Who among us would claim not to be a sinner?  Who is without need of forgiveness?  All our sins have consequences.  They disrupt our relationship with God and the church.  They make it difficult for us to resist temptations and they certainly hurt other people.  Healing is necessary and sometimes help is needed.  Our prayers, fasting, almsgiving and works of charity truly help the healing process.  But over the centuries the church has offered another aid, indulgences.

Church law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church define an indulgence in this way: “An indulgence is 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 the saints.”

The basic idea is this.  Even though sins are forgiven, justice requires some punishment.  It’s a grace when a judge may allow you to keep driving, even though you received a speeding ticket, but you still must pay the fine.  Our sins are forgiven through the sacrament of Penance and the prayer of the church but temporal punishment is still due to sin.  Permanent punishment is not an issue because the sins have been forgiven.  An indulgence helps us rid ourselves of the temporal punishment through the power of the church, which is the body of Christ on earth.  For those of us seeking an indulgence there is a requirement of the recitation of certain prayers, visiting specified places of pilgrimage or engaging in specific acts of charity.

Some Catholics, when hearing that Pope Benedict XVI had authorized the granting of a plenary or full indulgence under certain conditions during the Year of Faith might wonder if this is back-peddling on the part of the church.  After all, didn’t we abandon indulgences decades ago?  Weren’t they a problem at the time of the Reformation leading to the division of the Christian community?  Isn’t it better to leave this kind of talk about indulgences for church historians?  

Unfortunately, over the years many misconceptions about this particular teaching in Catholic theology have arisen.  Admittedly, many who would decline any consideration of indulgences on the part of the church are motivated by the good intention of trying to distance themselves from past abuses at the time of the Reformation.  They want non-Catholics to have a more positive view of our church.  But pretending that indulgences are not part of our life of faith would simply be a mistake.  Jesus entrusted the power over sinful behavior to his church.  Through the church both forgiveness and the removal of punishment may be granted.  Historically one of the problems with indulgences arose from the legitimate practice of giving alms to charity as the means for the reception of an indulgence.  This is not the so-called “selling of indulgences” that sometimes is asserted.  Giving money to God is an act worthy of praise.  In fact, if we do it right, our loving God will certainly take note of it and not let us go unrewarded.  Of course, if there really was a direct exchange of cash for an indulgence, there would be no remission of punishment in that situation.

If a person is indeed eager to gain an indulgence, whether plenary (full remission of punishment) or partial, it is necessary that he or she be in the state of grace by the time the indulgence is completed.  Furthermore a plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day.  The recipient must have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, have sacramentally confessed his or her sins and have received Holy Communion, and pray for the intentions of the Pope.

The required reception of the sacraments and prayers should be carried out within three weeks of the indulgence act.  In praying for the Pope usually an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” are suggested.  One confession suffices for several plenary indulgences.  A separate Holy Communion and separate prayer for the Pope are required for each one.  Confessors may commute both the work prescribed and the conditions required when the individual is legitimately impeded.  An indulgence can always be applied to one-self or to the souls of the deceased, but not to another living person.

The times when the plenary indulgence for the Year of Faith may be obtained were outlined by a decree from the Vatican promulgated on October 5th of this year.  They are as follows:  1) each time a person attends at least three sermons during a parish mission or retreat.  Likewise when attending three presentations on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council or the Catechism of the Catholic Church the indulgence may be received.  2) Every time a person visits, in the course of a pilgrimage, a papal basilica, a Christian catacomb or a holy site designated by the local bishop.  There they must attend a sacred celebration, remain for a time in prayer and conclude with the recitation of the Our Father, a profession of faith in any legitimate form, prayers to Mary, the apostles and patron saints.

Here in the Archdiocese of Portland we have designated nine pilgrimage churches for the Year of Faith.  They are 1) The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Portland; 2) The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother (The Grotto), Portland; 3) St. John the Apostle Church, Oregon City; 4) St. Paul Church, St. Paul; 5) Mount Angel Abbey Church, Mount Angel; 6) St. Joseph Church, Salem; 7) St. Mary Church, Corvallis; 8) St. Mary Church, Eugene; 9) Sacred Heart Church, Medford.

Special days may also be designated by the local bishop when the Catholic people might obtain the Year of Faith plenary indulgence.  If one attends a solemn celebration of the Eucharist or the Liturgy of the Hours on one of these days, while making a profession of faith, the indulgence may be received.  The dates here are December 7 and 8, 2012, the Immaculate Conception; January 1, 2013, Mary the Holy Mother of God; February 13, 2013, Ash Wednesday; March 6, 2013, Archdiocesan Ember Day; May 19, 2013, Pentecost; June 29, 2013, Saints Peter and Paul; August 15, 2013, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; September 25, 2013, Archdiocesan Ember Day; November 24, 2013, Christ the King.

Finally a plenary indulgence may also be received on any day during the Year of Faith when persons visit the place where they received the sacrament of Baptism and renew their baptismal promises in any legitimate form.  

All of these initiatives provide us with many opportunities for reconciliation and healing during the Year of Faith.  I encourage you to take advantage of them and thereby strengthen your loving relationship with our dear God and with others whom you may have offended.  Yes, indulgences and pilgrimages remain a viable and admirable means for growing in grace and helping build God’s kingdom of justice and peace.