ROUND ROCK, Texas — Feb. 5, 2011 ‑ Catholics and other Christians are four and a half weeks away from Lent. While we will spend 45 days this year in repentance for our sins, it’s good to know that there are opportunities to ease the penance given to us through sacred tradition, especially through plenary (full) or partial indulgences.
Recall for a moment the ancient Greek practice of placing gold coins on the eyes of the dead. Ancient Greeks believed that, once someone died, his or her soul had to cross the river Styx in Hades by paying the ferryman Charon to get to Elisyum, also known as the Elysian Fields (paradise), on the other side. Those souls with no toll money were destined to haunt the shores.
Indulgences are much like the gold coins of this Greek myth, except you have to earn them through devotional deeds. Every plenary indulgence that is earned absolves time spent in Purgatory for previously forgiven sins. In other words, little good deeds shorten your time-out!
The sacrament of reconciliation, or confession, forgives Catholics of their sins and reopens communion with God. It is true that God forgives sins, but that doesn’t mean that atonement is complete without earthly reprimand, just as a parent forgives and loves their delinquent teenager but still grounds the child as a lesson. As a basic example of this: when you confess that you stole money from your friend, you not only confess the sin of stealing, but you make restoration by returning the stolen money to your friend. Similarly, Catholics believe God demands justice for sin, so time spent in Purgatory becomes the temporal part of our reconciliation.
Because Catholics view God as merciful, though, they observe the sacred tradition of indulgences. In exchange for some pious acts of charity, they create a little spiritual bank account of gold coins to pay the toll in the afterlife. They spend some of the spiritual money on their own souls in hopes of being admitted to heaven or provide them to the souls of the deceased.
Of course, there is a long and sometimes abusive history of indulgences in the Church, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, that has left a blurred understanding in the minds of many modern Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Unfortunately, the practice of charging money for indulgences left a black stain on the Church’s history. Indulgences, however, cannot be bought.
To avoid some bad spiritual financial advice, you have to understand that while the indulgences are perfectly attainable by most and are otherwise simple acts, there are some stipulations: The sins for which you are seeking an indulgence must already have been absolved through the sacrament of reconciliation, you must be wholeheartedly contrite about those forgiven sins, and you must receive Holy Communion on the same day of your deed.
In addition to Article 1471 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is also a Church publication titled The Manual of Indulgences that further explains the idea of indulgences and provides an abundant list of how to achieve them. Examples of attaining indulgences include: reading sacred scripture piously for half an hour, reciting the rosary in a church or privately with your family (the family is considered a church), attending a newly ordained priest’s first Mass, or physically visiting the Stations of the Cross with a prayer at each station. Only one indulgence is granted each day.
Partial indulgences, or incomplete indulgences, also add to the stockpile of spiritual wealth, albeit more slowly than their plenary counterpart. Partial indulgences are not granted to abolish a specified period of time to spend in Purgatory; whereas plenary indulgences may erase time in Purgatory altogether. Examples of partial indulgences are reciting the Act of Contrition, a prayer of St. Joseph or time spent in Eucharistic adoration.
In light of indulgences, the divine mercy of God becomes more apparent. There is such comfort in knowing that, by your own actions, you can secure a great gift of mercy even to those who have already passed on. This is enables you to pray and participate in the salvation of souls, Catholic or not, who await the second coming of Christ. And if you call saints those who are admitted to heaven, imagine the possibility of having saints in heaven praying for you and returning the favor.
The Holy Soap Opera is on Facebook. (Sorry, no indulgences granted for liking.)
Erica Bonnell is a displaced Houstonian who currently resides in Round Rock, Texas. Aside from volunteering and educating, she spends much of her spare time in theological pursuits. Her personal adventures with faith and divorce are regularly blogged at http://writtenstraw.wordpress.com.
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