When Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica to inaugurate the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the local press covered the event with celebratory good humor. However, in one local paper, journalist Nicole Winfield’s article on the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy (Pope Francis urges ‘mercy before judgment’, ProJo, 12/9/2015) wrongly and perhaps derisively referred to the indulgence to be granted by the Catholic Church to Roman pilgrims as a “get out of purgatory free” card. Ms. Winfield should be cautioned that there is nothing free about an indulgence.
The columnist may be forgiven of course for writing disdainfully about the place of indulgences within Catholic life. Friar Tetzel and his heavy-handed peddling of indulgences in order to subsidize the re-building of St. Peter’s basilica in the early sixteenth century became a source of mockery among blossoming Protestant congregations and an occasion for embarrassment among loyal Catholics. Even in the lifetime of most readers of the RICatholic a rather crude and elementary understanding of indulgences was prevalent. Holy cards and pious pamphlets would often have expressions like “300 days indulgence” or “5 years indulgence” or even worse “7 years and 7 quarantines indulgence” tagged on at the conclusion of a prayer or devotion. This practice easily led to a numerical appreciation of indulgences whereby Catholics could tally up days, months, and even years to be subtracted from the time a soul would spend in purgatory. This break in purgatorial atonement could be applied to one’s own expiation or to the reparation of a departed loved one. This somewhat blundering understanding of indulgences was a little too neat. Pope Paul VI on January 1, 1967 solemnly promulgated an Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences as an attempt to clarify the authentic place of indulgences in Catholic life and to encourage the laudable aspects of gaining indulgences.
Like the late Jewish community just before the advent of Christ, the Catholic Church has always believed that it is “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins.” Second Maccabees piously records this belief. Prayers for the dead – or prayers for oneself for that matter – testify to the readily available mercy of God which believers may call upon at any time for themselves or for others. An indulgence attached to a particular action consequently makes handily available to believers the inexhaustible merits which Jesus Christ earned by his death on the Cross and which the saints have enriched by their Christian lives. In his decree Pope Paul had in mind the marvelous Communion of Saints whereby all believers, living and dead, saints and sinners, share in the riches of the Savior. In gaining an indulgence Christians do not add anything to the Church’s spiritual resources but rather avail themselves of assets already accessible through Christ and his saints. Thus repentant sinners, united as a single body to Christ and his saints, can enjoy and apply satisfaction to themselves or to others for sins already forgiven but not entirely forgotten. An indulgence is an intensification of the Christian’s spiritual life, an actual strengthening of the believer’s experience of redemption. Indulgences would be better understood in terms of spiritual depth rather than in terms of temporal length. This is why Pope Paul labeled all indulgences simply as “partial” or “plenary,” that is, “in part” or “in full.” Numbers are no longer in the reckoning.
To gain an indulgence a believer must perform a designated pious or charitable work. Taking a pilgrimage to Rome would certainly qualify, although reading a Bible passage or praying a Rosary quietly at home are also indulgenced activities. The recipient must also receive Holy Communion worthily, must confess his or her sins in the sacrament of Penance within a week, and must pray for the intentions of Our Holy Father, the Pope. The more commendable a good work (ranging from the simple use of Holy Water to charitable acts toward the poor), the more the infinite merits of Jesus Christ are made available to the believer. An indulgence is a spiritual reward from Christ, so to speak, for the believer who performs a laudable but also practical work of prayer or charity. During this Jubilee Year, Catholics are offered a double opportunity for mercy: they may perform, for example, any corporal or spiritual work of mercy for their neighbor and at the same time indulge themselves in the richness of God’s bountiful, spiritual treasury. Indulgences are a win/win situation.