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Wednesday, 14 September 2022 12:21

Hey, Father! When did plenary indulgences start in the Catholic Church?

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When did plenary indulgences start in the Catholic Church? Where in the Bible can plenary indulgence be found?
- Stan Obert, Liberty, IL

Stan, if you’re willing, I would like to answer your question about when indulgences started, and where their background can be found in the Bible, by means of a quick walk-through of salvation history. To begin with a basic definition: indulgences are a gift, and grace, that remits the temporal punishment due to a sin, which has already been forgiven but not rectified, that the Church gives for some pious action. 

To explain the first part — about sin’s temporal punishment — we take our time machine back four or five thousand years. Humanity decided to disobey God. It wasn’t our best moment, and we’ve kept up the terrible practice ever since, with horrible consequences for ourselves and pretty much the entire cosmos. Sin, the name we give to this constellation of selfishness, distrust, imprudence, and hatred, has left its damage on the world around us, and the world within us (and we don’t seem much closer to a homegrown solution than we were then). Notice that this sin needs to be forgiven, absolved, but it also needs to be fixed, healed, and justice needs to be restored. This second reality is what Christ accomplished on the cross and gives through His Church in what we call indulgences.

Now, this claim — that the Church has been given this authority — needs to be demonstrated, and for that we turn to about 3,000 years ago. God’s favorite insignificant gaggle of tribes recently returned to the fertile crescent after a few hundred years eating onions and making bricks in Egypt. They are not particularly unified and are often governed by unsavory warlords, but they claim, unprecedently, that there is only one God, and that they are in a covenant relationship with Him. After Saul, David, Solomon, and a handful of other good and bad kings, Hezekiah, a decisively good king, fills us in on the secret to being a king faithful to this one God: choose virtuous stewards. Seriously! Saul fell into witchcraft and Solomon into idolatry, because they didn’t listen to good advisors, whereas when David sinned, Nathan the prophet called him out for it, and he repented. Hezekiah at first had a selfish, ungodly, steward named Shebna, but removed him to choose a good and righteous man named Eliakim, and the king and kingdom were then holy, as they were supposed to be. 

Now, 1,000 years later, only 2,000 years before today, Jesus stood in Capernaum and taught his Apostles about forgiveness, a radical forgiveness that must begin brother to brother, must be extended again and again, and a forgiveness He entrusted to them as the leaders of the Church so that His Kingdom would be holy: 

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

Christ, the King, uses the language of stewardship from Hezekiah to entrust to His Apostles His own authority: to reconcile people to God when they have repented of their sins. It is this authority that the Church has carried ever since, using it through the sacrament of confession and in indulgences, unbinding people from the weight of their sins by the healing mercy and justification of Christ. 

OK, we’re now left with the final part of our definition, and a final trip back through time and Scripture. We have seen the consequences of sin, God’s response of mercy, and the authority of the Church, but what about the pious actions the Church links to indulgences? Is this just the Church putting up the merits of Christ and His saints for sale? Let us return to a scene right after the one in Capernaum. Jesus shows his Apostles how to give His merciful love to someone. 

“If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” ... The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:17, 20-22). 

Forgiveness/mercy is a gift for the sake of communion. If someone rejects communion with Jesus, even the Lord Himself cannot force mercy into their heart, and neither can His Apostles. For this reason, from the earliest ages of the Church, those given Christ’s mandate to forgive looked for signs of interior openness on the part of the penitent to live in accord with that re-gifted friendship with Christ. What are some of those exterior evidences? Going to confession, receiving holy Communion, and any number of particular devotions, pilgrimages, works of mercy, and reading the Bible (the Church has hundreds of these so you could do a pious act every day). 

Bear with me on a final trip back 1,000 years to see when the word “indulgence” was first coined. It was a fall afternoon in Clermont, France, when Pope Urban II stepped out before an excited crowd after the conclusion of a Church council. On top of everyone’s mind was the split between the Eastern and Western Church of 40 years before and the capture of Jerusalem and all the holy sights associated with Christ’s life only 20 years before. To heal the divide and recover the Holy Land, Urban proclaimed a relief mission that would traverse the Eastern empire and make its way all the way to Jerusalem. This tremendous effort would, he announced, replace any other penance then weighing on someone for sins they may have committed. So, let us take advantage of these tremendous gifts for our own walk with the Lord, and for those that have passed on before us.

Father Dominic Rankin is Master of Ceremonies and priest secretary for Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, is Vocations Promoter for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.