Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church. Thus God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising.
When Pope Francis launched the Holy Year of Mercy, he promised that Christians could gain a special indulgence during this year. That left a lot of present-day Roman Catholics, and even more Protestants and Evangelicals, scratching their heads and asking some hard questions: Is Roman Catholicism still dealing in indulgences? Didn't we learn anything from Luther and the Reformation? Do we really believe that certain ritual practices, like passing through designated church doors, will ease our way into heaven?
These are valid questions that need to be asked. What, indeed, is an indulgence?
Pope Francis in his decree, The Face of Mercy, (Misericordiae Vultus), says this about indulgences: "A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy. God's forgiveness knows no bounds. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes even more evident his love and its power to destroy all human sin. Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church. Thus God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising. Nevertheless, all of us know well the experience of sin. We know that we are called to perfection (Mt. 5, 48), yet we feel the heavy burden of sin. Though we feel the transforming powered of grace, we also feel the effects of sin typical of our fallen state. Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this. It becomes an indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequence of sin, enabling him to act in charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.
The Church lives within the communion of the saints. In the Eucharist, this communion, which is a gift from God, becomes a spiritual union binding us to the saints and the blessed ones whose number is beyond counting (Rev. 7, 14). Their holiness comes to the aid of our weaknesses in a way that enables the Church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others. Hence, to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father's mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer. To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ's redemption, so that God's love and forgiveness may extend everywhere. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful 'indulgence'''.
What's the pope saying here? Clearly, he's not teaching what has been for so long the popular (and inaccurate notion) that an indulgence is a way of shortening one's time in purgatory. Rather he is tying the idea of indulgences to two things: First, an indulgence is the acceptance and celebration of the wonderful gratuity of God's mercy. An indulgence is, in effect, the more-conscious acceptance of an indulgence, that is, the conscious acceptance of a love, a mercy, and a forgiveness, that is completely undeserved. Love can be indulgent. Parents can be indulgent to their children. Thus whenever we do a prayer or religious practice with the intent of gaining an indulgence the idea is that this prayer or practice is meant to make us more consciously aware of and grateful for God's indulgent mercy. We live within an incredulous, ineffable mercy of which we are mostly unaware. During the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites us to do some special prayers and practices that make us more consciously aware of that indulgent mercy.
Beyond this, Pope Francis links the notion of indulgences to another concept, namely, our union and solidarity with each other inside the Body Christ. As Christians, we believe that we are united with each other in a deep, invisible, spiritual, and organic bond that is so real that it forms us into one body, with the same flow of life and the same flow of blood flowing through all of us. Thus inside the Body of Christ, as in all live organisms, there is one immune system so that what one person does, for good or for bad, affects the whole body. Hence, as the pope asserts, since there is a single immune system inside the Body of Christ, the strength of some can fortify the weakness of others who thereby receive an indulgence, an undeserved grace.
To walk through a holy door is make ourselves more consciously aware of God's indulgent mercy and of the wonderful community of life within we live.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.