As Diocesan Bishops open the Holy Doors of the local Churches throughout the world today, many people, both Catholics and others, may find themselves wondering about the notion of an indulgence.
The Code of Canon Law describes an indulgence as "the remission of sin before God of temporal punishments for sins whose guilt is already forgiven" (canon 992). This definition is straightforward enough, but still it leaves us sometimes scratches our heads. What, precisely, does it mean?
Foreseeing this question, His Holiness Pope Francis explained the theology of indulgences this way in Misericordia Vultus, the Bull of Indication of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy:
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger than even this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.The Church lives within the communion of the saints. In the Eucharist, this communion, which is a gift from God, becomes a spiritual union binding us to the saints and blessed ones whose number is beyond counting (cf. Revelation 7:4). Their holiness comes to the aid of our weakness in a way that enables the Church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others. Hence, to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father's mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer. To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ's redemption, so that God's love and forgiveness may extend everywhere (22).
By virtue of the power of the keys entrusted to the Apostle Saint Peter and his successors, the Popes, the Church could loose this indulgence of the Father and so make it fully available to everyone everywhere. However, to emphasize the importance of repentance and conversion, the Church, in her wisdom, has attached the grant of the Father's indulgence to certain pious activities, such as reading the Bible, or listening devoutly to a homily, or making the Stations of the Cross, or visiting a cemetery, or, yes, walking through a Holy Door.
By attaching the gift of an indulgence to these pious acts, Holy Mother Church wishes to prompt and encourage her sons and daughters to pursue and fulfill them. In this way, the Church shows us the way to grow in holiness, to become a saint so that our strength might one day aid the weak.