and the Holy Year
In recent months ads have been appearing in Catholic publications for
Jubilee Year pilgrimages to holy places. One offers, “Mass at St. Paul
Outside-the-Walls Church...to obtain plenary indulgence.”
That mention of indulgences continues to surprise many Catholics. Didn’t
we get rid of indulgences somewhere along the way? If not, shouldn’t
we be hiding them in the closet?
In truth, indulgences have not been left behind. Like a wise old woman,
the Church carries in her heart old practices that people with less
life experience might dismiss. Seeing wisdom in indulgences, a practice
that arose at the beginning of this millennium, Pope Paul VI in 1967
reformed our understanding of indulgences but did not abandon them.
In spite of tragic abuses—including those that sparked the Reformation—the
Roman Church has maintained that indulgences, understood properly, are
valuable to us. The 1967 reform placed indulgences in the background
as the Church turned its attention to more important practices, sacraments.
Now, at the threshold of a new millennium, Pope John Paul II is telling
the Church how indulgences ought to be used on special occasions to
celebrate and nourish our faith.
In his 1998 Jubilee Holy Year statement, Mystery of the Incarnation,
the pope reminds us, “Every Jubilee Year is like an invitation to a
wedding feast.” Just as we observe certain rituals at wedding banquets,
so too indulgences are among the Holy Year rituals we will see in 2000.
To and Through the Church
In an era uncomfortable admitting sin, the Church reminds us that,
try as we may, we will not make it on our own. We are imperfect, sinful
people blessed by God’s mercy.
Yet sin—even forgiven sin—has enduring consequences. The vandal who
throws an egg at a house might be forgiven by the owner, but the smashed
egg remains to be dealt with. Cleaning up the mess is an opportunity
for further healing.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that sin from
its very nature (not from some sort of vengeance on God’s part) has
a “double consequence”: separating us completely from God (mortal sin)
or separating us somewhat from God by our attachment to other things
(venial sin) (#1472).
Catholics believe that the consequences of our poor moral choices can
extend even beyond our death. Church teaching sees purgatory as a process
after death where we will undergo purification to make us ready for
full union with God.
Yet God is merciful. God creates in such a way that, among the Church,
living and dead, we pilgrims help each other along the way toward union
with God. We do good works for one another here on earth. We proclaim
God’s mercy to the world. And we pray for each other, even beyond the
veil of death.
Those prayers, good acts, public witnesses do some good, we believe.
They help us to reconcile, to move each other closer to God.
Normally we seek reconciliation through the Sacrament of Penance and
Reconciliation. Indulgences are special.
Pope Paul VI described the effects of plenary and partial indulgences.
A plenary indulgence, given after a prescribed set of actions and prayers,
fully removes temporal punishment for sin. A partial indulgence is more
It would be an abuse to look upon indulgences as “frequent flyer miles”
that, if accumulated sufficiently, would assure one, or a loved one,
a free ride into heaven. God’s grace is more mysterious than that. That’s
why Paul VI stopped all talk about any numerical measurement of the
effectiveness of partial indulgences.
On the other hand, faith tells us we can be certain of God’s promises
and of the value of prayer in the communion of saints. Just as we are
certain that Jesus is truly present among us at each celebration of
the Eucharist, in the Word of God and in the gathered assembly, we can
be certain that some things will bring us closer to God.
Theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., expressed well this aspect of indulgences:
“The nature of an indulgence consists, then, in the special intercession
continually made by the Church, in its liturgy and in the prayers of
its members,...applied to a particular member. Because that intercession
is the prayer of the holy Church itself and concerns a benefit which
is indubitably in harmony with the will of God, it is in itself always
certain of being heard...” (Sacramentum Mundi, v.3, pp.121ff.).
Indulgences Close at Hand
John Paul authorized indulgences for visits to holy sites near and
far during the Jubilee Year. He also emphasized finding the essence
of the Jubilee close at hand: “The plenary indulgence of the Jubilee
can also be gained through actions which express in a practical and
generous way the penitential spirit...of the Jubilee.” Among the possibilities
he listed are abstaining from tobacco and alcohol for a day, fasting,
donating to the poor, supporting or volunteering at charitable organizations
and so on.
It might be remembered, too, that St. Francis persuaded Pope Honorius
III to authorize an indulgence for prayers on the Feast of the Portiuncula.
That indulgence helped to end the violence of the Crusades. The Church
encourages us to continue making use of it by reciting the Creed and
the Our Father at any parish church on August 2, coupled with Confession
and Communion within the week. —J.B.F.