Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
The Holy See has announced special indulgences for World Youth Day.
Predictably, the press has totally misreported the issue.
So what’s the truth of the matter?
Here are 12 things to know and share . . .
1) What is an indulgence?
According to the official definition:
An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints [Indulgentiarum Doctrina (ID), n. 1].
2) Say what?
Put in a non-technical way, an indulgence is a way that the Church helps people deal with the consequences of sin.
When we sin, there are consequences.
Some of these consequences can be eternal. They can cost us heaven.
Other consequences are “temporal”—meaning that they won’t last for all eternity.
Even when the eternal consequences of our sins are removed, God may still allow us to experience some of the temporal consequences—so that we learn our lesson.
It’s like when a parent says to a child, “Look, don’t worry. I forgive you. But you need to learn not to do this again, so you’re still grounded for two weeks.”
Now suppose the child really takes the lesson to heart and does things to demonstrate this. Suppose, in addition to bearing up cheerfully while grounded, he also goes out of his way to do kind things for his parents and siblings.
In this case, the parent might say, “Okay. You’ve got time off for good behavior. You’re only grounded for a week.”
It can make sense to diminish the consequences the child experiences when he shows that he’s really learned his lesson and is actively trying to do better.
In the same way, it can make sense for God to diminish the temporal consequences that we experience from our sins when we take the lesson to heart and try to grow spiritually.
The Church has a role to play here also. God give the Church the power of the keys, the authority to bind and loose things on earth, and it is to use this authority for the spiritual good of the faithful.
Thus, when we turn from sin and seek to grow spiritually, it makes sense for the Church to use its authority from God, within its ability, to lessen the temporal consequences of our sins.
That’s what an indulgence is: It’s an occasion when the Church uses its authority to lessen the temporal consequences that remain even after our sins have been forgiven.
3) Does this mean you get an automatic ticket to heaven? Instant forgiveness? Time off in purgatory? What about sins you haven’t committed yet? Is this a license to sin?
None of those things are true. As the definition of indulgences makes clear, you have to already be forgiven.
Indulgences deal only with the temporal consequences of sin that remain after the guilt of the sin is forgiven.
Forgiveness requires repentance, so there is nothing automatic here. There is no license to sin.
We also don’t know fur sure how time works in purgatory, so the Church makes no claim about indulgences providing “time off” in purgatory—just that the process of purification will be helped in some way.
4) Is there more that one kind of indulgence?
An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due sin [ID n. 2].
Both a plenary and a partial indulgence were announced for World Youth Day.
5) What was the plenary indulgence for World Youth Day?
According to the Apostolic Penitentiary (the department of the Vatican that typically issues indulgences):
the Plenary Indulgence, obtainable once a day is granted on the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the Supreme Pontiff’s intentions).
It may also be applied by way of suffrage for the souls of deceased faithful and for faithful who are truly repentant and contrite who will devoutly participate in the sacred rites and exercises of devotion that will take place in Rio de Janeiro [source].
6) What about those who can’t go to World Youth Day?
According to the Apostolic Penitentiary:
Those faithful who are legitimately prevented may obtain the Plenary Indulgence as long as, having fulfilled the usual conditions — spiritual, sacramental and of prayer — with the intention of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, they participate in spirit in the sacred functions on the specific days, and as long as they follow these same rites and devotional practices via television and radio or, always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication;
7) Does this mean that you can go to heaven automatically by becoming one of the pope’s Twitter followers?
[Expletive deleted], no!
We’ve already covered the fact that indulgences are not automatic “get into heaven free” cards. They require sincere repentance and forgiveness.
The idea that they would function that way merely by becoming one of the pope’s Twitter followers is nonsense that certain parts of the press have been fostering, as if it were a scam to get the pope new Twitter followers.
The Holy See is trying to make it easier for people who can’t physically go to World Youth Day to benefit spiritually (hint: that’s a good thing) by making the indulgences available for those who participate in the event through the Internet (hint: greater inclusiveness; another good thing).
But there’s nothing at all in the announcement that says if you become one of the pope’s Twitter followers that you get an indulgence.
Read the announcement (quoted above) for yourself.
8) So how can you gain the indulgence if you are using the Internet?
The announcement states that the faithful must:
- fulfill “the usual conditions” (more on that below)
- “participate in spirit in the sacred functions on the specific days”
- “follow these same rites and devotional practices via television and radio or, always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication”
By “the new means of social communication,” the Apostolic Penitentiary has in mind the Internet.
It envisions an experience comparable to watching the World Youth Day events on television or listening to them on the radio—in other words, being a virtual pilgrim who is experiencing the events visually and/or audibly, only by Internet streaming instead of TV or radio broadcast.
Tweets don’t suffice to provide that kind of experience. An unnamed source, speaking unofficially, suggested otherwise, but there always needs to be a note of caution regarding what unnamed sources say unofficially.
9) Do you have to follow the events live?
The decree doesn’t explicitly say, however, it does speak of participating in the events “on the specific days.”
The same unnamed source, speaking unofficially, apparently also said:
But you must be following the events live.
10) What are “the usual conditions” for a plenary indulgence?
According to the Apostolic Penitentiary:
3. To gain indulgences, whether plenary or partial, it is necessary that the faithful be in the state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed.
4. A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day. In order to obtain it, the faithful must, in addition to being in the state of grace:
— have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
— have sacramentally confessed their sins;
— receive the Holy Eucharist (it is certainly better to receive it while participating in Holy Mass, but for the indulgence only Holy Communion is required);
— pray for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff.
5. It is appropriate, but not necessary, that the sacramental Confession and especially Holy Communion and the prayer for the Pope's intentions take place on the same day that the indulgenced work is performed; but it is sufficient that these sacred rites and prayers be carried out within several days (about 20) before or after the indulgenced act.
Prayer for the Pope's intentions is left to the choice of the faithful, but an "Our Father" and a "Hail Mary" are suggested.
One sacramental Confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but a separate Holy Communion and a separate prayer for the Holy Father's intentions are required for each plenary indulgence [The Gift of the Indulgence].
11) What if I can’t fulfill all of the requirements?
It will be a partial indulgence instead:
If this disposition [of complete detachment from sin] is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial [ID, n. 7].
12) What was the partial indulgence that was announced?
According to the Apostolic Penitentiary’s recent announcement:
the Partial Indulgence is granted to those faithful, wherever they may be during the above-mentioned meeting, every time, at least with a contrite heart, that they raise fervent prayers to God, concluding with the official World Youth Day Prayer, and devout invocations to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Brazil, under her title of “Nossa Senhora da Conceiçao Aparecida”, as well as to the other Patrons and Intercessors of this same meeting so that they encourage the young people to be strengthened in the faith and to lead a holy life.
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