An indulgent treasure

By Ruth Powers
The Portiuncula Indulgence is coming up! What is that? Let me explain.

Ruth Powers

Possibly one of the most misunderstood teachings in the Catholic treasury is that of indulgences, and because many Catholics misunderstand this gift of God through His church, we do not take advantage of them when they are available to us. In order to understand indulgences one must first understand a little bit about church teaching on the consequences of sin and the nature of penance. First of all, sin has consequences: guilt and punishment, and punishment is both eternal and temporal (in this world). The idea that we have consequences for sin in the world goes all the way back to the story of the Fall in Genesis, where God tells Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Genesis 3:16) When the sinner repents God removes both the guilt and the eternal punishment, but the temporal punishment may remain, as we see in the story of David when he repents of his sin with Bathsheba, and the prophet Nathan tells him that God has forgiven him, but that he will still have to suffer some consequences for his act. (2 Samuel 12)
Temporal penalties can also be remitted or removed, and God uses the church to do so. This is the basis of both the idea of the penances given as part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the church’s teaching on indulgences, which are closely connected. In the early church when one confessed sins one was given a penance that was often public and severe to lessen that temporal punishment for sin, but the church realized that the sinner could shorten the time of that penance by pious acts of prayer or charity that expressed sorrow for the sin concretely. The concept of indulgences developed as a way to shorten the time one would have been required to spend in doing a particular penance. It became customary to assign a particular number of “days” to a particular indulgence, meaning that performing this act would have removed that number of days from the person’s penitential discipline. Unfortunately, many people misinterpreted this to mean that a certain number of days would be removed from their time in Purgatory. This is not possible, as time in Purgatory does not exist in the same way we know time here. Instead, we can look at the definition of indulgences given by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on indulgences. He said, “an indulgence is 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 defined conditions through the church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints.” In an attempt to eliminate the confusion around “days” of indulgences, at the time he issued this teaching, he reduced the terminology around indulgences to partial (removes some of the temporal punishment due to sin) or plenary (removes all of the temporal punishment due to sin). However, he is clear that only God knows exactly how efficacious any particular indulgence is, because only God can read the heart of the person seeking it.
The church offers numerous opportunities throughout the year for us to obtain a plenary indulgence, and one of my favorites as a Franciscan Secular is coming up soon. On Aug. 2 we celebrate the Feast of the Portiuncula. The Church of St. Mary of the Angels, which was called the Portiuncula or “Little Portion” was one of the chapels repaired by St. Francis of Assisi in the time after his conversion. It became the chapel where he lived and where he began to gather the followers who would eventually become the Order of Friars Minor, or Franciscans. It was also the place where he came to die in 1226. The little church, which is the cradle of the Franciscan Order, is now completely enclosed by the beautiful Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi. In the beginning the indulgence could only be obtained at the little church itself, but in 1967 when Pope Paul VI reformed the teaching on indulgences he reaffirmed the Portiuncula Indulgence and extended it to all parish churches. A plenary indulgence can be obtained on that feast day by devoutly visiting the parish church, and there reciting at least the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed for the intentions of the Pope, and receiving sacramental confession and Holy Communion. In order to gain the indulgence one should also be free from any attachment to sin, even venial sin.
In these times of stress especially it is important to avail ourselves of the many helps the church holds out to us to help us remain faithful to the gospel, and draw closer to God, and the gift of indulgences is an underused treasure.

(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez. She has over 35 years’ experience as a catechist and theology teacher at all levels from preschool to graduate school.)