Indulgences are the last thing a priest wants to preach about. They were abused in the late Middle Ages, fueled Martin Luther’s rejection of the Catholic Church, and have been misunderstood ever since.
However, mercy is the first thing a priest should want to preach about—especially today, Divine Mercy Sunday.
And while there’s a lot more to be said about Divine Mercy than about indulgences, this year the connection between the two can’t be ignored.
As St. John Paul, who’s been called “the Pope of Mercy” said, “The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1: 12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 4: 6; Rom 5: 5; 8: 15-16).”
I was moved to write a homily on the subject partly because a parishioner whom I count as a friend reacted with deep concern to what I’d written in this week’s bulletin about the special indulgence granted to the dying during the pandemic. First off, she was afraid it meant priests would not be administering the sacraments to them.
She said she hoped she was wrong, and she was. It was partly my fault—for reasons of space, I’d shortened the article and taken out a sentence that made it clear that a Catholic dying in this Archdiocese will always be able to receive the sacraments unless the priest is denied access to a care facility or hospital.
So, let’s be clear: the sacraments will be available to the dying. We priests have no intention of abandoning our flock.
In fact, as of last Saturday, 100 Italian priests have died during the pandemic.
Where does the indulgence come in then? The health authorities have said that priests and other spiritual care providers will be allowed to visit those who are clinically assessed to be at the end of life but it’s possible that the necessary permission may be delayed or even refused in some situations.
It was for those cases—which I hope will not arise—and for the consolation of those who are not yet at the end of life but are fearful that they could die without the sacraments if a priest could not reach them that I wrote about the special indulgence.
And it’s not a bad idea to speak about indulgences today, hard work though it is, since Divine Mercy Sunday is closely tied to the Divine Mercy indulgence granted by St. John Paul II to all of us. Between the pandemic indulgence, which is available not only to the dying but to medical personnel, caregivers and anyone who prays for an end to the pandemic, and the annual Divine Mercy Indulgence, it’s hard to duck the subject today.
So, let me plunge in with the official definition of an indulgence. It’s complicated enough to explain why no priest wants to tackle the subject in a homily, but it still must be our starting point.
The Catechism describes an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and all of the saints.”
Whew! But after that flood of words, the Catechism tries to help us make some sense of them. It says we need to understand first that sin has a double consequence. First, grave sin deprives us of communion with God and cuts us off from eternal life. Without that life, we face “eternal punishment” for our sin.
Most Catholics get that part of the story. We speak of mortal sins because they’re deadly. They need to be forgiven. For Catholics the only ordinary way to be healed of these deadly wounds is by confessing our sins to a priest. Note that I said the only “ordinary” way. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
But we don’t just need to be forgiven: we need to be purified of sin, even the smaller ones we call venial. That can happen either here on earth, or after death in the state we call Purgatory. This purification frees us from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. “Temporal” meaning “within time”—God’s justice and mercy working in time, before the Last Judgement ushers in eternity.
The forgiveness of sin restores our friendship with God and takes away the eternal punishment of sin, but this temporal punishment remains. We can lessen this punishment on earth by patiently bearing our sufferings and by works of penance and charity, but otherwise our account is settled in Purgatory.
However, my friend had a few more things to say. She said this about the special indulgence granted to those who cannot receive the sacraments because of the pandemic: “I do not believe the Church can promise anyone that they will go straight to heaven.”
In response, I said to her and I say to you: Yes, it can. And it does.
Please don’t get me wrong: the Church can’t and doesn’t hand out salvation willy-nilly to anyone in earshot. But she does dispense the mercy of God according to the words the Risen Lord speaks in today’s Gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Even before the Resurrection Jesus says in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Now my friend is a good Catholic, so of course there’s something valid in her concern. The Church will never replace the sacred sacraments we celebrate with the dying—Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum—with an indulgence or anything else.
But when the dying can’t receive the sacraments—not because the priest won’t come, but because he’s not allowed to come, or for any other valid reason—the Church steps in as a minister of the mercy of God.
What the Church doesn’t offer is cheap grace. That’s what the twentieth-century German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called grace that’s showered down “without asking questions or fixing limits.”
“Cheap grace,” he wrote, is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
While we can guess what a Lutheran pastor might have thought about indulgences, we can say that when an indulgence is understood properly, it is not cheap grace. Abundant, indulgent, generous—yes. But cheap? No.
Because even the pandemic indulgence requires the dying person to be “properly disposed.” And those words pack a lot of meaning. Understanding them, along with what the Church has always taught about the need for confession, will put to rest any fear that the Church is going too far in promising a dying person what Jesus promised the Good Thief: “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
For anyone to gain a full or plenary indulgence they must be properly disposed. They must be truly sorry for their sins and—here’s the big challenge—free of all attachment to sin, even venial sin. And “properly disposed” includes a desire to confess one’s sins to a priest if that were possible.
In the words of St. JohnPaul, “indulgences, far from being a sort of ‘discount’ on the duty of conversion,” help us towards it. We see that conversion is required from the fact that the spiritual condition for receiving a plenary indulgence is the exclusion “of all attachment to sin, even venial sin.”
Do you remember that I promised we’d get back to what I said about sacramental confession being the only ordinary way to receive forgiveness for our grave sins? Although I applied the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel to the Church in a general way, we believe with Catholic faith that “the Lord instituted the sacrament of penance at that particular moment.” (See Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 1).
But the Church also teaches that the person who out of love for God is deeply sorry for sin, eager for a new life, and truly desires the sacrament of penance though unable to receive it at the time, may be “reconciled with God before this sacrament is actually received” (Chapter 4).
In this sense, then, my devout friend may be reassured that the Church can promise heaven to those who truly desire it and are duly disposed to receive the mercy of Christ. Even those who are unable to make a sacramental confession or receive the anointing of the sick.
This has been a long homily about a subject of great importance to some but perhaps of little interest to others. Fair enough.
But the heart of our celebration today matters to every one of us. The Marian Fathers’ Divine Mercy website puts it like this:
“The message of the Divine Mercy is simple. It is that God loves us – all of us. And He wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Thus, all will come to share His joy.”
And since my homily’s been so complicated, I will close with “the ABCs of Divine Mercy” from the same website:
A - Ask for His Mercy. God wants us to approach Him in prayer constantly, repenting of our sins and asking Him to pour His mercy out upon us and upon the whole world.
B - Be merciful. God wants us to receive His mercy and let it flow through us to others. He wants us to extend love and forgiveness to others just as He does to us.
C - Completely trust in Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent upon our trust. The more we trust in Jesus, the more we will receive.
After Mass we recited the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with those who wished to gain the Divine Mercy indulgence today.
The icon above hangs outside our confessionals at Christ the Redeemer. It was written by the retired art teacher at our parish school, Steve Knight.