So what are indulgences anyway? They are basically credits for the Church Militant (us here on earth) and the Church Suffering (the poor souls in purgatory) from the spiritual storehouse that is the Catholic Church. Saints throughout history have offered up their sufferings, mortifications, alms, and good works as capital in the Church’s spiritual warehouse. And it is all there for OUR benefit. The Church teaches that you can also add your present sufferings to this repository, by “offering it up”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in #1471 the following:
"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."
"An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
The Bible and the Church teach that sin has 2 components – the guilt of the sin, and the temporal punishment for the sin. The best example of this in scripture is in 2 Samuel 12:13-14 when Nathan told David that God had forgiven his sin of killing Uriah and stealing his wife Bathsheeba, but that his punishment would be the death of his son. Adam and Eve were also forgiven for their sin, but they had to endure the temporal punishment of toiling in the sun and the pain of childbirth.
Of the two components, guilt is the most important component, because if the guilt isn’t forgiven (going to confession is the best way), then the punishment could be permanent (in hell), not temporal (in purgatory). This guilt and punishment concept is also true in the secular world – If you wreck someone’s car, the owner can forgive you, but you still owe the debt of fixing his car.
The most famous biblical example of someone getting an indulgence is when Jesus, from the cross in Luke 23:43, gave the good thief complete remission for his sins, promising him that he would be in paradise that day. This power of binding and loosing sins and punishment was given to the Church by Jesus, in Matthew 18:18, when he said “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” “Whatever” means anything, including punishment for sins.
There are 2 kinds of indulgences, plenary (full remission of sins), and partial (partial remission of sins). To gain a plenary indulgence, you must fulfill all of the following conditions:
If all of the above conditions are not met, then you can get a partial indulgence. Any indulgence can be applied either to you or a dead loved one, based on your request.
Some other ways to get partial indulgences are to say prayers during the day, give alms to the poor (or any spiritual or corporal works of mercy), abstaining from something that you find pleasurable (food, air conditioning, TV shows, etc.), visiting a cemetery and praying for the souls, adoring the Blessed Sacrament in Church for a short time, wearing a crucifix/scapular/medal around the neck, or reading the bible for a short time.
There are four ways to get a plenary indulgence:
Truly smart people will start today to get all of the indulgences they possibly can. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow. And no one needs to die with all of the punishment for all of their sins yet to be paid. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross opened the door to heaven for us all, which had been closed since the sin of Adam and Eve; it did not pay the penalty for our individual sins, like some Protestants think (In fact, some protestants teach that their sins are forgiven ahead of time, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and that they therefore are assured of heaven. That sounds a LOT like an indulgence). In other words, Jesus' dying on the cross is not a “get out of jail free” card for us sinners. We still need to confess our sins, and we still need to pay back the punishment due those sins (Matthew 5:26). Making a good confession (removing the guilt) combined with getting indulgences (removing the temporal punishment) is the answer.