Indulgences are an incredible gift from God, but they are often misunderstood—even by Catholics. In order to properly utilize indulgences and explain them to others, let’s make sure we’ve got a grip on the basics.

Here’s a primer.

Once sins are forgiven, justice must still be met. Sacramental confession removes the guilt of sin and cleanses our souls, but sin has very real consequences, leaving a “spiritual debt” that we have incurred through our sin.

Just as apologizing for breaking someone’s window—and receiving his earnest forgiveness—doesn’t magically fix the broken glass. As a matter of justice, we must still pay for its repair.

This is why we do penance. It’s why even saved souls may still need purgation (i.e., purgatory) prior to their entrance into heaven.

An indulgence is the remission of the punishment or natural “consequences” (called temporal punishment) of sins that have already been forgiven. It is the Church using Her God-given authority to remove the punishments that would otherwise be suffered in purgatory.

Let’s consult our broken-window analogy again. We have established that we must not only apologize, but repair the window we broke. However, the window owner—out of love and generosity—might choose not simply to forgive but to remit the debt owed—in other words, he might say: “Hey, no worries, I’ll take care of it.” Similarly, God—through the prayerful indulgences administered by His Church—removes the debt we owe for our sins.

It’s important to note that indulgences themselves are not forgiveness. They do not rescue anyone from damnation; they simply help lessen purgation. They apply to temporal punishment, not to eternal punishment. In other words, they aren’t a “Get out of hell free” card.

Therefore, you cannot gain an indulgence if you are not in a state of grace. You must have already been sacramentally forgiven of all mortal sin before you accomplish the given act(s) that the indulgence requires.

Indulgences come in two types: plenary indulgences, which remove all temporal punishment due to your sins, and partial indulgences, which remove only a portion of that punishment.

We can gain indulgences for ourselves, but we can—and should—also gain them for the souls in purgatory! Our prayers do so much good to relieve their suffering and speed them on their way to heaven. In Prayers, Promises, and Devotions for Holy Souls in Purgatory, prayer warrior Susan Tassone provides a spiritual toolbox for assisting the Holy Souls, including devotions, meditations, and wisdom from the saints. Join Susan and countless other devoted souls in their mission to “empty purgatory”! Pick up a copy of this book today!