40 Reasons Why It’s Cool to be Catholic #27 Indulgences

Indulgences have been around for a long time, but I suspect that a lot of people, even Catholic people, have a hard time understanding how they work.  So I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC1471-1479).  The opening paragraph of the section on indulgences is a paragraph-length sentence that’s clear as mud.  Here’s how it was once explained to me.

Pretend your a child.  You’re playing ball and you break your neighbor’s window.  That’s a sin.  As all good parents do, mom and/or dad tells you to go to the neighbor and tell her you broke the window.  That’s confession.  The neighbor says “That’s ok.  I forgive you.”  That’s reconciliation.  But you still have to pay for the broken window.  The neighbor agrees that you can satisfy the debt by cutting her grass.  That’s an indulgence.

It’s a simple-minded explanation but I think it works.  In our world, we commit a sin, we confess it to the priest, and we’re forgiven.  But there’s still that “stain of sin” on your soul.  That’s what purgatory is for.  You enter purgatory free from sin, but your soul isn’t clean.  After a certain amount of time, your soul is clean enough to enter heaven.  The cleansing process is called “temporal punishment”.  The root of the word temporal means time.  Each sin has a certain amount of time attached to it.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it) we have no idea how much time is attached to each sin.  Imagine if you died and went to purgatory and the first person you met was Saint Peter.  That would be very depressing.

One way of cleansing the soul is through good works.  Some people are so virtuous that their good works are far more than they need for their own salvation.  The excess is called the “Church’s treasury.”  These “excess graces” (my term) are stored up for you and me.  Imagine the virtues of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and all the saints.  Through them there is an infinite store of graces that you and I can share in.  On the other hand, it’s possible for us to obtain indulgences and give them to someone who has died, helping them cleanse their souls.

There are two types of indulgences.  Plenary indulgences wipe out all of your temporal punishment.  Partial indulgences, as the name implies, only wipe out some of your temporal punishment.  Because time is a human concept, we have no idea how much time we spend in purgatory or how much time an indulgence is worth.

Quoting the Catechism (#1478)

An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted by Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due to their sin.

So, where do I buy these indulgences?

In the past indulgences have gotten a bad rap because some unscrupulous clergy use to sell them.  The sale of indulgences was one of the things that got Martin Luther so worked up that he nailed his 95 Theses on the Cathedral door.  You can’t buy an indulgence.  You can earn an indulgence in a lot of different ways.  As I mentioned yesterday, praying the Stations of the Cross is one way.  I’m not going to take the space here to list them all.  The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the subject.  But it is worth mentioning that you are probably earning indulgences every day and don’t even know it.  For instance, reading the Bible earns a partial indulgence.  So does making the Sign of the Cross.  Reading this blog might even be worth a few seconds.   Catholic Answers has a good article on myths about indulgences along with a partial list of them.

Here’s the thing.  If you get a chance to earn an indulgence, especially a plenary one, jump on it.

Being able to reduce or even eliminate your time in purgatory with indulgences is super cool.

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The Exultation of the Holy Cross

Yesterday we remembered a saint from the 4th Century, Saint John Chrystostom.  Today  we remember a celebration that began around that same time, the Exultation of the Holy Cross.  Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother, discovered what is believed to be the actual cross used for the Crucification of Christ on September 14, 326.  That’s why we have this celebration on this date.

Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site where mom found the cross in Jerusalem.  Helen had her son build two other churches, one in Bethlehem and another one in Jerusalem.

The Persians, who would today be the Iranians, actually stole the cross in the seventh century.  Problems with that particular country are nothing new.  When the Byzantine emperor defeated the Persians, he returned the cross to Jerasulem.

Of course, the Holy Cross symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection, the means of our salvation.  All Christians employ the symbol of the cross.  Our Church uses the Crucifix, the figure of Jesus on the cross as a reminder of His suffering, death, and glorious resurrection.  Our protestant brothers and sisters generally display the empty cross.

We see the crucifix so often, in our church, in our homes, and maybe hanging around our necks or off the rearview mirror of our car, that we may take it for granted.  We make the sign of the cross when we enter church and when we pray.  We make the “small sign of the cross” with our thumb before the reading of the Gospel.  We also use the small sign at baptism with the parents and godparents tracing the cross on the child’s forehead.

Ask most non-Catholics how we pray and they’re most likely to say we pray the Rosary.  The main feature of the Rosary itself is the Crucifix.  We begin the prayer by making the sign of the cross with that Crucifix as we begin.

We have the stations of the cross, especially during Lent, and on Good Friday we venerate the cross as we mark the day of Jesus’ crucification.  It’s good that the cross was the instrument of execution in Jesus’ time.  If he had lived in more recent times, we might all be wearing little gallows around our necks, or maybe little electric chairs.

Seriously, we display the crucifix here in church for one reason.  It’s a reminder of what the Lord suffered so that you and I might be saved.  I can remember, not so long ago, when no one spoke out loud once they entered the church out of respect for the cross, and for Christ’s presence in the tabernacle  I’m not sure when this practice went away, but it would be good for all of us to remember that before and after mass, some of our brothers and sisters might be venerating the cross and to respect their desire for quiet.

I think that this week, as our diocesan priests gather for their convocation, that the cross will be prominently displayed in their gathering places.  Next week I’ll be on retreat and I can assure you that the cross will rarely be out of our sight, or out of our minds.

As we continue with our prayers this morning, I’d like to offer you the most traditional of Catholic blessings.  May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Father Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Your life can be lifted up and offered to God in thanksgiving.  You will know the enormous spiritual difference between living your life out of gratitude for God’s love and friendship, and living your life trying to earn God’s friendship.”

At first glance this seems like a strange statement.  After all, if you’re truly grateful for God’s many gifts, your response may look exactly like the response of someone trying to earn God’s friendship.

When you go to mass every Sunday, or even every day, are you showing gratitude or are you trying to earn some grace?  No one knows but you.  The same goes for helping the poor, loving your neighbor, or keeping any of the commandments.  Any of those things can be seen as signs of gratitude for God’s love or seeking God’s love.

The difference is inside all of us.  And that’s what counts.  See, that’s why God tells us not to pass judgment on one another.  Two people can be doing the very same thing for two very different reasons.  As Father Nouwen wrote,

“Life is a struggle and choosing to live the struggle gratefully and humbly as a child of God makes all the difference between a fulfilled life and an empty life.”

Most of you will be staying for the Stations of the Cross.  As we travel with Jesus on his road to Calvary for the last time of this Lenten season, we should be filled with gratitude for His suffering for us and, as the second station says, be glad to bear our own afflictions in union with Him.

The Stations of the Cross

On Friday mornings during Lent we have the Stations of the Cross at our parish.  The Stations begin with a prayer asking for forgiveness of our sins and promising to avoid sin in the future.  Notice that we begin with the same prayer every time.  It says a lot about us, don’t you think?

Last Friday we asked for forgiveness and promised to do better yet here we are, just seven days later, asking for forgiveness again, and promising to do better again.

It begs the question: Are we lying to God when we promise to avoid sin?  Or are we just so imperfect, so human, that we’re not able to avoid sin?  (I know.  That’s two questions.  I just can’t avoid the sin of asking too many questions.)

For most of us, the answer is B.  We’re human.  We’re sinners.  There have only been two people in all of history who were without sin.  (And poor Joseph had to live with both of them.)  That’s why we need to constantly ask for God’s help in our battle against our own sinful natures.

I meant what I said last Friday, but here I am saying the same prayer again.  And I’ll be back next Friday and the Friday after that knowing that no matter how hard I try, I will sin.  Thankfully I also know that no matter how many times I sin, I will be forgiven if I just ask.