Indulging Old Style

This NY Times piece on indulgences is getting some blogosphere traction. Not being a cradle Catholic, and growing up in the 70’s, indulgences pretty much passed me by. My mother ran annual pilgrimages to Canadian shrines for two decades, first under the auspices of the parish, and later, on her own just for her own edification and the spiritual life of her friends. My sense of these pilgrimages is that they offered their own virtues to people who participated. Newcomers explored their faith in new places. Veteran pilgrims prayed in familiar places, and intensified their devotion to Saint Joseph, the Blessed Mother, and Saint Anne. I wasn’t aware of any extra attachments to these spiritual adventures, nor would I think any additions were needed.

I’ve certainly been aware of indulgences connected to the Year of Paul and other Church events, like the Jubilee Year 2000. So unlike the headline suggests, indulgences have never really gone away so that they could return.

I haven’t followed the matter closely, so this line of thinking hadn’t occurred to me:

Getting Catholics back into confession, in fact, was one of the motivations for reintroducing the indulgence. In a 2001 speech, Pope John Paul described the newly reborn tradition as “a happy incentive” for confession.

“Confessions have been down for years and the church is very worried about it,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit and former editor of the Catholic magazine America. In a secularized culture of pop psychology and self-help, he said, “the church wants the idea of personal sin back in the equation. Indulgences are a way of reminding people of the importance of penance.”

It’s better than straight-up Pelagianism, I guess.

The Church has abandoned an important pillar that would lead the faithful back to the sacrament of Penance: Form III. I suspect it was scary to Pope John Paul II, who may have been alarmed that clerical control of the laity was slipping away. Otherwise why would he abrogate a post-conciliar liturgical reform before it had a chance to do its work?

So no, I have a hard time taking at face value a desire to get Catholics back to the sacrament. These prelates may want Catholics to return to old-style confession–of that I have no doubt. But reversing the trend away from not confessing at all is going to take some serious reflection and thought. Returning indulgences into the church culture may intensify the spiritual experience for people already confessing regularly.

However, this is an important consideration, from Father Gilbert Martinez of St Paul’s Church in Manhattan:

(I)t was interesting: I had a number of people come in and say, “Father, I haven’t been to confession in 20 years, but this” — the availability of an indulgence — “made me think maybe it wasn’t too late.”

What serious prelates need to do is consider how to expand this experience, and convince many more people in many more ways that it’s never too late to reconcile. So if the Year of Paul contributes to this in some way, sure, give a pat on the back to Good Pope JP. Then find a dozen other ways to get different kinds of fish back in God’s good graces. I don’t have a problem with a system of indulgences. But I won’t hesitate to criticize a system that lacks the spiritual imagination to cast the nets far wider.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Indulging Old Style

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Well, I guess it is back to pious ejaculations and 30-second church visits, not forgetting the holy water on the way in and the way out.

    And here I thought that my mantra “From gollies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, may the Good Lord deliver us” was sufficient.

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