Fr. Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M. used to say that it is good to view as scandalous the trafficking in indulgences that took place during the middle ages, but he would continue, “what should concern us even more is that, due to the present almost universal lack of the fear of God, an unscrupulous cleric could not sell indulgences today even if he were to spend all of his energy trying!”
If Fr. Feeney was himself a controversial figure, his admonition should not be. What has become of indulgences, those salutary remedies for temporal punishment due to sin?
A cursory glance at how Catholics who lived before Vatican II viewed Purgatory would help us understand why indulgences used to be so sought after. The common opinion of the Fathers of the Church is that the fire of Purgatory is the same as that of Hell. St. Augustine wrote the following on the torments of the life to come, “Purify me in such manner in this life that I need not to be purified by fire in the next. Yes, I fear that fire which has been enkindled for those who will be saved, it is true, but yet so as by fire. (1 Cor. 3:15). They will be saved, no doubt, after the trial of fire, but that trial will be terrible, that torment will be more intolerable than all the most excruciating sufferings in this world.”
If we know that the pains are severe, what are we to believe about the duration of those pains? St. Robert Bellarmine wrote, “There is no doubt that the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten or twenty years, and that they last in some cases entire centuries.” On May 13, 1917, Lucia asked Our Lady of Fatima if her friend Amelia, who had recently died, was in Heaven. Our Lady answered, “She will be in Purgatory until the end of the world.” St. Frances of Rome wrote that on average, the expiation of a single remitted mortal sin takes seven years.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines an indulgence as, “the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God’s justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys [Matt. 16:19], through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.”
While Blessed Mary of Quito was in ecstasy one day, God gave her a vision which illustrates the spiritual treasury that lays before all members of the Church. She was given to see an immense table covered with tons of silver, gold, rubies, pearls, and diamonds. During the ecstasy, Bl. Mary heard a voice saying, “These riches are public property; each one may approach and take as much as she pleases.” God made known to her that this was a symbol of indulgences.
St. Teresa of Avila relates that there was a Carmelite sister who lived a life of no more than ordinary virtue, whose soul ascended almost immediately to Heaven upon death. St. Teresa was astonished at this, and Our Lord told her that though the sister had acquired a considerable debt, she had discharged almost all of it by taking great care to gain indulgences throughout her life.
There are two kinds of indulgences: plenary and partial. Plenary indulgences result in the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin. Traditionally, partial indulgences have consisted in the remission of a certain number of days or years. In regard to this latter kind, Fr. Schouppe writes, “These days and years in no way represent days and years of suffering in Purgatory; it must be understood of days and years of public canonical penance, consisting principally of fasts…Thus, an indulgence of forty days or seven years is a remission such as was merited before God by forty days or seven years of canonical penance.” Unfortunately, Pope Paul VI suppressed all specification of time in relation to partial indulgences.
I have found that being a traditional Catholic can be quite difficult. I cannot speak for others, but I know that there are times when I wish I could do certain things that everyone else seems to enjoy doing without my conscience bothering me afterwards. Regularly going to Confession can be tiring. Holding back what I really think about certain matters to avoid coming across as “extreme” does not always feel great, but neither does speaking openly and then being labeled as such. I will continue to try to take advantage of the Church’s treasury for my own soul. If there be any defect on my end, however, which prevents me from having the disposition necessary to gain the indulgences, one thing about being a traditional Catholic that I will be really grateful for is that I have made traditional Catholic friends – friends who still believe the immutable faith in the same sense our ancestors believed it. It will be nice to have friends who will pray for the repose of my soul years after I have departed, despite any lame efforts I have made at pretending to appear holy in their sight. A priest dressing in white vestments for a Novus Ordo funeral rite – while everyone else in the church is wearing black – giving a sermon on how the recently departed soul is already playing golf in Heaven, is nothing more than sham charity.
“The true friends of the people,” as Pope St. Pius X wrote, “are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.”
 Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J. Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints. Tan Books: Rockford. pg. 33
 Ibid. pg. 89
 Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J. Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints. Tan Books: Rockford. pg. 252
 Ibid. pg. 255
 Ibid. pg. 251