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Indulgences and the Holy Year

  Mercy To and Through the Church

God’s Certain Promise

Jubilee Indulgences Close at Hand

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 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.

Mercy 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.

God’s Certain Promise

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 limited.

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.).

Jubilee 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.

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