Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI announced a special set of indulgences for the Year of Faith, which ends on November 24, 2013. During that time, Catholics may obtain indulgences on the usual conditions if they perform one or more of several acts of faith and charity devoted to the Second Vatican Council, which the Year of Faith commemorates. (For the “usual conditions,” consult norm no. 7 of Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967).)
The official decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary of September 14, 2012 describes several types of acts that will result in an indulgence. The newly-indulgenced acts for the Year of Faith include–
– taking in at least three homilies or attending at least three lectures on the documents of the Second Vatican Council or the Catechism of the Catholic Church;
– visiting as a pilgrim a church or sacred place designated by the local bishop for the purpose of a participating in a sacred function or engaging in pious recollection and concluding the visit with certain prayers; and
– visiting the church in which one was baptized and there renewing one’s baptismal promises in any legitimate form.
Indulgences have baggage in some people’s minds, often based on what they have heard and read about medieval abuses and Martin Luther’s theories. That is sad, for indulgences represent the Lord’s tender mercy. They are miracles of healing after sin has been forgiven.
Think of sin as serious injury. Scripture contains such images in many places, for example: “Lord, . . . heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” Psalm 41:4. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Mark 2:17.
Sinning produces self-inflicted injuries. It is akin to playing Russian roulette, only with all six chambers loaded. Venial sin is shooting ourselves in the foot or any other place that doesn’t kill us. Mortal sin is a shot to the head—it kills us spiritually. Jesus Christ, the Author of Life, pursues us always, even when we are spiritually dead, using the Holy Spirit’s actual graces as if they were CPR to revive us. To live, we repent and turn ourselves toward him. His forgiveness stops the bleeding, as it were. If we’re spiritually dead, it restarts our spiritual heart. But we remain wounded, spiritually maimed or impaired in proportion to the severity or the repetition of our sins.
Our healing requires therapy to overcome these spiritual injuries that we have inflicted on ourselves. Says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “[E]very sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. no. 1472.) Most often, the attachment that sin entails is to ourselves. We are self-centered. We like to satisfy our inner drives and desires, at times no matter what the effect might be upon ourselves or others. We enjoy fortifying our own sense of self-importance and mastery. All of our self-centered tendencies, these impairments of spiritual life, are magnified by our sins. It hurts to do the work of getting rid of them so that we can be perfectly healthy and pure, but it will be the pure who see God. Ps. 24:3-4; Matt. 5:8; 1 John 3:3
Our spiritual therapy begins with penitential practices, both the penance that the priest imposes in the sacrament of Reconciliation and then our own acts of self-denial that we use to train ourselves to reject sin and embrace virtue. When we get serious about this spiritual therapy, it can hurt, just as physical therapy often hurts. Its moral dimension as punishment corresponds with the pain we feel as we perform our therapy. God’s grace, of course, is the ultimate source of our healing, but using his grace requires not only our assent, but also our work of spiritual therapy.
Indulgences offer healings by God’s grace that shorten the time we need to spend in uncomfortable therapy. They are Christ’s healing miracles like those he exhibited time and time again in the Gospels. His Church is the conduit of his mercy. He wants to heal us so much that he authorizes the successors of his Apostles, especially the Holy Father, to create special ways of obtaining his healing mercies. The indulgences that Benedict XVI has instituted for the Year of Faith are just one example of how the Lord continually offers us the means to come to him, to be healed by him, and ultimately to be happy with him forever.
Indulgences are more than “get out of Purgatory free” cards; they are miracles of healing that the Lord works here and now. And like the persons whose spiritual and physical impairments were healed by the Lord’s word and touch in the 1st century, we can best respond by joyfully accepting his gifts and giving glory to God for his marvelous works among men.