On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception last year, our Holy Father, Pope Francis invited the Universal Church to enter into the Jubilee Year of Mercy. He opened the Holy Door in Rome and dioceses around the world followed suit by designating special churches which the faithful may visit to obtain indulgences. The Holy Father himself said in the document, The Face of Mercy: “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy.” (#22)
Many Catholics today are not familiar with “indulgences.” They do not have even the vocabulary that was used in the past to explain this theological concept. One of our parishioners asked me the other day to discuss it in a column. That is what I would like to attempt to do in this bulletin article.
Sin is not merely the breaking of a commandment or the infringement of a rule. Sin is about relationship. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God. Even though God forgives us, the effects of sin still remain. Imagine a husband who spends his entire life being selfish, treating everyone badly, and even cheating on his wife. Just a few weeks before his death, he repents and is reconciled with God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. His sins are forgiven. But his heart is not completely free of his former self-centeredness and his life is not in total alignment with God. At his death, he will be spared eternal punishment. However, he is not ready to enter God’s presence because his heart is not fully capable of perfect love. He still has traces of sin. The debt he has to pay to get himself in total alignment with God is called “temporal punishment.”
Pope Francis writes:
God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising. Nevertheless, all of us know well the experience of sin. We know that we are called to perfection (cf. Mt 5:48), yet we feel the heavy burden of sin. Though we feel the transforming power of grace, we also feel the effects of sin typical of our fallen state. Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain (#22)
Many individuals will have traces of sin when they die. That is why they need a period of purification which we call purgatory. The Church relies on her right to the spiritual treasures won for her by her bridegroom, Jesus Christ, when she offers her children the possibility of erasing this debt either partially or totally. This gift is what we call an indulgence. When the debt is totally taken away, we are given a “plenary indulgence.”
Quoting Pope Paul VI, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes indulgences in these words:
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. (#1471)
The Church tells us that we can undertake certain practices such as prayers, sacraments, almsgiving and works of charity which can enable us to gain indulgences. However, we should be careful not to look at indulgences as we sometimes have done in the past. If you went to a Catholic school in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, you might have been told that if you said a certain invocation you could wipe out 300 days in purgatory. Unfortunately we were looking at the next world with the eyes of this world. Once we die there is no time and so we cannot measure the extent of one’s stay in purgatory. We need to view indulgences more as an act of God’s mercy and graciousness and less as the fruit of our labors. In a certain sense, God indulges us to speed up the process of our purification. When we do certain pious acts, God smiles at our good will and aligns us more expeditiously with his plans.
Once again here are the words of Pope Francis:
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this. It becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin. (#22)
The doctrine of indulgence gives us hope. God’s mercy knows no bounds. He not only forgives our sins; He is also eager to take away the effects of and the punishment due to sin. There is nothing mechanical about it. Let us use this opportunity to taste God’s mercy, “begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful ‘indulgence'.”
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...