Great news! Indulgences are still available to all the faithful. They have fallen on hard times since the Protestant Reformation of 1517, but the indulgence abuse that helped lead to the Reformation has long since been put right, and so the Church still offers Catholics the awesome spiritual leverage of going straight to Heaven at death without having to endure the suffering of Purgatory. God is Love. He does not want anyone to go to Purgatory. Not now, not ever. But He leaves us free to choose.
What's an indulgence?
An indulgence is when God takes away the punishment in Purgatory that we are due to suffer for sins that have already been forgiven. According to whether this removal of punishment is total or partial, the indulgence is said to be plenary (total) or partial (partial). Indulgences can only be applied to one's self, or to a Holy Soul in Purgatory. To escape the trauma of deciding between yourself and a suffering soul in Purgatory, why not consecrate yourself to Our Lady and she'll choose.
How do we get an Indulgence?
You need to do 6 things:
1. Go to confession every fortnight. [This lets you attempt an indulgence every day]
2. Receive Holy Communion. [ie daily Mass if you want to gain an indulgence daily]
3. Pray for the Pope's intentions. [Any prayer suffices, his intention need not be known]
4. Have the intention to gain the indulgence. [simply wake with the intention to gain]
5. Do a good work authorised by the Church. [eg 5 continuous decades of the Rosary in a church, or in a group of at least 2 people]
6. Freedom from attachment to sin during the time you're attempting the indulgence.
How often can indulgences be obtained?
Unless in danger of death, it is not possible to gain more than 1 plenary indulgence daily.
Are you sure about all this?
Yes, the Vatican's Sacred Penitentiary's Handbook of Indulgences (most recent editions: 1986, 1999) confirms this awesome opportunity for the faithful. The Handbook has a complete list of plenary and partial indulgences; even dummies like me can follow the Handbook. For a Scriptural basis to Indulgences see Matt 18: 18; and Matt 16: 19.
So, if I died upon doing the 6 'things' above, I'd go straight to Heaven?
Yes. Of course, I'm not God. But, if you fulfilled all the above criteria perfectly, the Church teaches that you would totally avoid Purgatory. So, why not try living an indulgenced life? I don't know if anyone can be sure they gain a Plenary Indulgence, but what an excellent spiritual discipline by which to live the rest of your life. Provided it is approached in the right spirit, trying to live an indulgenced life has to be a good thing.
What other works can be done for a plenary indulgence?
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour; devout reading of the Bible for at least half an hour; doing the Stations of the Cross.
Indulgences seem so complicated. They're full of annoying conditions.
Why not establish this simple rule of life: Upon waking, immediately say the Morning Offering, 'Oh Jesus, thro' the most pure heart of Mary, I offer thee all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of thy Divine Heart, FOR AN INDULGENCE, and particularly for the intentions of our Holy Father the Pope.' Try to get to Mass EVERY day. Go to Confession fortnightly. Do a prescribed work EVERY day and try every day to live without any attachment to sin. Practice makes perfect!
* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.