Purgatory and Indulgences
Even though Catholics usually don't associate Divine Mercy Sunday with the Church's teaching on Purgatory and indulgences, today is actually a good time to reexamine these doctrines in the light of God's great and merciful love for His children.
Let's use an analogy to help us understand these sometimes confusing realities. A little boy all dressed up in his Sunday clothes decides, right before Mass, that he wants to play in the mud. His mother comes out of the house to find him covered head to toe in brown goop. She's shocked and angry, for she had specifically told him to be careful to keep his clothes clean. The little boy is sorry almost immediately. He starts to cry, knowing that he had disobeyed his mother, and he runs to her to apologize. The mother looks down at her muddy little son and loves him. She can't help it. He's just so loveable, even when he is disobedient and covered in mud. She forgives him at once. But she doesn't hug him...not yet. He is, after all, filthy. So she takes her son inside, throws his muddy clothing in the laundry, and plunks him in the bathtub to clean him up.
We're a lot like that muddy little boy. God gives us rules for our own good. We are disobedient and sin. We get our souls filthy dirty, and God is displeased. But God loves us so much that when we repent, He forgives us. He can't help it. We're loveable to Him. He wants us with Him forever. But our sins, even after they are forgiven, leave us covered in spiritual mud that gets in the way of our intimacy with God. We need to be cleaned up.
Here's where the Catholic doctrines of indulgences and Purgatory come in. Indulgences are like spiritual soap and water that help scrub off the spiritual mud left over even after God has forgiven us for our sins. When we recite prayers and perform pious acts that have been enriched by indulgences, we're cooperating with God in getting cleaned up. If we happen to die before all the spiritual mud has been removed, we need to continue the clean-up after death. This is Purgatory. At this point, other people can help us by gaining indulgences for us through their prayers and pious acts.
In recent years, the Church has simplified the system of indulgences, so today we only designate whether an indulgence is partial or plenary without referring to any specific time values as the Church did in the past.
Partial indulgences get rid of part of the spiritual mud our sins have slathered all over us. Plenary indulgences, on the other hand, remove all the spiritual mud from our souls (and, with it, all the time we or our loved ones spend in Purgatory). Plenary indulgences may be gained under certain conditions. Along with the prayer or pious act, the faithful must go to Confession, receive Holy Communion, say prayers for the intentions of the Pope, and be free from any attachment to sin. The last condition is certainly the most difficult. Very few of us are free from attachment to sin, but this should not stop us from trying to gain plenary indulgences. Even if attachment to sin is still lurking in the corners of our hearts, we will at least gain a partial indulgence when we pray or perform pious acts.
This little explanation is quite simplified and doesn't even touch on important concepts like “merit” and “temporal punishment,” but it does offer us at least a bit of insight into the important Catholic doctrines of indulgences and Purgatory. It also provides some insight into the mercy of God, the God Who, like a loving parent, cleans off the mud of our sin so that He can draw us closely into His loving arms.