Monday, January 25, 2016

Exploring Indulgences with "Pat in the Pew"

Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"

Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy has clearly struck a chord in the hearts of Catholics around the world.  Since nobody’s perfect, everybody intuitively knows the need for Divine Mercy.

Yet, like a crazy uncle at a family party, Papa Franchesco has included a potentially confounding twist in announcing the Jubilee festivities: Indulgences.  If you are already walking with the Holy Father on this and are up to speed on the Catechism’s explanation (n. 1471ff.), keep on hitting those holy doors and don’t waste any more time reading on!  

However, if you have never really heard about or understood indulgences, you might be more like "Pat in the Pew." Pat is a regular attendee of Sunday Mass, a Catholic who understands Jesus’ gift in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, someone who is happy to self-identify as Catholic, even without having easy answers to every question that might arise about the faith. To Pat, indulgences might seem like a combination of a Medieval board game and a Harry Potter incantation; they could sound like obtuse rules to a game no one remembers, which allege to deliver a solution for a problem we didn’t know we had.

And yet, Pope Francis has placed a premium on indulgences during the Jubilee year. In Misericordiae Vultus ("The Face of Mercy"), he writes that “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences,” adding that “This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy” (MV, n. 22).

Here are four principles that might help "Pat" (re)consider the gift of indulgences during the Year of Mercy:

      1) It’s about relationships, not rules.  Sure, the idea of going to a specific church, walking through the designated holy doors, offering prayers for the pope, receiving Holy Communion, and making a sacramental Confession within a week could sound like some kind of religious business deal.  However, as usual Pope Francis does not obsess about the details.  Rather, he describes the process as “indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin, enabling him to act with charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin” (MV, n. 22).

      The specific steps in the process shape our personal response to the Father’s merciful outreach, which is always “all in” (full, complete, or “plenary”). If we have lived a life of gluttony, for example, we know that the Father will forgive us when I repent. But we also know that our sin has left us physically wounded. We could resolve to start new eating habits, and yet it would take years of regimented exercise to return our bodies to a state of full health.
      The idea with indulgences is that the Father stands so longs to restore our full stature as beloved sons and daughters that he decides to exercise for us. By embracing the "indulgence on the part of the Father," we show our willingness to cooperate with the overflowing gift of grace--not "earning" something because we followed the rules, but embracing a gift which exceeds all expectations.

2) It’s about mercy being more than mere forgiveness
. Merciful love wants to remove all natural consequences of our brokenness, so we can flourish. For example, if we allow ourselves to live a lifestyle beyond our means, with month after month of deficit spending, and find ourselves on the verge of financial bankruptcy, we can repent and resolve to change our ways (remember, this is a hypothetical example!). We know that the Father of Mercy will certainly forgive our greed or materialism or whatever form of idolatry compelled us to live so recklessly, and we could resolve to balance our budgets moving forward.  However, it might take decades--or generations--of frugal savings to climb out of the pit of debt which we’ve dug. 

      The idea with indulgences is that the Father wants us not only to know we are forgiven, but to repay the debt for us. This is merciful love. On our part, we would take concrete steps to show my commitment to change, reordering our spending habits.  But we know that we could have never earned or deserved such a fresh start.

          3) It’s about holiness being more than mere niceness. Trying to be a nice person is better than not trying to do so. But the Cross of Christ reminds us that being nice isn’t good enough. After all, if it were, then why did the Father have to see the Son be crucified? Why did Jesus need to endure such a brutal and humiliating death? 

Holiness is our destiny, and sharing in th
e Communion of Persons which is the Blessed Trinity will require that we be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. We can go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, hear the words of Christ spoken to our hearts through the priest, and know that we have been returned to a state of grace. We would be ready to go home to God, even if we are not yet perfectly holy. Whether it be worldly attachments, petty vices, deep-rooted pride, don't most of us resist dying to self and allowing Christ to live in us? 

      In addition, don’t we all have family member and friends who weren’t “perfectly holy” when they died?  We are rightly filled with hope that they have been saved not because of their worthiness, but because of Christ’s death and resurrection. Offering indulgences for them helps speed their way to perfect purity of heart and soul. This is Pope Francis’ vision when he writes that “to gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ’s redemption, so that God’s love and forgiveness may extend everywhere” (MV, n. 22).

      4) Ultimately, it's about the Prodigal Son. The merciful Father does not merely accept the apology of the repentant sinner, allowing him to live out his years as a servant repaying a debt. Rather, the merciful Father restores the son's dignity by calling for the finest robe, a ring for his finger, and new sandals. The excessive celebration that follows—the jubilee—seems too much for the other brother to bear. It doesn't fit with his worldview.

Yet the Father wants us to know this Jubilee Year of Mercy is a promise of Divine Solidarity, mediated by the Christ's body on earth, the Church. Left to our own devices, "Pat in the Pew" knows that healing, health and wholeness will always exceed our grasp. But the Lord wants us to march forward together through holy doors, praying for ourselves and all the faithful departed, so that his joy might be in us, and our joy might be complete.