Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 1, 2008
Theologian stresses importance of indulgences
BY GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON – Performing the acts required for an indulgence does not grant forgiveness for sin. But it can help to loosen our attachment to sin and relieve the punishment that comes to us through our sins, says a member of the formation team at St. Joseph Seminary.
Only God can forgive sins and we receive that forgiveness through God’s grace, such as that found in the sacrament of Reconciliation, says Father Stephen Hero.
Although indulgences have gotten a bad reputation at certain points in Church history, “they teach us something very important about our spiritual life,” said Hero.
Through forgiveness of sin, the eternal effects of sin are eradicated, he said. But through an indulgence, the effects of sin in this world are muted. “An indulgence helps to restore the spiritual health of the Church.”
In an interview, Hero, who teaches spiritual theology at the seminary and Newman Theological College, said the origins of indulgences can be found in the early persecutions of the Church.
In the early Church, many Christians were martyred for refusing to renounce their faith. Others refused to renounce their faith but were not killed. Still others did renounce their faith but later sought to be reconciled with the Church.
Passing on the grace
Some of those who remained true to the faith despite persecution gave written statements to those who had apostatized that they would give some of the grace they had received for their courage to the apostate.
It gave rise to the notion of a treasury of grace from which all Christians can donate or withdraw in order to reduce their punishment for sin or to loosen their attachment to sin.
The scriptural justification for indulgences is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that, the Church” (1:24).
Someone in the hospital, for example, may offer his or her suffering for the good of others, Hero said. “I can benefit from the good works of others and my good works can help others.”
Our sufferings, our acts of piety, share in Christ’s plan of redemption, he continued.
In the act of indulgence, the person seeking the indulgence says a prayer or performs a pious act along with “the usual conditions” – making a sacramental Confession, receiving Communion, eliminating any willful attachment to sin and praying for the intentions of the pope.
“A jubilee is a time to cancel debts and it’s time to celebrate.”
- Fr. Stephen Hero | theologian
Archbishop Richard Smith has granted a special indulgence for the Year of St. Paul.
This is fitting, said Hero. “A jubilee is a time to cancel debts and it’s a time to celebrate.”
But the Church in 1968 published its Enchiridion of Indulgences – a list of 71 prayers or pious acts for which one can receive either a full or a partial indulgence of temporal punishment. (The enchiridion is available on the Internet at www.ourladyswarriors.org/indulge/.)
Prior to Vatican II, Hero said, the Church would define a partial indulgence in terms of days, weeks or years. That signification was related to the lengthy periods of restitution for sin prescribed in the early Church.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the Celtic Church in the early Middle Ages listed appropriate penances for every imaginable sin. Some sins had such long penances that people died before they could fulfill them.
Those heavy penances could be replaced, in whole or in part, by prayers and other pious works that would reduce the penance by a specified period of time.
But when Pope Paul VI revised the Church’s teaching on indulgences in 1968, he dropped the archaic notion that an indulgence could be for a particular period of time. Now it would be either partial or full (plenary).
As well, the indulgence is no longer attached to the act performed, but to the disposition in the heart of the person seeking an indulgence, Hero said.
While indulgences have been more or less forgotten in recent decades, Hero said, “I think we should know more about them than we do.”
Adult Catholics need to know that sin continues to have an effect in their lives even after they have been forgiven and that the Church offers us a way to reduce those effects, he said.