St Francis Q&A

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Indulgences: antiquated or helpful?

I recently got together with a young man who is a good friend of mine. He has had a rough year. He is still recovering from a serious brain injury he suffered after being attacked in Adams Morgan one night out with friends. Not too long after he got out of the hospital, he learned that one of his best friends who was living in the South had died suddenly. My buddy, who is a man of faith, expressed his serious sadness over these events, especially the loss of his good friend. He felt so badly that he couldn’t be there for his friend because of his own hospitalization; mainly, he has had great remorse that he didn’t do anything to help him.

Thanks be to God and His Spirit, the discussion took a tremendous turn (one that I didn’t initially anticipate) toward what he could do now to help him. We talked about praying for the dead and what we can do as Catholics for those who have died. I mentioned about having Masses said his friend which is the greatest prayer he can offer for him. Then, we discussed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the powerful prayer of intercession for the souls of those who are “most in need of God’s Mercy”. I also suggested the practice of gaining a plenary indulgence for his buddy and gave him a brief explanation of and theological basis for indulgences. By the end of the conversation, my friend’s discouragement had become encouragement; his despair had become hope. He could do something now to help his friend!

Here are some more questions from anonymous bloggers about indulgences:

1) “When I asked why, if they have the power to eliminate temporal punishment, why doesn’t the Church eliminate it for everyone who died in a state of grace? It was explained to me that temporary suffering is part of God’s plan for us. I can understand and accept that. So, if God’s plan is for us to experience temporal punishment, then why would the church offer something that would eliminate it?”

Just like any suffering, God doesn’t actively will temporal punishment; He allows it. Like any evil, it is part of His passive will. It is a result of sin, so it is an evil. God does bring good out of it as He does with all evil.

We might ask a similar question regarding a natural evil like poverty, “why does the Church offer ways to reduce or even eliminate poverty?” God brings good out of poverty (and even extols the poor), but it is still an evil that the Church works to eliminate.

2) “Can a plenary indulgence be gained and given to any soul in purgatory? Do you have to have a certain person in mind?”

A plenary indulgence should be done with a particular person in mind. Partial indulgences might be offered up for souls in general; for example, “all the souls in Purgatory”.

When I pray my daily rosary, I include prayers for the Holy Father (Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be) knowing that it gains at least a partial indulgence. In my mind, I offer the indulgence for “the souls in Purgatory”, confident that God will know how and to whom to disperse the benefits of the indulgence. Whether an indulgence is plenary or partial, though, I wouldn’t worry too much if you offer it up for souls in general; God knows what to do with it (better than we do!).

3) “Can a plenary indulgence be applied to a non-Christian loved one?” Yes.

4) “Who decided that a person can free someone from purgatory with a plenary indulgence? What is the source of it? I have a hard time believing in it because it sets out a very mechanical list of things to do in order to accomplish something so profound as sending someone to heaven. It reads like a "to do" list that you might stick on your fridge. Isn't it a little antiquated?”

For my friend, gaining an indulgence for his buddy doesn’t seem antiquated at all; it is the source of hope and encouragement that he is actively helping him now get to Heaven.

Tom answered Anon’s question:

“Indulgences are acquired ‘through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the Saints’ (quoting the 1968 Manual of Indulgences).

Nothing antiquated about that.

I'd say the to-do list impression comes from the fact that a plenary indulgence is the kind of request that will only be heard from someone who is in a state of grace and in close communion with Christ's Church (freedom from attachment to sin and reception of the sacraments ensure personal sanctity, and the prayer for the Pope signifies union with the Church).Partial indulgences are granted, more or less straightforwardly, for all sorts of things. All you have to do is ask.”


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