Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a big family company that had a big general office meeting. The company president called everyone to order and told them, "You know, we're having a big problem lately with our retirees. Of course we want everyone to be able to go to Many Mansions Retirement Home. But spots are always opening up so unexpectedly that some of the retirees don't get a chance to settle their affairs before they go. Even the ones who have time to pack up often don't have time to clean up their desks, so their files and accounts are a mess. What's worse, a lot of times they've damaged the equipment they had to sign for, so they have debts for damages. Which the CEO insists they have to pay, to the very last penny."
Everybody nodded, a little guiltily. They'd been hoping the CEO would just write off the problems. He was incredibly generous on lots of things, but he sure could be a stickler about others.
"So the CEO wants me to let you know that retirees with debts still get to go to Many Mansions, but there'll be a loss of certain privileges until they've worked off their debts. This can happen to any of you."
There was an unhappy stillness, followed by a worried murmur.
"Now, I know many of you have been doing your best to clean and repair things around here, and I appreciate that. Some of you have been helping the retirees work off their debts faster by sending them some of your own hard-earned cash. That's good, too. But I've decided that what we really need is a voluntary but organized program to handle this work and help out our retirees. Let us know that you're donating money to the retirees' debt, and this company will match it. You can donate to someone you know, whoever's in most need, the general fund -- or even to yourself, if you've already worked up a debt. Totally voluntary and totally confidential. But I'd like to see us do it. By working together, we'll be able to help out our retirees, just as we hope our future coworkers will someday help us."
Everyone clapped. It sounded like a really good idea. Also, it was finally time to get up and have a break. When the clapping petered out, they headed off for cookies and pop, feeling quite a bit better about the fate of both the retirees and themselves.
Meanwhile, though, one of the junior accountants was running a few figures through her head. She knew something about the kind of debts the retirees had amassed -- especially the ones who'd gone to Vegas not long before heading off to Many Mansions. She bit her lip, then went up to the front to talk to the company president. (It really was a family company.)
"Sir," she said in a low voice, "I've been thinking about the debt levels. Even if every employee here donated our entire salaries, there's no way we could possibly pay for fixing and cleaning and replacing everything!"
"That's true," said the president. "But that's what the matching donations are for. To be honest, it won't be half-and-half; it'll be more like 1% employee, 99% company funds. What's more, those company funds are either coming straight from the CEO's wallet or from friends he's invested in."
"Then why don't we just let the CEO pay for everything?"
"Teambuilding. Those of us who are still working can learn a lot by working to help our retirees. It's not a one-way street, either. The retirees are always talking to the CEO about us. Even the ones still working off their debt write him really nice letters about us. So working for them in return is the least we can do."
Sorry about all the financial language. Personally, I blame Jesus for talking about Purgatory with that "pay to the last penny" remark. But it's really a less disturbing image of Purgatory than the bit about refining fire and making yourself worthy to enter God's presence, or being saved as through fire.
(Yep, I'm opening a big ol' can of worms. Sorry, Joy!)
Basically, Purgatory is Heaven. Your sins have been forgiven. But it's the making them as white as snow that's the problem. See, just because your sins are forgiven doesn't mean their earthly consequences vanish. If you biffed Billy over the head with a baseball bat, and you apologized and Billy forgave you, and you both put the whole thing behind you -- well, Billy's still gonna have a lump on his head the size of an egg. Whatever happens with Billy and that lump you gave him is at least partly a consequence of your sin, and it will catch up with you. If not here (which it might!), then in Heaven itself. God is just.
You have a duty to try and fix those consequences as well as you can -- to make reparation. If you don't do a good enough job of it while you're alive, then you'll just have to let God purify them off you. God can and will do it. Since there's no time in Heaven, it will take place in an eternal instant. But the process will almost certainly be about as unpleasant as anything in a state of perfect bliss can be. After all, there you are in Heaven, and yet your temporal punishment is keeping you from full communion with God. Even for an eternal instant, that would be bad.
So when you go to Confession, you also get assigned a penance. It usually includes acts of reparation for what can be made right, and acts of piety and prayer for what can't be. Back in the old days, some of the penances handed out were really fearsome and long, especially those handed out to monks and others in rigorous spiritual training. Of course, these acts had no power in themselves. But with God lending them grace, His power could be put behind them. (And thanks to that binding and loosing power over sins given to the Apostles and their successors, people could be sure that God did put His power behind it.)
Also, the idea of praying for the dead and for their purification was already part of Jewish belief (well, at least for non-Sadducees!). It still is, as witness the
Mourner's Kaddish, which is prayed for eleven months after a death. Purification is "a vital principle of Jewish life, one that motivates and animates the Kaddish recitation. It is based on the firm belief that the living, by acts of piety and goodness, can redeem the dead. The son can bring honor to the father. The 'merit of the children' can reflect the value of the parents."
So just as folks prayed for the dead and living, some folks wanted to do penances for their dear departed, as well as for themselves. This was deemed a good idea. Gradually, all sorts of pious acts were granted equal power to make reparation by the Pope or the bishops. Systems arose which tabulated how many days of daily penance these acts were worth. All these acts, including the penance days, now were said to earn "indulgences". "Plenary indulgences" would pay off all of a soul's temporal debts and put them in the same state as just after baptism, while "partial indulgences" would at least take the edge off them.
Now, one of the pieces of news that folks might have seen about World Youth Day was that the Pope granted plenary indulgences today to attendees, and partial indulgences to those who prayed for them. And there was much snarfing about the whole thing, seeing as how Germany was the homeland of the Reformation, and the Reformation started about indulgences. Selling indulgences, to be precise.
It really wasn't supposed to be selling. Giving alms to the poor or the Church was a pious act, and some smart aleck decided that ought to earn an indulgence, too, especially if the Church needed money for some special purpose. (Funding the building of the new St. Peter's, in this case.) But it devolved into selling them, and that's what Martin Luther was complaining about. It was a legitimate complaint, too. The Council of Trent eventually decided to forbid granting indulgences for any purely financial act. But by that time, it was too late.
Still, people like to get indulgences -- mostly for other people. If you're worried about the eternal fate of a friend or relative who's just died, there's great comfort in knowing that as long as the person didn't go to Hell, they're definitely out of Purgatory on the wings of a plenary indulgence. (If the person was already fully in the bliss of Heaven, or sadly had gone to Hell, the indulgence is deemed to have gone to some other soul in need of it.) They're also a great personal help to people feeling a great deal of sadness and contrition for their sins, especially if there really isn't any obvious way to fix the results of what they've done.
(By the way, indulgences are only ever put in effect against things you or somebody else has already done. You can't bank up indulgences in the anticipation of sinning with impunity. Some people seem to think they work that way, but that was probably because of the now-extinct system of ranking them by days of penance. Also, other than to yourself, you can't apply indulgences you earn to the living. You can still pray for them, but they'll just have to do penance or get indulgences for themselves.)
So what can you get indulgences for? Well, there used to be a blue zillion things. But Pope Paul VI got bored with that right after Vatican II, and just declared all the old indulgences gone. (Simplifies matters, eh? The system of classification by penance days went away, too, though you'll still see some folks using it.) Then he declared a list of pious practices you could get indulgences for doing, most of which are pretty simple. Reading the Bible for half an hour, for example, or doing the Stations of the Cross. Some of them are more elaborate practices, mostly connected with feast days or important anniversaries. Some of them are single occasion indulgences, like the ones connected to the Jubilee Doors during the millennium year, or now the ones for World Youth Day. All these indulgences are listed in the Enchiridion/Handbook of Indulgences; there's about seventy of 'em (minus the single occasion ones).
Earning a plenary indulgence isn't easy, though. You have to perform the pious act while in a state of grace (no mortal sins still on your soul); take Communion that same day (hence the need for a state of grace!); have a soul free from attachment to any sin (at least at that time -- and that's harder to achieve than a state of grace!); go to Confession (within a week either before or after the pious act); and pray for the Pope's intentions. Oh, and you have to be intending to get an indulgence. (But you can only get one plenary indulgence a day, so don't get overly ambitious.)
If you screw up on any of that, you can still get a partial indulgence. (But the state of grace and the intention are a must.)
There are plenty of things you can get partial indulgences for, and you don't have to be in quite as pure a condition. You still have to be in a state of grace and be intending to get the indulgence. (Well, and do the pious act, of course.)
So every Catholic schoolkid probably goes through a phase of collecting partial indulgences like...like holy cards with saint pictures, really. Some older people get indulgences in that spirit, too. This is probably not the best way to do it, but it beats doing nothing. If thinking of helping folks as a sport gets you to help folks, then go for the sports! But really, any pious act should be bringing you closer to Jesus and the rest of the members of the Body of Christ, and inspiring you to live a better life and to work for others. You should do it in a spirit of love, gratitude, contrition, and determination to do better.
But there's no reason to be ashamed of working for indulgences. I know it's been years and years since I've tried to get any, though I've been glad to take them when I've been told I was eligible. Now that folks have been posting about them and I understand their workings a bit better, I'm ashamed that I haven't been trying. Given all the departed friends and folks I worry about who probably need prayers and spiritual help, and how much time I've spent praying and offering things up for them without even applying for this extra help, I feel like slapping my forehead and yelling, "Doh!" (Especially since even the departed in Purgatory can pray for us still on earth, and the departed who get to Heaven can pray even better.)
However, there's no reason not to start collecting indulgences again today. The special World Youth Day partial indulgence is available to "all the faithful, wherever they may be", during all the days of World Youth Day, from August 16 to August 21. All you have to do for this one is to have a contrite heart and pray fervently for Christian youth everywhere to be strengthened in the profession of the Faith, to be confirmed in love and reverence toward their parents, and to form a firm resolution to follow "the holy norms of the Gospel and Mother Church" in living out their present or future life in their family, and in whatever vocation to which they are called by God.
Obviously you don't have to do this stuff to be Catholic, or even to pray and help anyone. But personally, I planned to pray for the kids at World Youth Day anyway, and widening it to all Christian youth is no skin off my nose. So why not take advantage of this voluntary matching program?
Biblical basis for indulgences, via Jimmy Akin.
More indulgence info, including a discussion about how not to be superstitious about them.
Ways to get plenary indulgences.
Ways to get partial indulgences. Collect 'em all! :)