“Pope will wash away your sins through twitter” ran the headline in my newspaper. Apparently those who wish to earn the plenary indulgence associated with the Pope’s visit to Brazil do not need to go there; instead they can follow the events through the television, on a computer, or on a mobile telephone. But mere listening may not be enough – we would first have to confess our sins and attend Mass, At this time I do not know whether recording is allowed. It would for example, be useful to store the event on a dvd recorder, and switch it on at one’s deathbed. In that way the slate would be clean at just the right moment. Nor do I know whether watching the recording from time to time in the future would result in a series of indulgences, or merely share in the one gained at first viewing. Perhaps I could transfer an additional indulgence obtained this way to contributors to this Blog – or would I need to let you have a copy of the recording?
If I find myself speculating in this way I wonder what sort of messages are received by non Catholics. It must seem very weird, it could even cause scandal, I wonder if the time has come to bury the whole idea of indulgences.
We are all aware that indulgences are not a forgiveness of sin but represent a relieving of all or part of the punishment owing to sin; many indulgences are expressed in terms of the remission earned by so many days of penance. They do not represent days in Purgatory – which, being outside time, has no days.
But unfortunately indulgences have form. We are only too well aware of how they have been misused in the past through being applied to unworthy causes. Luther put them forward as a major reason for his insistence on reformation. Chaucer tells us of the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales: “His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe/bretful of pardons come from Rome al hoot.” In one day, apparently, he collected more money than a parson could in two months.
The earliest indulgences appear to have originated in the third century where those about to be martyred could be induced to sign vouchers (libellus pacis) whereby, after death, their merits could be transferred to others. St Cyprian was greatly concerned by the ‘blank cheque’ option where the recipient’s name could be filled in later. Worth a few bob, I imagine.
One might argue that they are conducive to ‘slot machine’ Catholicism. Put a penny in the slot and out comes the jackpot every time! But the Christian life should not be like that. We know the seriousness of sin, we know how Christ is ready, even anxious, to forgive our sins. And we understand the obligation of penance to correct through our good deeds what we have spoiled through our bad deeds. Catherine of Genoa held that holy souls were only too happy to be in Purgatory, having at last realised their need for cleansing before they would be ready for the beatific vision. To attempt to obtain the rewards of penance by trivial acts such as indulgences smacks of superstition.
So perhaps indulgences belong to the past, and should stay there. Then there would be no need for misunderstanding and scandals. Moreover it would help us to realise that God only requires one thing: that we should love him enough, and live that love in the world. But you may disagree.
Having said that, perhaps rather smugly, I must confess that I take comfort from the Nine First Fridays. This was the promise, made by the Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary, that all those who received Holy Communion on nine successive First Fridays in honour of the Sacred Heart would receive the grace of final perseverance on their death bed. I completed them at the age of eleven, and have felt more secure ever since. Superstition? Or, trust?
(link to Nine First Fridays: http://www.prayerbook.com/Devotions/Sacred%20Heart/ninefri.htm )