Indulgences about relationship with God, not Twitter followers, theologian says

July 17, 2013

By Maria Wiering

Twitter: @ReviewWiering

Like Pope Benedict XVI before him, Pope Francis has decreed a plenary indulgence for the millions of pilgrims attending World Youth Day, a biennial international event planned for July 23-28 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is also extending it to those who can not make the pilgrimage in person, but participate closely through social media, including Twitter. Those seeking an indulgence must meet other usual conditions, including going to confession, receiving the Eucharist and praying for the intentions of the pope.

Headlines announcing the news have ranged from “How to save your soul: in 140 characters or less” in USA Today to “Pope now offering indulgences in exchange for Twitter followers” at Slate Magazine. However, as Monsignor Stuart W. Swetland, vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, told the Catholic Review, indulgences are not so simple, and much more serious, than the flip headlines suggest.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. What is an indulgence?

A: In all of this, we have to put it in terms of relationship. It’s going to sound legalistic or nonsensical unless we think about this as part of our relationship with God and our relationship with others through God. As the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) points out, indulgences and the doctrine of practices of indulgences are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance. The reason is that when we’re in a relationship, as we are with God, if we do something that’s sinful, we harm that relationship. We weaken it if it’s venial sin. We break communion with God by turning away from God if we commit a serious sin. If we turn back to God through penance, we are put in back with right relationship with God through the grace of God. That is done normally through the sacrament of penance for post-baptismal sin, and baptism for those who have never been baptized, so our sins are forgiven.

In addition to the harm to the relationship, there is the reality of what theologians sometimes call the “temporal reality” or temporal punishment” of sin, in the fact that what I did leaves in me and the world the effects of that sin, which have to be dealt with.

For example, if I deliberately decide not to pray to God, not to go to Mass, and I break my relationship with God by seriously turning away from him, but I come to my senses and I turn back, he forgives me and I’m restored to relationship, but (there) remains in me the habit of not praying, so I have to break that bad habit. Plus, all the times I should have been praying for others and with others (and didn’t), all of that harm remains in the world. So, before anyone gets to heaven, they have to become the perfected lover they’re called to be. No one is in heaven who is not perfected.

For all of us, we need to allow grace to penetrate, possess, transform, and elevate us so we are perfected. What indulgences are about are ways in living out our relationship with God that the church grants us by her power, given to her by Christ to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19), to use a share of grace to help us be perfected, help us to lift the temporal punishment due to sin to overcome it.

Q: Why would it be possible for World Youth Day pilgrims to receive an indulgence?

A: By participating in the prayers and listening and meditating to the readings and talks that will be given at World Youth Day, people are deepening their relationship with God and also deepening their communion with the body of Christ, the church. They’re strengthening their relationship, and the church is acknowledging that and adding the grace ... through the indulgence. ... It doesn’t just mean following the pope on Twitter. It means you’re prayerfully entering into the spirit and practice of World Youth Day.

Q: What’s the difference between “partial” and “plenary” indulgences?

A: Indulgences can be applied to ourselves, but normally when we’re thinking of indulgences, we’re applying them to others. A plenary indulgence removes all the temporary punishment of sun, a partial, a partial removal. That’s a very powerful thing when you think about it, but it makes sense. If I’m praying for someone else, I’m praying that God’s grace be made more available to them, and the church is saying by this activity you’re able to apply this grace to a particular person in Purgatory who is in need of it.

Q: Why would a Catholic want an indulgence?

A: All of us should want the temporal consequence of sin to be overcome. We should all want to become perfected. This is one means of becoming perfected. An athlete is going to do all sorts of things to make him or herself better at running, jumping or playing the game. There are many ways of doing that. This (an indulgence) is just one of the ways that one can become better or holier, because we’re all called to be saints.

Q: How do the World Youth Day indulgences tie to the tradition of indulgences in the church?

A: The practice of indulgence goes back to Christ giving the church the power to bind or loose. All the graces won for us were won for us by what Jesus did for us in his life, death and resurrection, and that treasury of graces is made available to us through the ministry of the church. That’s how Christ set it up. Some people think (indulgences) went out of practice because they were abused at times as people committed the crime of simony, as people “sold indulgences” – which makes no sense if you understand what they are. But indulgences have always been there. In our society that is very commercialistic, they can sound like a commercial exchange, and that’s exactly what they are not.

Q: Is it novel that the pope would extend indulgences to people who are following World Youth Day through social media?

A: I can’t remember another time when they’ve tied it to social media. I think that is new and unique, although there might have been another time. The fact of indulges associated with pilgrimage, that has been there and still is there, such as pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other shrines.

Q: What should all Catholics understand about indulgences?

A: A lot people don’t think about the fact that when we sin, the effect of that sin, not only is it on the sinner, but it affects the whole world. There is the need of the restoration of not only the person, but also the harm (the sin) has done, so we recognize both an eternal punishment for sin and a temporal (punishment). God lifts both if we cooperate with him, but we have to realize there are effects, too.

The key thing is to think about this in terms of relationship. If people prayerfully and devoutly participate in what’s going on at World Youth Day vicariously through social media, what they’re doing is strengthening their communion with God and his church, and they’re building themselves up and others up. That’s what the Holy Father is encouraging by this, is that people be willing and devoted to participating in the event of gathering the youth of the world with the Holy Father to pray and work on the new evangelization.