Dear Father John, As I read your excellent posts on indulgences. A question occurred to me. If a person were to perform these suggested spiritual exercises without asking for the indulgence, would he still obtain the indulgence? Also since no longer are there no longer specified “time outs” applied to the purgatory… how do we arrive at how many indulgences are enough to avoid as much “time” in purgatory to begin with? Isn’t this kind of thinking sort of like the idea of God having a check list of who is naughty/nice? and how much purgatorial time is required for a particular kind of sin? I don’t mean to sound flippant but it sounds like a massive book-keeping system would be required to keep the “accounts” straight! But then God, being God, would have it all figured out I guess. As you can no doubt tell this is an area of “difficulty” for me. Thank you!

Actually, this is an area of difficulty for many people. In fact, the issue of indulgences was one of the sparks that started the tragic blaze of the Protestant Reformation, a blaze that incinerated the cultural and religious unity of Christendom starting back in the 1500s. I don’t know if I will be able to completely resolve the difficulty, but I will try to share some thoughts that may help.

Indulgences vs. Benefits

Your first question is easier than your second. An indulgence can only be attained with the intention of attaining it. So, if I were to lift my mind to God in the midst of my work day, I would not receive an indulgence for doing that unless I were consciously intending to receive it. But we need to be very clear about something here. Indulgences are not the only spiritual benefits out there. Any time we engage in these spiritual exercises (reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Stations of the Cross, saying specific prayers…), we give glory to God and bring ourselves and our world into contact with the rushing stream of redeeming grace flowing from Christ’s cross. Even if I am not intending to receive an indulgence, therefore, these spiritual practices are worthwhile, and God will reward them and utilize them to build up his Kingdom.  Through prayer and sacrifice, we become channels of God’s grace. An indulgence is simply a specific manifestation of that grace, one that the Church offers to us as a concrete way show our love for the Lord and for our neighbor. That’s why you should feel no obligation to go indulgence hunting. If this practice doesn’t resonate in your heart, don’t worry about it! Continue to pray and seek the face of Christ in all you do, and let God worry about the rest.

A Touch of History

Your second question is a bit thornier. We have to do a small history lesson to get to the bottom of it. In the first centuries of the Church, confession and penance were much more public than they are now. Only in the 500s did the Irish monks really begin to popularize individual, private confession. Until that era, it was more common for Christians who had fallen into grave sin to make their confession in front of the bishop and the entire congregation, and to be assigned a visible penance. For example, a public sinner may be required to wear some kind of penitential garb and to stay in the back of the church during Mass for six months or 365 days. Only at the end of that period of penance would he be admitted back into full communion with the Church. Even during those early centuries, however, the practice of indulgences was emerging. For example, if you caved in under pressure of persecution and publicly denied your faith, that was the grave sin of apostasy, and if you repented, you would be given a hefty penance. But that penance could be lessened if you were to go visit a future martyr or confessor who had not caved in and who was being held in prison for their faith. You would get this holy person to sign an affidavit by which they would express their desire to apply the merits of their sacrifice to your penance. Then you would bring this document to the bishop, and some or all of your penance could be remitted.

After the period of the Roman persecutions, obtaining this kind of remission of penance through the merits of the saints continued. Thus, the practice of indulgences emerged. Until recently, the relative value of the different indulgences was still expressed by correlating them to certain amounts of days – this harkens back to the early Church and its public penances, which were assigned for specific periods of time. Today, as mentioned in an earlier post, this method of expressing the relative value of indulgences has been simplified. Instead of specific numbers of days, we just have partial or plenary (full) indulgences.

The Real Issue

That’s some complicated background (you can find a more detailed explanation here) that can help you understand where the length-of-time factor came from.  But I don’t think that’s what is really causing you the difficulty. After all, we really don’t have the final say about how much benefit is bestowed when we obtain an indulgence. God is the final arbiter, and since only he can see our hearts, only he can see how pure is our love, our intention, and our detachment from sin – all of which are factors that contribute to the fruitfulness of any spiritual exercise we undertake. If we ever find ourselves getting caught up in the math, we can be sure that we are losing focus.

The real difficulty with the practice of indulgences, I think, is rooted elsewhere.  Generally speaking (and it’s always dangerous to generalize), our culture has lost a keen sense of sin. We tend to belittle the reality of sin and the seriousness of its consequences. This is partially a result of the influence of modern, secular psychology, which attributes blame not to free choice, but to subconscious influences and tendencies. But our faith teaches us that there is only one thing in the universe more horrible than a venial sin, and that is a mortal sin. Sin is rebellion against God. Every sin is an attempt to destroy the universe. It is spiritual self-mutilation. It is spiritual chain-saw-massacring.  When we spread lies about someone, for example, we actually upset the order of the cosmos; we do lasting damage to souls – ours and others’ – souls that were created for eternal life and redeemed by Christ on the cross. Sin is a spiritual suicide-bomber attack.

If we really perceived the gravity of sin, we would more readily perceive the real need for penance and reparation. Then we would better understand the wisdom and the gentle love of God expressed in his giving to the Church the beautiful practice of indulgences. Through this practice, God offers us a concrete way to help right wrongs in the spiritual realm, to pour out spiritual balm on spiritual wounds, and to reestablish spiritual peace in war-torn souls.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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