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An indulgence is a pardon or release from the expectation of punishment in purgatory, after the sinner has been granted absolution.

Indulgences were introduced to allow for the remission of the severe penances of the early Church and granted at the intercession of Christians awaiting martyrdom or at least imprisoned for the faith. They draw on the treasury of merit accumulated by Christ's superabundantly meritorious sacrifice on the cross and the virtues and penances of the saints. They are granted for specific good works and prayers in proportion to the devotion with which those good works are performed or prayers recited[1].

An indulgence may be plenary (remits all temporal "punishment" required to cleanse the soul from attachment to anything but God) or partial (remits only part of the temporal "punishment").

Bellairs Corpus

Commentary

"I recall hearing about a certain date in the Church calendar when one could gain an indulgence at every church visited on a certain day, and that the faithful were encouraged to visit as many churches as possible, thus ‘collecting’ indulgences.  Being non-material, of course, they would not require bags and it's my assumption that John is just spoofing the idea.  In fairness to the Church, I should point out that people were not encouraged to seek indulgences for themselves, but for loved ones who were already deceased and were presumably suffering for their sins in Purgatory. So the earning of indulgences was not exactly a self-centered activity, and the Church certainly advised its members to try to earn their heavenly reward through virtue rather than the accumulation of indulgences; however, there was no rule saying that you couldn't bank them to your own account, if you wanted to.[2]

References

  1. Wikipedia: Indulgence
  2. Correspondence with Charles Bowen.