situation. Their timely exit from the proceedings would have been a harsh reminder of their crimes and the knowledge that they had not yet received Christian regeneration.

After these penitents had spent the required time in a particular state, corresponding to the degree of their sins, they were again admitted to a place in the church to have a place with the faithful, and thus they entered into their third stage of penance. This new class of penitents occupied a space, which was immediately below the ambones.6

As soon as the “hearers” had left the church, the penitents of this third class prostrated themselves to the ground with sighs and tears, in which the faithful joined. Then they rose together with the bishop, and received from him the imposition of hands, accompanied with the recitation of some canonical prayers, after which they were asked to depart from the faithful, together with the catechumens. These people were called substrati, or “kneelers,” and their degree was called “prostration;” and during this stage of their penance, they had to go through a severe course of private prayers, fasting, and hard work.

After these, and last in the order of penitents, came the consistentes, or “standers,” who were allowed to remain in the church during the entire liturgy, but were not allowed to receive the Blessed Sacrament, nor make any offering destined for the Holy Sacrifice or for the church’s maintenance. Their stage, from their position, was called, “a standing.”

It must be observed that the four stages of penances were exclusively in use in the Oriental churches, for we find no traces in the works of Latin writers. Yet, the Western Church too found it necessary to enforce upon sinners, whose sins were publicly known, and had brought disgrace to the name of Christian, and an offense to the Christian community, the imposition of a serious penance, as a condition for their readmission into the church and the participation in the Sacraments, in order to receive, once again, the original graces obtained through baptism. Readmission to the Church was not received without great difficulty and could only happen once during a person’s life.

The first thing a penitent was required to do was to renounce public offices, ecclesiastical careers, or military service. They could not marry, and if married, they lost their conjugal rights. The men were to have their head and beard shaved, and the women were to receive the veil of penance. They were also to give alms to the poor and abstain from all pleasures that would have normally been allowed, with the exception of divine services.

The penitents were allowed to live in their own houses, without seclusion and without any official supervision. After the middle of the fifth century these penitents were closed up in monasteries during the Lenten period, and were only released on Maundy Thursday, the day of public reconciliation.

In the third century the Church found herself obliged to submit this matter to regular legislation. Novatus, a priest of the African Church, and Novatian, a deacon of the Church of Rome, falsely interpreted the words of St. Paul, taught that once a person had lost baptismal grace, it could not be regained. As a protest against this error, the discipline of penance was carried out in Rome with a special liturgy.

Ash Wednesday, witch was called “the beginning of the fast or of Lent,” was the day chosen for the imposition of public penance. During the preceding days penitents prepared themselves for the reception of public penance by confessing their sins to a priest.

On Ash Wednesday they were solemnly clothed with sackcloth by the priest and special prayers were said for them. Later the custom prevailed for the penitents to also receive ashes on their heads. Today, this practice is universal. There are numerous instances in the history of the Church, which demonstrate to power of the Church in demanding public penances for serious sins.

As for private penances, Tertullian wrote: “Some flee from the exercises of penance or defer them, because they considered them a defamation, caring more about their honor that about their salvation; not unlike those who have contacted hidden maladies, dare nor discover them to physicians, but rather expose themselves to death through that miserable shame” (De Poenit., c. 8.).

As secret penance and secret confession existed, there was public absolution and private absolution. In fact, solemn absolution was only given at the end of the penitential term, which sometimes lasted several years. We know from the testimony of Innocent I, St. Jerome, and others, as well as from the authority of the Council of Agde, celebrated in 506, that it was customary for penitents to be admitted yearly to Communion. Unless we admit that penitents went to receive Holy Communion unabsolved, which is extremely unlikely, we must acknowledge that a private absolution was given to them prior to receiving Communion.

Keep in mind, that public penance was given only for public crimes, and when the culprit has been found guilty in a court of law.

Maundy Thursday in the West, and Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday, in the East, were the days set aside for the reconciliation of sinners. These days were chosen to enable the penitents to receive the sacred Host on Easter Sunday. For, “ever time,” says St. Ambrose, (De Poenit., 1. 2. 3.) “our sins are forgiven us, we take the Sacrament of the Body of our Savior, to show that it is in virtue of His Blood, that the remission of sins is granted.”

The reconciliation of penitents to the Church was considered as a second initiation, or a second baptism. The Sacrament of Reconciliation breathes a spirit of the purest charity. There is jubilation in heaven for the happy return of the prodigal son, and on the other hand an assurance that the penitent can once again put on a fine robe and partake of the fatted calf, for the Church, like God himself, “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez. 33:11). Any time we ask God’s pardon, we are begging an indulgence.

Examining the practice of the Church, we find that as early as the fourth century, the bishops had the power to shorten, at their discretion, the period of penance, even at times, to allow the penitents to pass straight from the degree of hearers to that of standers, without having to spend any time as kneelers. This was a great concession, for the stage of penance to which the kneelers were submitted was the longest, and sometimes lasted fifteen years.

We find this power mentioned as a matter of fact in the 11th and 12th canons of the Council of Nicea (325). It was said that according to the fervor with which a man shall have received the penance enjoined him, it is in the power of the bishop to grant him the indulgence, so that he may be released from performing the whole time prescribed to him (Can. 12.). Later the Council of Lerida (524) gave bishops a similar authority. Such a power was not a new introduction in the Church. It had existed long before. We do not know of any specific introduction of such a practice and on the other hand, we protests were made against the practice. There is no reason why we should not trace it back to the time of the Apostles.

This fact shows that the Church released the sinner from the ordeal of penances, which she herself had demanded. Out of the plentitude of her power, she shortened before God and men, and sometimes dispensed altogether with the satisfactions due to God, which had been more than sufficiently paid by Jesus and His saints.

Throughout the history of Christendom, we find bishops using, with apostolic authority, this power of reconciling the sinner to the Church before their penitential term was fulfilled.

Another reason for granting this relaxation to penitents was the approach of a persecution. It was important that the prayers of the community and the grace of Holy Communion fortify each person. The object of the Holy Eucharist is to give strength to those who receive it. It was not uncommon, during these periods of persecution, for Christians to carry the Blessed Sacrament upon their person, in order to avail themselves to viaticum, (food for the journey) at the time of death.

So when a penitent was in danger of death, the penance was remitted, but only on the condition that he departed this life. If he recovered, he had to submit to the penitential canons according to the priest’s direction.

It was necessary to dwell some time on the history of canonical penances because it is to this institution that we must appeal if we wish to understand the nature and the extent of an indulgence. An indulgence is no more than a substitution for a canonical penance, both in the sight of the Church and in the sight of God.

In times past, indulgences were granted in terms of days or years. This was a reference to the ancient penances. This is not to be considered as a shortening of any penalty in purgatory, as many believe, as there is no time, as we know it, in the afterlife.

God’s justice demands that we make atonement for our sins. Although the Sacrament of Baptism opens the gates of heaven, we must be worthy to enter. As long as we have the vestiges of the excessive self-love that caused us to sin, we are not worthy to be in God’s presence. It is only through a proper examination of conscience that we might come face to face with the reality of our condition before God. Repentance and restitution must be made before we can enjoy the presence of the Almighty in eternity.  


1 See articles on Grace and Jewish Indulgences. Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

2 See article on The Keys of the Kingdom.

3 The book is entitled: “Assertio VII. Sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum, edita ab invictissimo Angliae et Franciae Rege et Domino Hiberniae Henrico ejus nominis octavo, Londini, 1521,” at the article “De Indulgentiis.”

4 See St. Thomas. Summa. Q. 25. a. I.

5 Narthex, from the Greek, so called on account of its figure resembling an oblong rectangular wooded rule. There was formally a two-fold narthex joined to the basilicas, one exterior, and the other interior. The exterior one was a vestibule in the shape of a portico situated outside the church. It had, three, five, or seven columns, and was also used as a cemetery. An atrium separated this from the interior narthex, which was another vestibule, similar to the first, but separated from the nave by a wall having three, and sometimes five, doors leading into the church.

6 The ambones were high marble pulpits, accessed by a flight of steps; hence their derivation from the Greek, to ascend. It was from this place that the deacon sang the Gospel, or preached to the people, and delivered announcements. It was also from these pulpits, that the newly converted made their profession of faith.

© 2004 – Victor R. Claveau

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"Whereas the power of conferring indulgences

was granted by Christ to the Church, and she has,

even in the most ancient times, used the said power

delivered unto her by God; the sacred holy synod teaches

and enjoins that the use of indulgences, most salutary

 for Christian people and approved of by the authority

of sacred councils, is to be retained in the Church;

and it condemns with anathema those who either

assert that they are useless, or who deny that

there is in the Church the power of granting them."

-Decree of the Council of Trent, Session 25. (Dec 4, 1563).