Johan's Blog

In his letter written for the conclusion of the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis ask that we celebrate 24 Hours for the Lord during the season of Lent. His objective is to intensify our Lenten goal of returning Christ to the center of our lives in an attempt to correct the ills of our world. To that end we are asked to engage even more deeply in our Lenten disciplines of praying, fasting and almsgiving during these 24 hours.

Among the dangers of our 21st world, Pope Francis often points out the temptation of a provisional and à la carte existence. By this he means that we are less and less willing to commit ourselves while always leaving a door open to something else or someone else. We choose and pick what suits us best at any given moment. This results in an ever increasing form of practical relativism which leaves us and the world at great risk. Christ offers a strong antidote to this narcissistic and individualistic spiral of destruction. For Christ is not only the foundation of our faith he also anchors our human existence and offers a corrective to the pitfalls of the human condition.

In a speech to a group of religious Pope Francis offered a vision of how religious life might help our 21st C. world. This vision clearly applies to the church at large which “must keep the freshness and the novelty of the centrality of Jesus; maintain the attraction of spirituality and the strength of mission; show the beauty of following Christ, and radiate hope and joy. Hope and Joy.”

Our Lenten disciples and the 24 Hours for the Lord are intended to assist us with just that:

  1. to make Jesus central to our lives anew;
  2. to deepen our spiritual life;
  3. to strengthen our mission of being Christ to the world;
  4. and above all to radiate hope and joy which results from following Christ.

At The Basilica we have set aside March 31-April 1 for this initiative. We are offering many prayer opportunities including Eucharist, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Reconciliation, Sacrament of the Sick, Station of the Cross and more. Please visit www.mary.org  for a complete schedule and sign-up instructions.

Though we offer these prayer opportunities we would like to suggest that we not limit this initiative to prayer in church alone but that we live out these 24 Hours for the Lord in our daily activities. We might be more intentional, e.g. about returning the centrality of Christ to our home by praying together, reading Scripture, creating a prayer corner, blessing one another, etc. We might engage in acts of mercy together such as work in a soup kitchen or a shelter; maybe we could write letters to our representatives explaining our Catholic stance on social issues. 

The observance of 24 hours for the Lord is the perfect opportunity to testify to the fact that as Catholics we are meant to make a profound difference in this world. We find the inspiration and courage to do this in our liturgy and private prayer. And our prayer comes to fruition when we share the hope and joy of the Risen Christ with all our sisters and brothers.

May 24 hours for the Lord 2017 bring some much needed hope and healing to our world.

Last night I went to dinner with some friends. We got into an animated conversation about politics and religion, two topics my mother strictly forbad during dinner. The people at the table next to us were much quieter. Though they exchanged the occasional words, most of their time was spent in silence as they used their personal devices, maybe even texting one another. Unwittingly they proved a point I tried to make. Though they were spending time together they seemed to be very much separated from one another using the very tools that were conceived to connect people. They were in their own worlds shaping and even creating their own realities.

Pointing to our neighbors, I mused about the fact that on the one hand humanity is more connected than ever before, thanks to all the travel opportunities and modern means of communication. On the other hand, humanity seems more divided than ever. And ironically, the very tools intended to unite us are used to distance ourselves from one another and even to separate and divide us. 

One of the great culprits of division in our society is our rampant propensity for a type of “self-curated reality.” Many if not most of us have resorted to creating our own bubble of reality accepting as true only those facts that fit within our own world view, regardless if the information is factual or not. In addition, we surround ourselves with like-minded people be they real or virtual. On social media, e.g. many of us “friend” those who share our worldview and “de-friend” those who don’t. This tends to create a vicious cycle of “self-curated reality” which is difficult to break. Rather than relate to one another and connect on topics that matter, we close ourselves off from thoughts that oppose our opinions and withdraw in self-curated realities.

One possible antidote to this is a much-forgotten gift we all share: our conscience. As Christians, we believe that we are created in the image of God with an innate sense of right and wrong, i.e. our conscience. This God-given conscience is a kind of moral compass that allows us to navigate the stormy moral waters of day to day life. It allows us to see our human world through the eyes of God. When used, it can prove to be a great corrective to the dangers of “self-curated realities” that are isolating and divisive. Thanks to some old cartoons, I think of our conscience as the little angel whispering into our ear what we ought to think and do.

In order to recall, encourage and even unleash the power of our God-given conscience we have created a Conversation of Conscience on the south wall in our Teresa of Calcutta Hall in the Basilica’s lower level. The overall theme for this Conversation of Conscience is Pope Francis’ proposed Revolution of Love and Tenderness. This Revolution is artistically represented through a wood carving by Sr. Mary Ann Osborne. We invite you to meditate on this work of art and to share your response to the art. In addition, four questions are intended to start a post-it conversation: Why call for a revolution? Who is deserving of my love? What is tenderness? How can I make a difference? Before doing this, please allow your conscience to percolate and inspire your thinking. Some guiding thoughts are posted on the same wall.

The Conversation of Conscience will be open throughout Lent. We hope you will participate. Your answers will be the base for further conversation on the topic. Therefore, engage your conscience as an antidote to our society’s temptation to limit reality to our own. And please invite your personal device users at dinner to do the same, maybe even through social media.

 

Lenten banners hung above sanctuary

Lent Experienced Anew

This week we will mark Ash Wednesday and with that we embark on another season of Lent leading to Easter in the Year of Salvation 2017. I am so ready for this time of spiritual renewal and I look forward to engaging in all that Lent has to offer. I truly hope the same for you.

It has not always been like this for me. Growing up I dreaded Ash Wednesday and Lent. I did not particularly care to fast and abstain from things I enjoyed. What was the point? More emphasis on prayer seemed impossible as my brother and I served for practically every liturgy we had. Banning all decorations from church and covering statues I thought unnecessarily bleak. And the Lenten sermons were downright scary. It all made for an unpleasant and gloomy experience. It felt like a dark cloud covered me for six weeks as I lived under the heavy burden of Lent and tried to be a Lenten champion doing everything I was supposed to do, and then some. 

It took me a while to understand what Lent was really about. My big mistake was that I idolized the disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, almsgiving. I saw Lent as some kind of disciplinary marathon of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense I made it all about me and my heroic Lenten accomplishments. I failed to see that the Lenten disciplines were merely the means toward the greater goal of bringing about a change of heart for the betterment of the Body of Christ.

Today, I realize that the principle goal of Lent is to coax us out of the safety of our comfortable, complacent, and often self-centered world. To that end, our Lenten prayer is not to be about ourselves. Rather, we are to pray for the well-being of others and for greater generosity toward others. Our Lenten fasting is not about depriving ourselves but rather about embracing a simpler lifestyle which in turn benefits those who are in need. Our Lenten almsgiving is not about the satisfaction of giving from our excess but about freeing ourselves from worldly possessions which in turn allows others a greater share in the world’s riches. 

Pope Francis once asked this very poignant question: “Do we toss alms at a beggar from afar or do we look him in the eyes as we place the money in his hands?” This seemingly simple question touches on the essence of our Lenten journey. The moment we look those who are in need in the eyes and touch their hand, they become a person rather than a problem. It takes little effort to pray, fast, and give alms. It is much more difficult to acknowledge the person we are praying for, fasting for and giving alms. Yet when we do, in that moment, in that encounter, we cannot but be changed and become more like Christ as we recognize Christ in the other.

Our Lenten experience will be fruitful only when our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are focused on others, rather than on us. The power of Lent is that it causes us to turn away from ourselves toward one another, to look one another in the eye and to recognize that all of us together make up the one Body of Christ. Once we truly embrace this, then we will be ready to fully engage in the disciplines of Lent and prepare ourselves to worthily celebrate the Easter Mysteries.

A blessed Lent to everyone.

On November 20, the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis closed the Holy Doors in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome thus completing the Extra-ordinary Holy Year of Mercy. 39 pilgrims from The Basilica of Saint Mary were in Rome for this celebration. Our Basilica Schola Cantorum sang for the Mass. It truly was a beautiful and joy-filled liturgy. Pope Francis spoke about the past year with appreciation and gratitude. He also indicated that a lot remains to be done. 

To that end Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled: “Misericordia et Misera” or “Mercy and Misery” or one could say: “mercy meets and heals misery.” St. Augustine used these two words to describe the meeting between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11). This life changing encounter between Jesus and the woman pre-figures our own encounter with Jesus for we too, though sinners, are the recipients of God’s mercy. 

In this beautiful letter Pope Francis wrote: “The Jubilee now ends and the Holy Door is closed. But the door of mercy of our heart continues to remain wide open. We have learned that God bends down to us (cf. Hos 11:4) so that we may imitate Him in bending down to our brothers and sisters.” 

He goes on to say that we need to deepen our commitment to mercy by celebrating the mercy we have been shown by God; by witnessing about God’s mercy to the world; by sharing God’s mercy with the world; and by showing mercy to all those around us. In essence he once again calls on us to embrace a culture of encounter characterized by mercy, love and tenderness; a culture that tears down walls and builds bridges; a culture that invites dialogue instead of division; a culture that lifts people up rather than putting people down. 

In one of the most beautiful passages of the letter, Pope Francis calls on us to “unleash the creativity of mercy” so as “to bring about new undertakings, the fruit of grace.” In response, here at The Basilica of Saint Mary we decided to continue on the path of mercy by initiating a Revolution of Love and Tenderness. Revolutions, peaceful and otherwise, have changed the world. Our suffering world is in dire need of great change. So we propose a peaceful revolution accomplished through love and tenderness, two Christian strengths Pope Francis often links to mercy.  

How will this revolution manifest itself? It will manifest itself when we protect creation and respect and honor all life. It will manifest itself when we bridge divisions and work for the common good. It will manifest itself when we stop all discrimination and accept one another no matter our class, race, age, gender, sexuality, creed, physical or mental ability. It will manifest itself when we end all speech and acts of hatred. It will manifest itself when we put the “we” before the “I.” 

During this upcoming Year of Our Lord 2017 may we truly find ways to bring about a Revolution of Love and Tenderness for the much needed healing of our world.

One of my favorite photos of The Basilica was taken by Mike Jensen. Positioned at Dunwoody College to the west of The Basilica, Mike photographed our beautiful building against the backdrop of the entire Minneapolis skyline. This photo not only affirms the importance of The Basilica’s physical and visual presence in our skyline, but even more importantly it symbolizes the role The Basilica plays in the day-to-day life of Minneapolis and beyond.

It may be surprising to know that before any religious service was held in the building, the city of Minneapolis and the greater metropolitan area came together to consider the importance of The Basilica for the city. This was done with a series of public lectures by local and national speakers in addition to a number of concerts given during November of 1914.

In regard to the civic dedication, Mgr. Reardon, long-time pastor of The Basilica, wrote in his 1955 book, Basilica of St. Mary of Minneapolis: “The general trend of the discourses was in harmony with the purpose of the civic celebration. The speakers emphasized the necessity of civic righteousness as the characteristic of the highest type of American citizenship. The learned and highly interesting lectures alluded to the new church as a center of civic betterment even before it was dedicated to the religious purpose for which it was erected.”

Today, more than one hundred years later, The Basilica of Saint Mary continues the legacy envisioned by the early members of our Church as we carry on their vision to seek “civic betterment” or in our current parlance as we “seek the well-being of the city.” This vision so near and dear to the heart of our community is inspired by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah (29:7) who encouraged the People of Israel saying: “Seek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you. Pray for it to the Lord. For in seeking its well-being you shall find your own.”

Much has changed since those first years in the life of The Basilica community, the city, and our world. However, our commitment to be good stewards of ourselves, our city, and our world has only become stronger. 

Our calling to “seek the well-being of the city” is a microcosm and metaphor for our broader Christian calling to seek the well-being of the entire world and everyone who lives in it. This may seem like a daunting task, but we might be encouraged by all that we already do if we were to evaluate our personal and communal life. 

This week we are called to cast our vote for the next president of the United States and many other civil servants. This is a task I take very seriously having just become a US citizen in 2008. This will be my third presidential election and I am anxious to vote. The image I will take with me in the voting booth is that of The Basilica against the backdrop of the City of Minneapolis. The words I will take with me are Mgr. Reardon’s call to “civic betterment” and the Prophet Isaiah’s appeal to “seek the well-being of the city.” I will let this image and these words guide my vote.

And when we awake on the morning of November 9, provided that you went to bed, may we clothe ourselves with the mantle of “civic righteousness as the characteristic of the highest type of American citizenship” no matter the outcome of the election.

“Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our hearts and our minds.”

My grandfather was a professional cyclist. I inherited many pictures of him riding his bike or standing on the winner’s podium. In one photo my grandfather models a hat. He looks quite stunning in his suit, overcoat and hat. A clumsily taped-on note claims that Jules Gurdebeke only wore this one kind of hat. The claim was true. This was indeed the only kind of hat he wore throughout his entire life. But why the note? When asked he admitted that this was an advertising experiment. He claimed he was a reluctant model, advertising his favorite hat. “It is not because I look good in the hat that others will too” he said. And yet, he did it. And he did it well.

I love this picture. I look at it often. The other day I was showing it to my relatives who were visiting from Belgium. All the sudden it struck me that in the same way as my grandfather somewhat reluctantly modeled the hat, I am a reluctant model of the Gospel.

Being a Christian is not always easy, especially today when religion is viewed with suspicion and believers are often considered naïve, antiquarians or worse, extremists. Surely, there are Christian extremists; there are Christians who long for by-gone times; and there are Christians who live a naïve rather than an enlightened faith.

So what are we to do as a community of believers? Do we close our doors and our hearts as we hunker down with like-minded people? Do we allow ourselves to be scared into believing that those who are different from us are intent on destroying us and our cherished traditions? Or do we embrace the reality of our diverse and complicated world and open ourselves up to dialogue and fruitful co-existence?

Our Christian faith commands us to engage in the latter. Fear is not a Christian virtue, neither is fear mongering. We are called to speak of hope and bear witness to love for our message is the message of the Gospel or the “Good News” and not the “Bad News.”

I keep the photo of my grandfather on my desk. It reminds me that though he was a reluctant model of hats, he did it and he did it well. Likewise, though I may be a reluctant messenger of the Gospel, I am called to do it and to do it well. And as I look at my grandfather’s picture I think, Christianity is the hat I wear. Sometimes it fits comfortably, other times it seems too big or too small. Nevertheless, I keep wearing it for it is the only hat I can wear. And like my grandfather, I am fine with others wearing other hats since not everyone looks good in the same hat.

Her hand shows the marks of time: arthritis, wrinkles, veins, cuts and bruises. Her hand is open, extended and inviting. A gesture which is reflective of the mission she serves. This is the hand of a woman who has lived a long life, a dedicated life. This is the hand of a woman who has served the church for many, many years. This is the hand of a woman, convinced that she can continue to contribute to the church despite old age and even beyond death.

Nestled in her hand is a simple rosary, seemingly made of olive wood. It is the string of beads she has fingered thousands upon thousands of times as prayers passed her lips. This rosary was probably passed on to her from another sister as most everything else she uses. Her prayers build upon her sister’s prayers stringing years and years of prayer together. It is this rosary she faithfully returns to at the end of the day. It is this rosary she purposefully reaches for during difficult times. It is this rosary she happily cradles during times of joy. Her dedication to prayer keeps her centered. It keeps her rooted. It allows her to stay the sacred course she embarked on when she took her religious vows.

In this image the rosary is not used for prayer, rather the rosary gently placed in her hand is a form of evangelization. A worn rosary in the hand of an elderly woman speaks to the power of prayer. Without saying a word she shows the rosary as if inviting us to take it from her so we too may enter into the saving chain of prayer. This is her legacy: prayer saves! It is what she hopes to pass on to each one of us.

Though somewhat out of focus we can see the pectoral cross she is wearing around her neck. She received it at her profession and has worn it ever since. The cross has given her direction for all these years and continues to do so today. The cross in this image quietly testifies to the love of God for us and it calls us to love one another in turn.  If the rosary invites us to prayer, the cross calls us to love and action. Prayer and love are the two great tenets of our life as Christians: we pray so we may love. This is the mandate Jesus gave us the night before he died when he told us to celebrate the Eucharist and wash one another's feet.

We don’t know her name and we need not know her name for she embodies the millions of women who have carried the church through their prayer and their actions. They are the women who have prayed for our needs, hidden behind the walls of their monasteries or in plain view in our streets. They are the women who have staffed our schools and universities where they have taught our children. They are the women who have worked in our hospitals where they have cared for our sick and our elderly.

They may wear veils instead of miters and they may carry books rather than crosiers but they are the ones who have shaped and molded so many of us into the people we are today. Their impact on our church is beyond measure. We simply would not be who we are as a people and as a church without them.

This image is a quiet testimony to the great work God is accomplishing through our religious and through all women in our church.

 

 

Nestled in the north-west corner between The Basilica, the sacristy and the rectory sits The Basilica’s Mary Garden, a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered or discovered anew. Last Saturday, Karen Harrison and Wanda Sweeney were busy at work in the garden tidying it up in anticipation of the beginning of the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Mother. They tend the garden lovingly and faithfully all year long.

The Basilica of Saint Mary is one of only a handful of churches in the United States that has a true Mary Garden. Often people mistakenly think that any garden with a statue of Mary in it is a Mary Garden. Rather, they are much more complex than that and mostly void of a statue.

Mary Gardens originated in Medieval France and its surrounding countries. The basic concept is an enclosed garden known as a hortus conclusus referencing the virginity of Mary. Each flower in the garden represents one of Mary’s virtues. The Lily, e.g. represents Mary’s purity; the Bleeding Heart represents Mary’s sorrow; Solomon’s Seal represents Mary’s wisdom;  Gilly Flower represents Mary’s fidelity; and Violets represent Mary’s modesty, to name but a few. The Garden as a whole thus symbolizes Mary with all her strengths and virtues.

Mary Gardens traditionally do not have a statue of Mary in them as the garden itself is intended to be a representation of Mary. And different from praying before a statue of Mary, believers enter the garden and aided by the colors and fragrance of the flowers they spiritually immerse themselves in Mary’s virtues while praying that her virtues may become theirs. 

The idea for a Mary Garden at The Basilica of Saint Mary was proposed by the Friends of the Basilica of Saint Mary, now known as The Basilica Landmark. After years of study and planning The Basilica’s Mary Garden became reality in 1997. Staying as true as possible to the medieval concept, the original design was done by Stacy Moriarty of Moriarty/Cordon. Given the difference in climate and the specifics of the shady location of our garden the traditional selection of plants did not thrive. Thus, after careful consideration and with due respect to the original design, the Garden was enhanced in 2008 with the help of Brad Agee of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota to include more hardy plants. Standing in the tradition of those who assigned Mary’s virtues to the original selection of plants, Mary Ritten recognized and described Marian virtues in the newly selected plants, more suited for our Minnesota winters.

The Basilica’s Mary Garden thus is a reinterpretation of the traditional French Mary Garden adapted to our Minnesota weather, no less inspired and no less inspirational. To give but a few examples, sweet autumn clematis, a vigorous vine speaks to Mary’s tenacity and courage while facing her many trials. The yellow flowers in Mary’s Mantle remind us of the radiance of Mary as a source of consolation. The roses are a clear reference to Mary’s title in the Litany of Loretto as Rosa Mystica or Mystical Rose.

Though originally intended to have no representation of Mary in the Garden, Beckoning, a bronze sculpture by Gloria Tew was installed in the garden in the year 2000. This was in response to multiple requests for a statue of Mary. However, in order to be true to the original concept of a Mary Garden the sculpture is semi-abstract and intentionally ambiguous.

Her placement in the garden and the way she holds her hands can indeed be interpreted as Mary inviting us in. It may also be understood as a more abstract representation of hospitality and invitation. Regardless of whom you might think she is, her goal and ours is that you enter the Mary Garden especially during this month of May dedicated to Mary and spend some time in it. Inspired by its beauty we invite you to meditate on the virtues of Mary represented by the flowers in the garden and to pray that her virtues may become yours.

The Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Dublin, Ireland houses a somewhat unusual relic. It is not a bit of bone, a bead of blood or a strand of hair of the most revered saint of Ireland after whom the cathedral was named. Rather, it is an old door with a rectangular cut-out, large enough to put one’s hand through. It is known as the Door of Reconciliation.

Ireland’s history, not unlike that of most countries is characterized by feuds and fights between rival groups in search of power and wealth. The late 15th C. Earls of Kildare and Ormond were great rivals and were constantly at odds. In 1492 this culminated in a veritable fight. The Earl of Ormond, pursued by the Earl of Kildare sought sanctuary in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. When the Earl of Kildare arrived he pulled out his sword and started to attack the door to the cathedral’s chapterhouse where the Earl of Ormond was hiding. Rather than destroy the entire door he merely cut a whole in the door. To everyone’s surprise he then put his arm through the hole as a sign of peace, risking his limb and his life. The Earl of Ormond accepted the Earl of Kildare’s offer and shook his hand, sealing the peace. Hence the expression: “chancing your hand.” Today, the Door of Reconciliation stands in celebration of those who promote peace and reconciliation as well as in defiance to all those who sow hatred and who promote conflict.

As I was gazing upon this old peace of wood, the meaning of which is lost to most uninterested passersby, I was reminder of the Doors of Mercy designated in every cathedral and in many churches throughout the world during this Year of Jubilee. These Doors of Mercy are by necessity Doors of Reconciliation because mercy and reconciliation go hand in hand. Without mercy, there can be no reconciliation.  In turn, mercy presumes reconciliation.

Like the Door of Reconciliation in Dublin, these Doors of Mercy are patient reminders and invitations to each one of us to look at our lives and seek out opportunities for reconciliation and mercy, be they small and easy or large and difficult. The Doors of Mercy also invite us to look beyond ourselves at the greater world, marked by conflicts and divisions. We are to reach across aisles and beyond borders “chancing our hand” thus participating in the Divine quest for human reconciliation and peace.

Pope Francis, since the very beginning of his pontificate has been a champion of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Time and time again, he has modeled how we are to take risks, to “chance our hand” for the sake of mercy, reconciliation and peace. Just remember his first apostolic visit outside of Rome to the Italian Island of Lampedusa, one of the symbols of the current immigration crisis. There, he decried the “globalization of indifference” and invited nations and parishes to reach out to those searching for a better life. On Holy Thursday he has taken to washing the feet of those living on the margins of society regardless of their gender, religion, or ethnic background. This year, after washing the feet of refugees he remarked that though we may come from different cultures and profess different religions we are all brothers and sisters who together must strive for peace. Most recently, Pope Francis, together with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Ieronimos II, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens visited the Greek Island of Lesbos, another symbol of the Immigrant crisis. Again re-affirming the fact that all of us are sisters and brother, no matter our cultural and religious differences he said: “barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”

Breaking down barriers, building bridges and reaching out a hand in friendship is not always easy, often involves a risk and always requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Things may go wrong. And yet, we must “chance our hand” if ever there be a chance of reconciliation and peace among the different nations and peoples, for we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our culture or religion.

When you go to Dublin next, do make a pilgrimage to the Door of Reconciliation and when in Minneapolis or St. Paul visit our Doors of Mercy.

 

 

A while ago I was asked to preside at a communion service. Since this came a bit unexpected I was not too pleased but accepted nonetheless. Soon I realized that this request was a blessing in disguise. The Gospel of the day ended with these verses: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:24-25)

I had always struggled with this passage because I thought the last verse referred to material wealth. For a person who champions the poor, how could Jesus suggest that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer? This superficial reading of Scripture, of course got me in trouble. Jesus was not speaking of wealth rather he was speaking about love and mercy. Those who have love and mercy will receive love and mercy in turn. This admonition is accompanied by a not-so-subtle warning as Jesus says that we will be measured by the measure we use for one another. In other words, if we treat others with love and mercy, that is how we will be treated.

This Biblical passage came to mind immediately as I was pondering indulgences. Admittedly, I am a bit hesitant tackling the topic. I neither have the desire to provoke another reformation nor do I want to upset those who hold on to bygone beliefs. At the same time the Year of Mercy and the Indulgences that are attached to its spiritual exercises are a perfect opportunity to ponder the mystery of indulgences.

The word indulgence is derived from the Latin words indulgentia which means remission and from indulgentum which means kind, tender, fond. These two Latin roots are very important because an indulgence on the one hand speak of God’s kindness, tenderness and fondness of us. On the other hand an indulgence is the assurance of the complete remission of sin and the satisfaction of any temporal punishment incurred.

The concept of indulgences was the answer to some ambiguity which surrounded the sacrament of reconciliation. The absolution we receive after confessing our sins is predicated on the penance we do. Penance in essence is a spiritual practice intended for people to grow in their faith. Sadly, a more negative and legalistic meaning was quickly attached to penance as it was reduced to some kind of satisfaction for the sins we committed. This gave rise to several questions. How much satisfaction does God require for any given sin? How can we be assured that the penance given by a priest is enough to make up for the sin we committed? And if not, will we be required to do penance even after death? Purgatory was understood as the “place” where we make up for the lack of penance done on earth, before eventually being admitted into heaven.

It is within this context that indulgences developed. Acknowledging God’s mercy indulgences are the assurance that the penance given to a person is sufficient and that this person is not going to purgatory after death.

Fanned by fear and fed by naiveté abuses arose and these have plagued indulgences for centuries. The essential problem with indulgences was that they were divorced from the underlying theology in favor of a purely legalistic approach. In addition, the original conditions were removed from indulgences so that the sacrament of reconciliation which is an essential part of indulgences was skipped. The process of personal conversion was completely circumvented by this and indulgences turned into a commodity that could be bought and sold. The problem with this is that God’s mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is gratuitous.

It was with this abuse that the reformers of the faith took issue. Johann Tetzel, a German friar is said to have composed the following telling couplet which scandalized many a reformer: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As one of his 95 objections against Rome Martin Luther wrote: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”

In response, the Counter Reformation, not surprisingly affirmed the practice of indulgences while trying to right the wrongs. This has not been an easy process and the very word makes certain Catholics cringe. Despite a call for the abolishment of indulgences during the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI reaffirmed them and so did his successors.

Quoting from Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 141 states that “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt already has been forgiven… An indulgence is partial or plenary as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin… Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.”

Though some were surprised by Pope Francis’s embrace of indulgences he may actually be the one to save them as he has turned away from a legal understanding to a much richer theological understanding. Indulgences are really the celebration and affirmation of God’s mercy and indulgence in us. This mercy can neither be bought nor sold. God’s mercy is totally gratuitous in the face of which we can do nothing but show gratitude and commit ourselves to show mercy in turn.

The praxis of indulgences today presumes a number of sacramental and life-changing commitments. An indulgence, or the assurance of God’s mercy flows from the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist; prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father and some kind of pilgrimage. During a Holy Year, the pilgrimage includes walking through the Holy Doors of Mercy as a celebration of God’s mercy and a commitment on our part to show mercy to one another for “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark: 4:25)

 

 

Pages