Jubilee Year Indulgence

Bishop Sheridan explains indulgences in the Catholic Church

By Jennifer Hartmann Review Staff Writer

What is an indulgence? Why are indulgences important to us as Catholics? Why is there so much mention of indulgences during the Jubilee Year?

These are some of the many questions people all over the Archdiocese of St. Louis are asking during the Great Jubilee Year 2000. While indulgences are very important to us as people of faith, oftentimes the idea can be misunderstood.

According to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," an indulgence is defined as "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of Christ and the saints" (no. 1471).

Sounds a little confusing, right?

In a recent interview with the Review, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Sheridan said part of that definition that is important to understand is the term "temporal punishment."

"That's what I think is one of the biggest difficulties for people I've talked to" about indulgences, he said. Sometimes people "look at sin as an offense. If the offense is forgiven by receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, then that's the end of it."

"To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence," as noted in the Catechism (no. 1472). The double consequence, said Bishop Sheridan, consists of eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Temporal punishment in this sense, he said, should not be viewed as "something vindictive," but rather as "purification from the effects of or the tendencies toward sin."

"The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin," according to the Catechism. "But temporal punishment for sin remains." This is where indulgences enter the picture.

As an example, "in anger, I hit someone, and I do them serious bodily damage," said Bishop Sheridan, "after which I am truly repentant. I go to that person and I say, 'I am sorry I hurt you.' That person accepts my expression of sorrow and says, 'I forgive you.' Our relationship is restored," he said.

"But what still remains?" Bishop Sheridan asked. "That person's physical damage. Effects from that sin remain. And they don't necessarily just remain always in other people. They remain in me. Whenever I do evil, that serves to further influence my whole nature and outlook toward things."

Or, for instance, if we have deprived a person of her reputation by gossiping, Bishop Sheridan said, then we have to make up for that sin by trying to restore her good name.

Bishop Sheridan noted that it's one thing to say a sin is forgiven. "But to say that I don't need to do anything to make up for my sins, that I don't need to do anything to be purified of the tendencies to sin - that's what the term temporal punishment means."

A medieval writer once gave this comparison, "if confession is the removing of the arrow, indulgence has to do with the healing of the wound."

Indulgences purify us of the temporal punishment of sin, Bishop Sheridan said. Indulgences can be either partial, which removes part of the temporal punishment, or plenary, which removes all of the temporal punishment.

The Church distinguishes between partial and plenary because some of our good acts have the potential to be life- changing acts of conversion, while others represent smaller but still very important aspects of the journey to conversion.

"Before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and be with God, we must be completely detached from sin and freed from our debts," Bishop Sheridan said. "If this cleansing by love has not been finished before we die, it is completed after death in the spiritual purification we call Purgatory." This is why we have the option to apply an indulgence in suffrage to the souls of the deceased.

Another teaching that Bishop Sheridan said is not always fully understood when talking about indulgences is the Communion of Saints. Like a parent who supplements a child's allowance to pay for a broken window, the spiritual treasury of the saints is opened up for us through the Church's ministry, he said.

"In the Great Jubilee, the Holy Father exercises in an extraordinary way the ‘power of the keys,' - the power entrusted to Peter to bind and loose" (Mt 16:19; Jn 20:23), said Bishop Sheridan.

The indulgence is the "wiping out of the temporal punishment of sin," he said. "But how can that be, maybe since I haven't undertaken severe works of penance myself?" The indulgence is the "application of all of the merits of Christ and the saints," he noted.

"The same communion of prayers and good works exercised for our benefit by the saints is entrusted to us," Bishop Sheridan said. "We pray and do penance so that the fruits of the indulgence may be shared with those who have died."

"One reason why we do not so readily appreciate the communion of saints is because of our cultural mindset toward rugged individualism," Bishop Sheridan said. "We say, ‘My problems are my problems. They're not your problems.'

"In Scripture, Paul himself says it, ‘If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the parts share in its joy' (1 Cor 12:26). That's his way of saying we all have to do with one another," he said. "Christ calls us to be one people, one family, through baptism and the Eucharist.

"The saints want to work with us and for us so that we can achieve the vision of the Trinity that they now enjoy," Bishop Sheridan said. "Our communion with them even extends to their assisting us to atone for our sins and be freed from the debt of our attachments," which can be accomplished through indulgences.

When we repent of our sins throughout life, we grow stronger in the love of God, Bishop Sheridan said, when we pray, do penance and act charitably in union with Christ.

"Gradually, we are freed from our attachment and inclination to sinfulness as well as to the particular sins we have committed. Christian charity, growing and increasing within us, radiates from our lives into the lives of others, healing relationships that have been damaged by sin.

"What causes this restoration is the saving action of Christ extended to us by the indulgent love of the Father," he said.