Saturday, February 21, 2009

Feb. 22, 2009: 7th Sunday Ordinary (B)

Few days ago, our youth director asked me, "Fr. Paul, what is this about indulgence?" and he handed me a recent article from New York Times ( It reads, "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened," and the caption says, "Indulgences Return, and Heaven Moves a Step Closer for Catholics." Its opening paragraph read as follows: The announcement in [New York] church bulletins and on Web sites has been greeted with enthusiasm by some and wariness by others. But mainly, it has gone over the heads of a vast generation of Roman Catholics who have no idea what it means: “Bishop Announces Plenary Indulgences.” So my question to you is, if you had to teach your children about indulgence, how would you teach it? I suppose the first question is, what is indulgence?

The following is the New York Times version of its explanation: "The indulgence is among the less noticed and less disputed traditions to be restored. But with a thousand-year history and volumes of church law devoted to its intricacies, it is one of the most complicated to explain.According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament."

Not bad of an explanation. How many of y’all heard of indulgence? How many of y’all know what indulgence is? Those of us who are under 50 have not heard of this or even have sought indulgence. As the article says, it is one of those traditions that has been decoupled from mainstream Catholic practice in the 1960s. I only became aware of it when I came back to the Church in my junior year in college. But I only began to understand it when I was aware of the other topic--Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Back in my high school 18 years ago, a protestant classmate tried to explain Hell and Heaven, but failed. As you know, I told you before that in high school I was a Goth, and frankly I felt I was invincible and believed that if I died, there was nothing thereafter. I felt that 'sin' was just a concept made up by men and therefore, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven were also just fabrication of men. So if 18 years ago you tried to explain to me about God's mercy and forgiveness for the consequences of my sins, which the indulgence addresses, then you've would have gotten a blank stare from me, just as from most readers of New York Times about this article on indulgence. For most readers, the topic is strictly in the realm of Catholic guilt which is not applicable for them but a source of novelty and amusement. But is this just a topic for scrupulous Catholics?

In order to begin diving into this topic, we need to begin where we are. My generation is more likely to question why we need forgiveness for our sins in the first place. My generation hears so much about God's forgiveness and mercy, but we're saying so what? I don't have sins to be forgiven for--what is sin? My parents’ generation, on the other hand, can appreciate today's emphasis on God's forgiveness and mercy because when they were growing up, they were drilled to be aware of their own sinfulness and feel guilty about it. When you watch the recent movie, "Doubt" ( you can begin to appreciate the era in which my parent's generation grew up. This was the era when authority, obedience, and corporal punishment were accepted as general rule; and I'm not talking about just the Catholic Church and the nuns. Whether you were a protestant, Jewish, or of no faith, in those days, you had it worse at home than what you received at school or at church. A boy in that time understood what consequence of bad action felt like on your behind.

My generation understands well what happens to other people when they do bad things. We experience sin vicariously. We watch a lot of TV programs like CSI and Law and Order, where people who do bad things get punished. We watch reality TV and watch people do foolish things and laugh about it. But we convince ourselves that that's not us. Yet when I visit Dixon Correctional Institute and hear young guys' confessions, the reality of the consequence of sin has come too late for them. You'll find a captive audience in prison when you teach about God's generosity in his forgiveness and mercy through His gift of indulgence which takes away the temporal punishment due to sin. You see in prison, the memory of their own crime reminds them over and over that the only place they deserve after death is Hell. Yet, these tortured men know that God allows them to show their gratitude for the forgiveness of their awful sin by their charitable works, sacrifice, and prayer--God is generous enough to allow a brand new start with our meager spiritual work.

In our Gospel when Jesus says to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven,” we, like the Scribes, question Jesus. “Why does this man speak that way?” Our generation is more likely to be aware of the illness that afflicts our body—those that can be seen and captured on camera and CT Scan. But God sees the illness that afflicts our soul due to sin. Therefore, He speaks the following in our First Reading: “You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes. It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more…see, I am doing something new!” It’s not so difficult to understand what indulgence is when we begin to appreciate that God sees the invisible spiritual cancer that afflicts us. He provides us the spiritual chemo therapy, by ways of indulgence, to treat and relieve the after-effects of our spiritual illness.