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Fr. Salifu writes: Why the church grants indulgences.


“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Every action has consequences and if that is not clear enough, consider what is currently happening in the world. Pope Francis in his recent Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing stated: “We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” We often think we can do whatever we want and get away with it without consequences. Well, there are consequences to every action. Newton’s third law of motion states: action and reaction are equal and opposite. The saying also goes that when you throw a ball against the wall, it would bounce back to you. I think the point has been made here. But how does this relate to indulgence.

The teaching of indulgence has its basis in the fact that to every choice we make, there are consequences therein: both eternal and temporal (punishment). While the wages of sin is death and God’s gift is eternal life, we need to acknowledge that while our sins are forgiven when we seek mercy from God, there remains temporal consequences for sin: that which may be described as the temporal punishment of our sins. According to Canon 992, indulgence is a divinely recognized remission or removal of temporal punishment for sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.

Two things are at stake here: first, is the fact that it is a divine act, removing any thought/idea that a human action can purchase or merit any grace given by God.

This must be clear so that no one thinks he can buy the gift of God. It is a gift that is why it is called grace; not a commodity which goes to the highest bidder.

Secondly, indulgence has nothing to do with the remission of sin, but the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven. The punishment that sin brings about is eternal damnation but when one turns to the Lord seeking forgiveness that punishment is always taken away and one is assured of heaven.

Yet the temporal punishment (consequences) due to our sin remains and this is where indulgence comes in.

Through the merits of Christ and the saints, who have attained such heights by their perfect union with the merits of Christ (and not our merits), the church dispenses this grace of indulgence so that these temporal punishments due to sin may be remitted by the grace of Christ.

Consequences and Temporal punishment
Catholic theology teaches that one needs constantly to purify himself in order to achieve union with God. Someone may ask: Why do we talk about temporal punishment for sin? When God forgives, does he not take away all the punishment that our sins have accrued?

We can describe this in two ways, but one only goes to explain and make clear the other.

In scripture we see an example in David: a person who enjoyed the forgiveness of God and yet had to suffer the consequences of his action by the loss of his son.

The second way of describing temporal punishment due to sin has to do with perfect contrition and the need for us to be further purified in order to enjoy the full benefits of God’s grace.

The grace of God is always given in its fullness, which includes the taking away of all punishment due to sin whether eternal or temporal, but our reception of that grace is not very often full. When we talk about perfect contrition, we mean that sorrow we feel which makes us regret entirely what we have done.

And yet we know that very often we do not express true sorrow for our sins, and we do not repent for the good reason. When we feel sorrow for our sins because we have been caught in our crime, that is an imperfect contrition even though it can help us to gain the grace of forgiveness, yet we still need to purify ourselves of such imperfect contrition.

When we regret our sins only because we are afraid of hell, it is an imperfect contrition though it makes us open to receive the grace of forgiveness.

In other words, we always need to purify our reasons and our intentions for which we repent otherwise it hinders our receptivity of God’s grace. What is at stake here is not whether the grace of God is fully given or truly effective (that is sure) but it is our ability to receive fully what has been given in full.

True repentance is when we are sorry for our sins not because we are afraid to lose something or because of fear but because we are sorrowful for having taken the love of God for granted.

This is expressed in our act of contrition: “I detest all my sins… because they offend you my love who are all good and deserving of my love”.

Imperfect acts of contrition, though they do not deny us the grace of forgiveness that clears our path to heaven, they also place uncomfortable obstacles to the full reception of God’s grace and hence the need to further purify our intentions for our repentance.

Therefore, we speak of purgatory- a state where man is purified before he is admitted into heaven. Our purgatory can happen either in this lifetime or when we die.

Thus Saint Paul writes in 1 Cor. 3:15: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” Salvation is assured but there is a need for further purification.

This process of purification is what we also term temporal punishment for sin which the grace of indulgences helps to cleanse.

Asked in pious terms what indulgences are: they are the grace of Christ that the church grants to his faithful to help them open up to receive more fully the salvation that Jesus has already accomplished for us.

Grace is never automatic, and it is not simply gained by some mechanical following of rules and rituals. Rituals and the proposals of the church to engage in various prayers are to help us open more and more to grace.

To receive this grace and any other grace we need to avail ourselves for such a gift. That which prepares us for such a reception are the conditions attached to indulgence: Some prayers that would be proposed together with the reception of the Sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist.

In these times when we cannot have access to priests for the sacraments because of social distancing and restrictions of movement, we turn to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in situations like these (CCC, no. 1452): we must make a perfect act of contrition which means a deep expression of sorrow for our sins with the resolve to avoid sin and make a resolution that as soon as possible, when the opportunity presents itself, we would seek God in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The same holds for the sacrament of the Eucharist: a deep desire for the sacrament when it is not possible to approach the sacrament brings us the grace that lies therein.

The full, conscious and active participation of online Masses and other devotions are important to receive the indulgence granted to us in these times.

It is important to highlight this point: when participating in virtual celebrations of Holy Mass or any devotion (via Facebook, YouTube, television or radio etc.), one must create an environment of prayer wherever one finds himself/ herself, either by lighting a candle or placing yourself beside your home altar or anything that would assist you join in prayer.

Do not watch virtual Masses but participate in virtual Mass; do not watch online Masses as if you are watching a movie but place yourself within the celebration for the grace of God is not limited by space and time.

This Apostolic Penitentiary also willingly grants a Plenary (full/absolute) Indulgence under the same conditions on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to those faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.

Source: Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Salifu

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