From the Desk of Fr. John Nickolai
In November the Church traditionally turns her attention to prayer for the dead. The month begins with All Saints’ Day, celebrating those who have gone before us into glory. The next day, November 2, marks “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed,” or All Souls. This second observance recognizes that, of those who have gone before us, while their salvation is assured, some may need further purification in order to enter God’s presence.
Contrast this with the contemporary tendency to instantly “canonize” the dead. Certainly, that’s an understandable impulse — we want to believe the best possible thing has happened to our loved ones, that they have gone to heaven. But there is comfort in acknowledging that our prayers and sacrifices may be helpful to them, aiding their purification.
In fact, an indulgence specifically for those in purgatory is available during this time: within the “octave” of All Saints’ Day, that is, from November 1 to 8, a plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who visit a cemetery and pray for the departed. As a refresher: an indulgence is “the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven.” I sometimes explain indulgences with the imprecise but understandable expression, “time off from purgatory.” In fact, you may see, in old enough Catholic books, prayers with notations like “300 days.” Again, that’s inexact — there aren’t “days” in eternity — but we use our limited language to express supernatural truths.
Indulgences are “plenary,” that is, complete, remitting all temporal punishment, or “partial,” that is, remitting only some of it. To receive a plenary indulgence, the faithful must: 1, be in a state of grace; 2, be detached from all sin, even venial sin; 3, receive the sacrament of confession; 4, receive Holy Communion, and 5, pray for the intentions of the Pope.
Ideally, all these acts are done on the same day as the indulgenced work. But it suffices to do them within about 20 days. One confession can apply to several plenary indulgences, but Holy Communion and prayers for the Pope are needed for each one.
Doing the math, this means that if one went to confession about every month, and of course stayed clear of sin, one could theoretically gain a plenary indulgence daily. There are many indulgenced works not bound to any specific time: reciting the Rosary in common or reading Scripture for 30 minutes are two simple ones.