“The Fullness of the Father's
Mercy: The Meaning of Indulgences”
by Romanus Cessario, OP (The Magnificat: Pilgrim's Guide to the Great Jubilee)
Writing for the special Jubilee Guide edition of Magnificat, Dominican Father Romanus Cessario explores the Church's understanding of indulgences in light of the special ones authorized by Pope John Paul II for the Jubilee Year.
“[T]he saints teach us that it is not the same thing to remove the arrow and to heal the wound (‘non est idem abstrahere telum, et sanare vulnus,’ St. Augustine, De Trinitate, Bk. 15),” he writes. “This means that it is one thing to forgive sin — to remove the arrow — and another thing to heal the wounds caused in us by sin. The practice of granting indulgences shows that sin is more than the infraction of a divine rule. Since it disregards the in-built purposes of human nature, sin puts us in a state of personal disorder. Sinful actions affect adversely the psychology and character of the whole person. Each sinner therefore needs a remedial discipline that can re-direct his or her human energies toward virtuous activity.
“The ‘temporal punishment’ due to sin can be explained by sin itself. St. Augustine taught that every disordered action brings about its own punishment. Sin conforms our psychological powers to purposes that fall short of those that perfect our lives and incarnate God's goodness in the world.” Therefore, Father Cessario notes, we acquire indulgences by means of acts such as prayer, pilgrimage, self-sacrifice and almsgiving, which represent and help realize in us a greater turning toward God and away from sin.
As with every other part of our religious life, “Healing the wounds that sin causes in the human person is not something that we can do by our own strength. … Indulgences draw upon this spiritual treasure-chest that contains the good works of Christ and the saints.” Our ability to share in the spiritual goods of Christ and the saints is an aspect of the communion of saints, like prayer for others, both living and dead. “[O]ur union in charity with Christ and the saints grounds our sharing in their meritorious and satisfactory works. To put it differently, indulgences flow from the Church's Eucharistic life; they guarantee the transformation that Christ accomplishes in those who eat his Body and drink his Blood.
“But how can an indulgence change our psychological dispositions? The Church teaches that Christ's love remains powerful enough to alter what the sinner himself did not have the occasion (or perhaps even the will) to do for himself. Christ brings the full gift of the Father's mercy. Because he is the very Son of God, the Church recognizes the exceeding value that Christ's sufferings communicate to every member of the Church. A spiritual reading of the Gospels reveals the supreme charity and obedience with which Christ lived his life. An indulgence provides a concrete way to participate in his obedient love.”
Because “the duly indulgenced sinner who rejoices in the gift of the Father's mercy is made ready for ultimate communion, … the indulgence can be obtained on behalf of the souls of the deceased. … The Incarnate Son established a wide communication of divine goodness that can overcome whatsoever indisposition sin may leave in the living or the dead.”
Father Cessario concludes by asking: “What explains the gift of the indulgence? All in all, it is Christ's service of obedient love. Why is pardon for sin through an indulgence less burdensome than ordinary efforts at reform of life? St. Thomas Aquinas gives the reason: ‘the labor of Christ's sufferings suffices.’ In the mystery of a ‘vicarious life,’ the eminent satisfaction of Christ and the super-abundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints become ours. (We receive the fullness of the Father's mercy.) The indulgences of the Great Jubilee provide the opportunity for each one of us to become living signs of this mercy in the world.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.
A condensed version, in the words of the original author, of an article selected by the Register from the nation's top journals.