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Indulgences far more than a medieval superstition

Father Jeffy Kirby says indulgences may seem a medieval relic, but they actually have an important message for modern believers.

Indulgences may seem overly “hocus pocus” to many, with the whole explanation running the risk of just seeming way too stretched, exaggerated, and unreal to people living in post-Reformation times. Yet, the plain fact is that indulgences offer a hard lesson that contemporary Christians need to learn, that no Christian walks alone.

When Pope Francis declared the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, he continued the historic practice of granting a “jubilee indulgence.” This contemporary exercise of such a historic practice might surprise some, and confuse others.

For most people, including Catholics, the context for indulgences is probably the portion of their freshman Western Civilization course that dealt with the Reformation. In hearing about indulgences today, some might wonder, “Is this for real?” Do Catholics still believe in such practices?

This disbelief is accentuated as indulgences are oftentimes presented as a holdover of medieval superstition, or an imposition of human jurisprudence on God and his plan of salvation, or even an indirect attempt at redemption without the ineffable merits of Jesus Christ.

With such widespread misunderstanding, how could anyone gain a real hearing in which to explain the traditional understanding of indulgences? Could the explanation of an indulgence as a removal of temporal punishment given by the Church which relies on a “treasury of merits” of the saints be taken seriously by believers today?

It might just seem overly “hocus pocus” to many. The whole explanation of indulgences runs the risk of just seeming way too stretched, exaggerated, and unreal to people living in post-Reformation times.

Or maybe, a different explanation of indulgences is needed? Perhaps someone could give a different perspective that might help people see indulgences in a less medieval light?

These possibilities point back to Pope Francis and his granting of the “jubilee indulgence.” How did Pope Francis explain indulgences in Misericordiae Vultus, the declaration which opened the Jubilee Year and granted the jubilee indulgence?

He certainly did not use traditional theological language. In fact, the pope broke from customary explanations and presented indulgences in a very unique, personal way.

Reflecting and building upon traditional belief, Pope Francis gave the Church a nuanced explanation of indulgences, which was greatly needed. And the pope presented his explanation in a way which accentuated the importance of indulgences in the life of the believer.

What is Pope Francis’ nuanced explanation?

First, the pope stressed the placement of indulgences within the saving work of Jesus Christ: “God’s forgiveness knows no bounds. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ… Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church.”

Secondly, he addressed the “temporal punishments” of sin but described them generally as the consequences of sin: “Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain… God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this.”

Thirdly, the pope showed the Church as a servant of God in dispensing grace: “It becomes 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.”

Lastly, and perhaps most creatively and convincingly, the pope placed indulgences within the living relationship that believers have with one another.

While not even naming a “treasury of merits,” he described the reality in relational and encouraging terms: “The Church lives within the communion of the saints… which is a gift from God… Their holiness comes to the aid of our weakness in a way that enables the Church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others.”

The pope’s explanation can guide many believers into seeing and appreciating the help that an indulgence can give to their Christian discipleship. And while this is true for some people, others might still struggle with the idea and practice of indulgences for other reasons.

While the explanation by Pope Francis cuts through theological language or medieval perceptions, it also simultaneously unveils some deeper cultural tenets. In particular, the pope’s teachings expose a predominant cultural conception of personal autonomy.

This cultural notion oftentimes spills over into Christian discipleship, and leads many believers into thinking that their salvation depends solely on their own esoteric relationship with Jesus Christ.

Indulgences temper this notion of autonomy by stressing the interdependence of all believers among themselves, and this emphasis humbles contemporary believers. Indulgences give the hard lesson that the path of salvation needs the community of faith.

No Christian walks alone.

Indulgences, therefore, are a great gift within the life of the Church and a practice that should be fully appreciated and exercised by believers, especially in this Jubilee Year.