In announcing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote that “a Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. … The mercy of God … becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who through … his Church reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin.” What exactly does this mean: “the residue of sin”?
When we sin, as we all do, there are two consequences.
First, our communion with God is weakened, or lost altogether if the sin is serious enough to be “mortal.” When we repent and turn to God, he pardons our sins and grants the remission of whatever “eternal punishment” our sin deserves. This is what happens in the sacrament of penance.
Second, every sin, even less serious “venial” sin, is the result of our fallen nature’s attachment to things other than God. In his First Epistle, Saint John speaks of “human nature full of desire, eyes hungry for all they see, material life that inflates self-assurance.” To see God face-to-face in heaven, we must first be purified of our misguided attachments to all that is not God. We must undergo a form of what traditionally has been called “temporal punishment” due to sin, either now or in Purgatory after our death. The Latin word poena can be translated as “punishment,” but it can also mean “expiation,” and is to be understood here as a process of expiation or purification.
The theology of indulgences is really quite beautiful. It is based on the belief founded in Scripture (cf. Col 1:24; Rev 19:8) that the church possesses a spiritual treasury made up of the good works of the saints. Thanks to their merits, which are redemptive only in union with Christ, we need not bear “temporal” punishment, expiation or purification by ourselves nor rely solely on our own strength.
Pope Saint John Paul II describes it this way: “The Christian is not alone on the path of conversion. In Christ and through Christ, his life is linked by a mysterious bond to the lives of all other Christians in the supernatural union of [Christ’s] Mystical Body. This establishes among the faithful a marvelous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others.”
The English Catholic laywoman, artist and writer Caryll Houselander (d. 1954) says this: “The whole meaning of the Mystical body, Christ on earth, is that we are all ‘good with others’ goodness and guilty with others’ guilt, praying with others’ prayers and so on.’” Houselander continues: “A soldier was talking to me the other day about a long march he had made between two prison camps; he said something to me to be the most wonderful unconscious description of the Mystical Body, from … the angle of the Passion: ‘[A]fter we had been marching a long time, I didn’t feel myself aching anymore, I felt the tiredness of the chap behind me aching in my bones.’”
The granting of an “indulgence” from this spiritual treasury has long been a part of Catholic piety. Its scandalous abuse at the time of the Reformation led the church to reform the practice, not abandon it. When Catholics fulfill certain appointed conditions, they can be granted an indulgence for themselves or for those in Purgatory. An indulgence is either plenary or partial; that is, it frees a person either from all or from some of the temporal punishment due to sins. The practice is not meant to create a mentality of trafficking in spiritual goods or buying one’s way into heaven. Eternal life is a gift of God’s grace. No indulgence can take the place of faith and repentance. The norms governing indulgences emphasize personal conversion of heart, prayer and works of piety, mercy, charity or penance on the part of those who seek an indulgence.
In the Catholic hierarchy of truths, indulgences are certainly not at the top of the list, but they are a legitimate custom and a spiritual gift to be received with faith, repentance and humility. Particularly now during the season of Lent, I invite you to avail yourself of the jubilee indulgence. For more information, you can turn to our archdiocesan jubilee website at http://archdioceseofhartford.org/year-of-mercy.