Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some thoughts on Indulgences

After reading what Rich Leonardi has shared on indulgences, I thought I'd put something in the parish bulletins.

Given a few inches of space in my weekly column and a complex and often misunderstood subject, this is what I came up with. Feel free to discuss, ask questions and suggest changes for the next time.

Plenary Indulgences available: (1) reciting Rosary in church, with family or in a religious community; (2) praying Stations of the Cross, at any time of the year, in church or chapel (or if unable to come, reflect 15 mins. on the suffering and death of Christ); (3) veneration of the cross in Good Friday’s liturgy. You obtain the indulgence by: (a) doing the work; (b) being free of attachment to all sin, by (c) going to confession; (d) going to communion; and (e) praying a Hail Mary and Our Father for the pope’s intentions.

Indulgences are misunderstood. An indulgence is a concrete form of God’s grace, granted through the mediation of the Church. It is not “magic.” We gain this gift only with a conversion of heart—which is their purpose. Also, we have a choice: to gain this grace for ourselves; or to give it away, applying it to souls in purgatory.

They are not for forgiveness of sins—rather, they presuppose we’ve already been forgiven—that’s why confession is included. Rather, they help heal the consequences or effects sin has on us. A mother forgives her child for walking in the house with muddy feet—but the carpet still needs cleaning. In ways we don’t understand, an indulgence applied to souls in purgatory assists them in their final purification. Thus, the custom of indulgences teaches us spiritual solidarity with each other.


Anonymous said...

"A mother forgives her child for walking in the house with muddy feet—but the carpet still needs cleaning."

A better image would be "A mother forgives her child for walking in the house with muddy feet—but the child still needs to clean the carpet and learn-so well that it becomes a habit-not to do it again."

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for the observation.

This taps into our theology of grace. It is grace that is at all times the active principle, and we are, to the maximum degree possible (i.e., still allowing for our response, which is still prompted by grace!), the acted-upon. This is what I was trying to express. The "cleaning of the carpet"--i.e., the undoing of the damage caused by sin--is every bit as much the work of grace with our cooperation.

That said, the flaw in the image is that the "cleaning" of purgatory isn't the carpet, but us...

But my purpose was to clarify the distinction between forgiveness and purification...

Got me thinking, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Oh, that sicky little requirement (b) being free of attachment to all sin, just casually placed in there among the list of requirements! I always feel like that requirement needs a little bit more attention and explanation.

I usually experience the following when reading the requirements to obtain an indulgence.

What must I do to obtain the indulgence?
"Do the work" - Ok ya, I can do that.
"Go to Confession" - Ok, done.
"Go to Communion" - Yes, Lord, humbly I receive Thee.
"Pray for the Pope" - OK, got it. Any thing else?
"Be free of attachment to all sin." (Crestfallen) Oh.

. . .and she walked away sorrowful, for her attachments to sin were many.

Respectfully and with great love for Mother Church (and with a tiny bit of humor),

Fr Martin Fox said...


Well, yes, I fully understand.

I consulted the "Handbook on Indulgences" for verbiage that would shed light on that, but didn't find it, so I left it unadorned. Also, the bit above was intended to be very compact, for the bulletin.

But the commentary others have given is that in going to confession, and making an act of contrition, that fulfills that. But that's someone else's commentary, I cannot cite any source for that other than, "a fellow priest."

But here's the thing: this emphasizes that the grace we receive with an indulgence is tied to our conversion, and that seems to me a point that must be made over and over; against those, whether within the Church or outside, who think, great, I can live as I like, and do these periodic things the Church says, and keep myself on good terms with heaven!

Another way to look at it is this: insofar as we keep striving for holiness--to attain that underlying detachment from sin, then we will surely receive that which the indulgence is intended to induce in us: sainthood.

Anonymous said...

Great post and excellent comments. Theresa hit on a point that has troubled me. It seems a key part of going to confession is a strong resolve to sin no more. However, in my many years, I have found sin somehow seeming to be attached to weakness we have within that allows us to be susceptible to a particular craving. When I start to go to confession, I think am I really resolved to sin no more in these areas? Have I grown to detest this sin because it offends God and certainly hurts me? In faith and belief, it seems like you have to look deep and find that resolve to really try. However, after so many failures, do not you also make it harder each time to find that same resolve? If you find it lacking, can you then go to confession and is it valid? How can one not go for that it seems is to give up on God's grace and mercy? If the boy walks in each day with mud on his shoes how can one say he has any intent to not do it again? The apostles asked how many times and as I remember suggested 7 times but our Lord sayed 70 times 7 or some much larger number, but not infinity. Seems like he has some finite amount of times as well.
The other issue of course is forgiveness for we are forgiven as we forgive others. Why is this so hard in so many ways for me? When I see people trashing this country or killing the unborn I very quickly lack the ability to forgive.
I talked with a priest about these issues and he told me not to be so hard on myself and just keep going to confession. But it seems like confession has some rules and things expected of us to gain forgiveness and also we are called to forgive others completely. Isn't going for a sacrament without meeting the conditions layed out for that sacrament simply another sin as with those who are in grave sin going to communion. Shouldn't a priest be advising against going for a sacrament while in sin since this continues to damage our soul?
Growing up, our pastor use to come to our grade school classes to warn us about the impact of sin. He used a milk bottle on the chalk board and color it in while calling out sins. The major ones of course turned the entire bottle full. He seemed to stress the abuse of the sacraments with special emphasis on the Eucarist. I remember his stopping mass to call out anyone he saw coming to communion and advised them to come to him after mass. When this happened (every couple of months it seems) he would talk about the Eucharist in his closing before the mass ended. Now it seems like everyone in the church goes to communion as if it were handing out candy. As I remember, only about half the people went growing up. Maybe that is why we seem to need Eucharistic ministers now. But wasn't this priest in a way doing what was right to save souls from serious sin? Confused.

Anonymous said...

Consider the image of a group of kids playing backyard baseball. It's a beautiful pitch, and it sails out of the park. Except that it's not a park - it's the back yard, and the baseball sailed right through the neighbor's window.

The neighbor comes out with the baseball looking for answers, and the kids own up. The neighbor, benevolent as he is, says to the kids, "I forgive you for breaking the window." "Thanks!" the kids reply. "But," the neighbor says, "someone's got to pay for a replacement window."

The kids catch on pretty quickly, and ask what they can do to make up for it. The neighbor says, "Cut my lawn next week, trim the hedges, pull the weeds out of the garden, don't play baseball in the yard anymore, and we'll call it even."

That's sort of like what an indulgence is. They have to do a few things, and one of those things could be a sticking point, and will take some will power on the part of the kids. But when they're done with the chores, they're home free, having learned to be more careful about where they play.

All analogies limp, and playing baseball isn't sinful, but I hope this image helps.