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)