There's an article in today's NY Times about a resurgence in the Roman Catholic Church's marketing of indulgences. The bishops who are promoting the practice are worried that the steep decline of the sacrament of Confession indicates that modern Catholics don't feel personally sinful the way they used to. Gee, I wonder how that could have happened. Could those very same bishops be held responsible for the fact that modern Catholics no longer feel that God has issued a list of mortal sins (the big ones that could send you to hell) and venial sins (the ones you need to regret but get you only a hand-slap rather than perpetual incineration)?
I think the day those bishops declared that eating meat on Friday was no longer a mortal sin, we Catholics got a glimpse of what was behind the curtain. One day something sends you to hell, but the next day it's no big deal. Arbitrary. Optional. A game of rules devised by men, not God.
When the meat-on-Friday ban was lifted, I wondered if the bishops would next declare that missing Mass on a Sunday was no longer a mortal sin, but then I realized that Sunday Mass meant revenue, and Catholic revenue trumps Catholic theology any day of the week.
Indulgences are quaint and comforting. They presume that even if we earn a place in heaven, we must pass through a place of purification that is like hell, but temporary rather than eternal. Sinning less will get you out of purgatory faster, but certain prayers are tagged with indulgences. Saying them will get you a specific amount of time off from purgatory. For example, as a child, I was taught to memorize a short prayer to be said silently after receiving Holy Communion:
Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus, while before Thy face I humbly kneel, and with burning soul pray and beseech Thee to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope and charity; true contrition for my sins, and a firm purpose of amendment; while I contemplate with great love and tender pity Thy five wounds, pondering them over within me, and calling to mind the words which David, Thy Prophet, said of Thee, my Jesus: "They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones. "
I was crazy about this prayer. It was just so ...juicy. Also, it carried an indulgence of thirty days. I said it often and tried to compare my cumulative days off from purgatory with the extent of my sinfulness. That however was a problem because no one knows the time length of a stay in purgatory. Is it five minutes or five centuries? My several years off by dint of that vivid little prayer might be just a drop in the bucket. And once one begins to fry, there would be little opportunity to put Xs through days the way one might do in a prison cell with a photo of Jeff Stryker taped to the wall above the calendar.
The cadillac of indulgences is the plenary indulgence, which erases all of the accumulated time you would have spent in purgatory. On Christmas Eve of the Holy Year of 1975, the Pope granted a plenary indulgence to all who received his blessing and said the prescribed set of prayers within a specific number of days. On that occasion, the Pope went so far as to clarify that you didn't have to be at St. Peter's to take advantage of the special offer. You could get it by hearing the blessing via radio waves or by seeing it on TV. I got it in the flesh which I assumed would strengthen its efficacy, but I forgot to do the prayers by the deadline, so I lost out on that terrific opportunity. I am not worried because on another occasion, while in Saint Peter's basilica, I received an indulgence of 7000 years because of something I saw. I repeated the experience three times, earning a total of 28,000 years off!
There is a reason why people think that indulgences can still be bought. This has to do with the booking of Masses to be said for the deceased. The hope is that Masses said for the soul of a dead person will abbreviate his time in Purgatory. Faithful folks who mourn a loved one often ring the doorbell of the church rectory and say to the housekeeper "I'm here to book a Mass." The housekeeper fetches the priest who escorts the pious person into the office where he opens the big leather-bound scheduling book. A series of questions ensues. Who is the Mass for? When do you want it said? Do you want a High Mass (music) or a Low Mass (mumbling)? Do you want it repeated every week? Month? Year? The priest booking the Mass would tell the pious person the fee paid to the singer or the organist, but would never ever ask for money as payment for his saying the Mass. All the same, not once in my five years of parish work did I ever book a Mass without receiving a "donation". This money would be distributed among the priests of the parish to match which Masses each one said (with the pastor often taking the lucrative ones and leaving the assistant pastors with the pittances.) Just a wink and a nod separate this business from the pray-for-pay that brought about the Reformation. Really, priests ought to strenuously shun those offerings. If you take money at a moment like that, your hands are dirty forever.
I think that rather than start hawking indulgences, the clergy ought to be sent back to school to learn how to hear confessions. I gave some advice about this recently. and received email from some of my priest-readers who understand the merits of Confession for the modern Catholic. These are men who are good at forgiveness. Unfortunately, they are in the minority.
There is just too much wrong with the Roman Catholic Church today. In the same issue of the Times, the Pope is reported to have un-unexcommunicated that stupid British bishop who was denying the Holocaust. Old B16 bowing to international pressure over one of his more ridiculous moves to traditionalize his church by cozying up to the far right fringe is doing a flip-flop that is pitiful to watch. Catholics, no longer intimidated by threats of hell, do not tolerate this stuff and have replaced personal sin with personal judgement. They have become the adults that the post-Vatican II bishops intended, but those same bishops are asking them to be led by a childish and vain old man. If he lives long enough, he will bring the Roman Catholic Church to the brink of extinction. Bishops from the third world who are not intimidated by Rome will lead the revolt. The American bishops, mostly ill-chosen conservatives who are afraid to think, will be the last to get on the bus of the renewal to come. By then, they will be irrelevant.