A Defense of Indulgences
When I first heard about indulgences I was pretty skeptical; they can sound so cold, clear-cut and strangely precise in an imprecise world.
Now that I understand the role of indulgences a bit more, I have become an avid indulgence collector. My fellow sisters tease me because I get really pumped up when I hear about available indulgences.
For anyone who has no idea what I am talking about, indulgences are defined in the Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (CCC 1471). Indulgences are graces that are attached to performing various actions when a person has a certain disposition of repentance and detachment from sins, goes to confession, receives communion and prays for the pope’s intentions. Some examples of actions that may have indulgences attached to them are participating in pilgrimages, visiting certain churches during the year of faith, or even something as simple as reciting a prayer.
Still have no idea what I am talking about? Stay with me. A lot of people protest that indulgences are not necessary because God already saved us from our sins. They are right; Jesus saved us from our sins. But indulgences come in after a person’s sins have been forgiven.
I like to think of this like so. Imagine life as a long cross-country car ride, (I’ll let you decide which coast is heaven…). Your Father gave you his pristine classic car for the journey, (a.k.a your soul after baptism). You try your best to take care of it but along the way you make some bad judgments and ding the car. A few times you put some really bad dents in it after some especially poor decisions.
Thankfully, your Father is the best auto-repair guy in the world; he has shops all over the place ready to repair cars. But you feel reluctant to stop in. Finally, you pass by one of his shops on the road and go in and apologize to the mechanic on duty – knowing it will get back to your Father. Your Father, immediately upon hearing your admission of guilt, rushes to the shop and lets you know that he forgives you and appreciates your sincere remorse.
You are grateful for your Father’s forgiveness; it doesn’t erase the dents, but it puts you back in good relationship with your Father. So the Father says, “We are going to work on getting these dents out. It is going to take some time and if we are not complete by the time you reach the end of your journey you might need to stop over for a while at one of my shops before you have fun at the beach. But if you stick with me I am going to take care of this.”
The Father then pauses, “Of course some of my auto body shops along the way can make you beach-ready immediately. You don’t need to go to these auto shops to get to the beach but they are just a demonstration of how much I love you. If you happen to pass by or go a little out of your way to get to one, I would recommend it.”
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This analogy is not perfect but I hope it helps you to understand how Catholics understand indulgences, particularly where they come in. In other words, we believe that when sin is forgiven the effects of sin do not just disappear. We experience this when we are entrenched in a particular sin that has wreaked havoc in our lives for many years. Even when we receive God’s forgiveness it does not erase the consequences of sin. God’s forgiveness does not magically take away the dents – the need for purification and healing.
Catholics believe that if you reach the end of your life and your car still has dents, but you are sorry for sin and want to join God in heaven, then you will likely go to purgatory for some last minute touch-ups. If you have difficulty accepting this – think of entering the gates of heaven alongside Mother Teresa – whose soul I would imagine was pretty squeaky clean compared to yours and mine. Mother Teresa gleams as she passes by St. Peter and he nods in appreciation. But before you enter the gate, St. Peter, seeing the smudges and dings on your soul, says, “Hello there friend, do you want to get a little tune-up before going into the party like that?” You blush and look down at yourself then say, “Ya, I would. I’ll admit I’m not totally ready for this.”
Indulgences are the auto-body shops that help get us ready to enter the gates of heaven while we are on earth so we don’t have to get a bunch of last minute touch ups in purgatory. Indulgences do not save us. Jesus has already provided the grace of salvation to all of us. But the grace that Jesus’ death provided us is available to us throughout our lives not just to help us enter heaven but to sanctify us and help us to enter heaven with gleaming souls. The Church is the conduit of many graces – the Eucharist, confession, etc. But it also provides opportunities to completely erase the dents we have acquired through life up until now through indulgences. The extraordinary graces available to us in an indulgence come from the graces that Jesus made available through his death and resurrection – it is not an invention of the Church – the Church simply dispenses these graces, (like it does with the sacraments).
We don’t need indulgences to enter heaven. Indulgences are like an extra bonus, an abundance of grace available to the Church to pour out on us through the generosity of God. We can try to gain indulgences for ourselves but perhaps more importantly we can also offer indulgences for other souls in need of grace, particularly the souls in purgatory.
So, indulge yourself and join me as an avid “collector” of indulgences.
It does a soul good!
Obviously, I cannot cover the ins and outs of indulgences in a blog post so if you want to learn more, check out these links: