In another thread it was stated that indulgences are incompatible with Byzantine Catholicism, to the point that the Latin belief was rejected in full, not just the Latin expression of it. I nearly converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, but didn't, I returned to the Roman Catholic Church. One of the things that bothered, even disturbed me, about Catholicism, was indulgences and the treasury of merit. What I want to share below is how I came to understand this belief, and reconcile myself to it.
I cannot claim with any certainty that my understanding is correct, or compatible with either Latin or Byzantine Catholicism. It is simply my personal attempt to understand this, in a way that I hope is orthodox and compatible with the sensibilities of both East and West. I invite anyone's respectful critique of this attempt, bearing in mind this is rather personal to me.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following about the treasury of merit, which is the basis of indulgences:
In the communion of saints, "a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things."87 In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.
We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy. This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.” (CCC 1475-1477)
In hindsight, a personal experience helped me to understand this. I went to confession at the Basilica of the National Shrine, and sadly I had an unedifying experience with the priest who heard my confession. I left feeling frustrated and a little angry. I lacked any peace, and I began to doubt my own repentance. As I was praying and doing my assigned penance in the crypt church, a great number of Missionaries of Charity processed into the church, and began choir practice. I was deeply moved by their presence and the beauty of their song. I experienced a profound catharsis, I felt repentance, and was moved to tears. I don't think I would have felt that without the presence of these holy sisters. An attentive little sister came over to me with the biggest smile, and told me she would pray for me.
For me, this experience was a transfer of spiritual goods. Not a cold doctrine, but an example of the body of Christ helping a struggling sinner to repent. I think, or hope, that the experience of souls of our deceased faithful experience our prayers and petition for them in a similar manner. I think or hope that in indulgences, Rome invokes the promise of Christ to Peter and the apostles of binding and loosening, to promise the assistance of Christ in the saints in the performance of special prayers and pious works. Perhaps that promise is superfluous, and perhaps explained very badly.
This is how I have come to have peace with this Latin definition of dogma. I offer it as one poor sinner's attempt to understand things very far above me.