Last Thursday we celebrated Thanksgiving here in the United States and many celebrated the retail extravaganza “Black Friday” the following day with all its usual deals for toys, housewares, clothing and electronics. However, hands-down this year, the best Black Friday deal did not come from a retailer but from Pope Francis. On Black Friday, Francis announced “Get out of Purgatory Free” cards, otherwise known as plenary indulgences.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “Purgatory” is where one’s soul is excoriated until it shines brightly enough for heaven. Though the sacrament of penance forgives people of their sins, forgiveness in the Catholic dogmatic style does not include freedom from punishment. The Catholic Church teaches that people commit sins, and God forgives them using priests in confessionals as conduits, but then God will still exact at least a pound of flesh in punishment, typically in this quaint place called Purgatory. It’s kind of like saying, “I forgive you for eating my cookie, but trust me, Bucko, I’m still going to make you pay for doing it.” This might sound to the inexperienced as a non-forgiving form of forgiveness but let us not get caught up in pesky details lest we miss out on Pope Francis’ Black Friday special.
Moving on, let’s review “indulgences.” They are like coupons one exchanges in lieu of enduring purgatorial punishment. One can have partial indulgences which, as the name indicates, partially cover your punishment...sort of like a 50% off coupon. Or one can have a plenary indulgence which completely gets rid of any punishment...sort of like a "get one free" coupon.
The actual statement published November 28th by the Vatican read as follows, “The Holy Father, on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, will concede plenary indulgences, with the customary conditions, to all members of the institutes of consecrated life and other truly repentant faithful moved by a spirit of charity.”
I read this very statement to my youngest daughter (in her 20s) assuming she would stop the car and excitedly exclaim, “Where can I get my indulgence? I want an indulgence!” I regret to inform you, this was not her reaction. After re-reading the statement to her today, she decided it was a story from "The Onion."
Yes, such magnanimity is hard to believe so I understand how someone might confuse it with satirical writing on a comedy website. But, no, this is REAL and the pope is sincere. He is spraying anti-whoop-ass but not just willy-nilly into the atmosphere so that freedom from punishment lands on just any old surface. He is following the “customary conditions” for indulgences.
I hope you are sitting down because my daughter did NOT know the customary conditions for indulgences. Thus, I read them verbatim to her from a Catholic website. And, I read them to her again….and again…and again. Finally she said, “This is more complicated than learning the rules for Monopoly…” and began speculating if rolling double sixes might have the same effect as receiving a plenary indulgence.
By the way, the “customary conditions” for an indulgence do not include paying oodles of cash, playing BINGO at the local Knights of Columbus hall, cheering for Notre Dame, walking backwards while reciting the rosary in Latin, or whistling “Lift High the Cross” while eating Lenten Friday fish-sticks. The customary conditions are simply these: In addition to doing the pious act, 1) go to confession, 2) receive Holy Communion, 3) pray for the pope, and 4) be absent of all attachments to sin.
Holy crap, it was a slam-dunk until the whole “be free from sin” thing. Not to fear. If you don’t get the full plenary indulgence, you can still get a partial one. It’s kind of like doing a very complex chemistry problem where you get partial credit for the things you did do correctly.
Buying and selling indulgences inspired people like Martin Luther to insist upon hierarchical reforms. The hierarchy, being every bit or perhaps even less good natured about criticism then than it is now, excommunicated Luther but did reform the corrupt practices around buying and selling indulgences. Thus, you cannot buy your way out of purgatorial suffering with indulgences purchased at a local Catholic boutique like Hobby Lobby. But, you can still give them away!!! Wondering what to get that special someone who is hard to buy for? What to get for the person with everything? Try going for an indulgence, gift wrapping it and giving it to your favorite someone this Christmas Season. Certain restriction apply; see Pope for details.
Questions from a Ewe; 1 December 2014