God Catches Flying Arrows: The Three Plenary Indulgences Explained
Imagine an arrow flying toward a target. You are the arrow. God is the target.
The Greek verb for “sin” is hamartánein — the same word used when an archer “misses the mark.” When you commit a grave sin, you are “missing the mark,” or moving away from God. If you keep going in the wrong direction, you are missing out on eternal life with God by moving away from relationship with Him. The Roman Catholic Church calls this “eternal punishment.”
If you want to hit the bullseye, you must stop aiming at your sins and, with God’s grace, aim your arrow toward the Lord’s heart. Turning away from your sins is often a painful process requiring a journey of purification. Sins are wiped away through the sacrament of Reconciliation, but the disorder and effects created by sin can still remain. The Roman Catholic Church calls this “temporal punishment.” Purification from temporal punishment can happen in this life or in purgatory. Thankfully, God loves us so much He allows us to correct the record — without the suffering that usually accompanies purification — through works of devotion, penance, charity, or with an indulgence.
But you must accept the new direction of your arrow. God will never force you to love Him. If you choose not to re-aim toward God, the Roman Catholic Church calls this choice “unrepentant mortal sin.”
Imagine Jesus reaching through the air to adjust the flight of the off-course arrow (you) until it is aimed straight at His most Sacred Heart abounding with mercy. This is a plenary or “full” indulgence. It’s nothing less than full because He frees you from all the temporal punishment your sins warrant. It’s like a mercy “boost” to get you going in the right direction again, toward the best relationship with God that you can have.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of suffering, so it’s an important time to receive mercy boosts. This is why, according to Bishop Michael Olson’s pastoral letter on March 24, Pope Francis has imparted three special plenary indulgences during these “trying times.”
Usually, receiving an indulgence involves sacramental Confession, the Eucharist, praying for the pope’s intentions, and a special prayer to accept the “mercy boost” to re-aim your arrow. During this time of quarantine, though, you can make some adjustments:
- Say an act of perfect contrition sincerely asking God for forgiveness and resolve to go to confession when it is safe to do so after the epidemic has passed.
- Make an act of spiritual Communion, resolve to receive the Eucharist when it is safe to do so after the epidemic has passed, and either attend Mass remotely, say the Rosary, pray the Stations of the Cross or another devotion, or recite the Creed, the Lord’s prayer, and ask Mary to pray for us.
- Pray for the Holy Father’s intentions.
- Accept the Lord reaching out to adjust the path of your arrow by praying sincerely to turn toward God. Each indulgence has a special prayer.
Here are the three ways to obtain these special full indulgences. Stick to one per day if you can receive more than one. These indulgences are also available to those who have died, so if you have lost a loved one, you can pray for this indulgence on their behalf to re-aim their arrow toward God.
- Anyone with the coronavirus and their families, anyone in quarantine (at home counts too) and healthcare workers: Offer this trial as an act of faith in God and for love of neighbor. Those who can receive this indulgence should also complete one of the following: Unite themselves spiritually to the celebration of Holy Mass through media such as radio, TV, or the internet; recite the Holy Rosary; pray the Stations of the Cross; or at least recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a pious prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- Anyone who prays for the epidemic to end, for relief for the afflicted, and salvation for those who have died: Visit the Blessed Sacrament, attend Adoration, read Scripture for 30 minutes, recite the Rosary, pray the Stations of the Cross, or recite the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
- Anyone who is dying who has ever prayed before: All that is needed is a spirit fully detached from sin. That covers the usual confession, Eucharist, and prayer for the Pope’s intentions. Meditating on a crucifix or cross is recommended but not required as you pray for this indulgence.
In a time of so much suffering, we can take comfort in God’s extra-special mercy boosts. So, if your arrow is headed toward some grave sin to the left of God’s elbow, don’t worry. He’s reaching out to help you adjust your course straight toward His heart.