Just in case you were wondering if there were still any differences between Catholics and Protestants, besides the fact that the Catholics have church on Christmas, check out this announcement from the Vatican on November 29. Pope Benedict XVI declared a “plenary indulgence” for Catholics who honored the Virgin Mary on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. (I hate it now that I missed the chance, but I notice he limited it to Catholics anyway. What does a Separated Brethren have to do to get a break here?)
A plenary indulgence, by the way is "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilty has already been forgiven." This is according to Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967). The Pope can degree indulgences, since he is Christ’s representative on terra firma, and sometimes he delegates it to the bishops. The cool thing is you can obtain indulgences for yourself or for souls in Purgatory. So, if you think Aunt Mary, although a good Catholic, might be spending a long time in purgatory to burn off some sins, you can spring her with an indulgence. Or, if you are selfish, take care of the old sins you are worried about. All you have to do is celebrate the feast of Immaculate Conception.
Or you could do a random act of kindness. Just do some research and find some Catholic who recently died, and give the indulgence to them. Just imagine, here they are just roasting away in Purgatory and, bam! They are sprung. It is kind of like when Mormons baptize for the dead. You are sitting around feeling bad because you aren’t in the celestial heaven with the Mormon elders, because they are, after all, a fun bunch, and bing bang boom, up you go because some Mormon guy was nice enough to get dunked just for you.
To get this particular indulgence, you had to “participate in a sacred function in honor of the Virgin, or at least offer open testimony of Marian devotion before an image of Mary Immaculate exposed for public veneration, adding the recitation of the Our Father and of the Creed, and some invocation to the Virgin." The Mary thing is becoming increasingly big in Catholic circles, and it has always been big. But they want it to be bigger. And the Pope doesn’t want to do it alone. When he renders public homage of praise to Mary, the Pope has the heartfelt desire that the entire Church (Catholic church) join with him, so that all the faithful, united in the name of the common Mother, become ever stronger in the faith, adhere with greater devotion to Christ, and love their brothers with more fervent charity. And honoring Mary will evidently do all that, plus spare your loved ones some heat.
The Pope declared the indulgence to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. (I was glad it was over, too, but did not really celebrate.)