Papal Indulgences

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Indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church are a special privilege given to those who fulfill certain criteria. They reduce the time that would have been spent in purgatory suffering for sins after death. In the middle ages the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was encouraged by granting a plenary indulgence to those who made the journey and did certain things on arrival. Now we look in more depth at what indulgences are, their history, and most importantly how you can save yourself some time in purgatory!

Indulgences sound nice – like sweet chocolates, don’t they?

The modern meaning of indulgence probably has its routes in the older meaning, but is quite different. In the eyes of the Catholic Church 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. [Catechism of the Catholic Church]

In other words:

  1. You commit some sins on Earth.
  2. You truly feel sorry for them and seek forgiveness.
  3. God forgives you (for Catholics most commonly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation).
  4. Although you are forgiven and will get to Heaven eventually, you still will be punished for your sins. Why? In short, to become clean before entering Heaven. In more detail, you can learn more about what Catholics believe here.
  5. You can either be punished in Purgatory – an intermediate state after life and before Heaven – or you can go through acts in lieu whilst here on Earth in the form of indulgences.

There are two types of indulgence: partial and plenary. As you can probably guess, a partial indulgence removes some of the time required for the cleansing of sins in purgatory. On the other hand, a plenary indulgence removes all of the time required for the cleansing of sins – so it’s really worth having!

A plenary indulgence removes all of the time required for the cleansing of sins Click To Tweet

So, the medieval Church gave indulgences because the suffering of the journey cleansed the pilgrims of sin?

The first indulgences were pretty hard to get. For example, the first plenary indulgences were only given to pilgrims who died on the journey to the Holy Land. By 1122 it is believed that in Pope Calixtus II granted a plenary indulgence to those who:

  • Visited the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in the years when the saint’s day fell on a Sunday.
  • Made a confession whilst there
  • Attended Mass
  • Gave a donation to the upkeep of the shrine
  • Performed good works

So much for 1122, can I still get one now?

Nowadays a plenary indulgence is given to those who:

  • Visit the Cathedral of Santiago and the tomb of Saint James in a Holy Year – for example 2004, 2010, 2021 and 2027. If you were trying to see the pattern in the years – the Holy Years are those on which the 25th July falls on a Sunday.
  • On this same visit make a true confession, go to Mass, pray for the intentions of the Pope, and either do some charity work or make a donation to charity.

Rather surprisingly you don’t actually need to get the Compostela (the certificate for completing the Camino) to receive the plenary indulgence.

If you can’t wait until the next Holy Year, you can still go on one of Saint James’s feast days (23rd May, 25th July, or 30th December).

Rather surprisingly you don't actually need to get the Compostela to receive the indulgence Click To Tweet

What else do I need to know?

On the eve of a new Holy Year, on the 31st of December, the ‘puerta santa’ is opened to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Puerta santa translates to the holy door. There is a ceremony as the puerta santa is opened where the Archbishop hits the wall three times with a silver hammer. It’s a pretty special occasion to be able to enter through the traditional holy door of pilgrims, just 14 or 15 years a century. So, take advantage of this even if you’re not getting the indulgence!

The Holy Years tend to be the most popular in terms of number of pilgrims. We would recommend if you wish to make the Camino in 2021 or 2027 you avoid the peak summer months due to high numbers. You can read more about the best time to go in this article.

If you get injured en route to Santiago all is not lost. As long as you have walked over 100km, have suffered some injury which means you can’t continue, and go to Mass and confession you can get the plenary indulgence in Villafranca del Bierzo instead! This great blog has more details on the specifics of this towards the bottom of the page.

If you get injured en route to Santiago all is not lost... you can get the plenary indulgence in Villafranca del Bierzo instead! Click To Tweet

In Summary

Indulgences have held an important place in the Roman Catholic Church over the past thousand years, although they may not be top of the list of topics in your local Church. Their purpose is to reduce the time spent as punishment for sins after death in Purgatory. A plenary indulgence is a powerful form of indulgence that remisses all time due in Purgatory. Those visiting the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Holy Years, the next being 2021, can receive a plenary indulgence regardless of if they walk the Camino or not.