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Indulgences out of the attic for the new millennium

The recent news that John Paul II, in his pre-Christmas document, Incarnationis Mysterium (“The Mystery of the Incarnation”), had reawakened the somnolent practice of reaping indulgences turned my mind back to the days when I collected both baseball cards and indulgences. My school knickers sagged under the weight of my Heine Manush and Van Lingle Mungo cards, while my soul groaned with the burden of enough plenary indulgences to clean out purgatory.

I needed none of the superabundant satisfaction lesser souls withdrew from the overburdened accounts of the Blessed Mother and the saints. I had enough frequent pray-er miles to hasten the healing process for every kid at St. Alice’s, except for Ed Tunney -- who stole thousands of partials from Bernadette Moser’s indulgence book, which she hid in her lunch bucket. Besides, Tunney was never in the state of grace since the day he kissed Libby Swanik on the lips in the cloakroom. Never mind that I would have given two plenaries and a Heine Manush card to kiss Libby Swanik on the lips.

Besides, informed readers will recall, I could not trade a 300-day indulgence for a smooch from Libby. One could apply them only to suffering souls in purgatory. (They now may be applied to the living and the dead.)

However, the ancient practice of the mathematician of penance once enabled me to pile up enough indulgences to equal one pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which I actually tried to trade with Libby Swanik, but she smacked me right in the mouth with the holy water bucket.

In any case, the pope’s document proclaimed 2000 as a Holy Year and offered plenary indulgences to those who visited St. Peter’s or one of three other basilicas in Rome, provided the visit was accompanied by sacramental confession, reception of the Eucharist, prayers for the intention of the pope and works of mercy and penance. For those who can’t get to Rome, there are alternate distribution centers, including local cathedrals or any church designated by the local bishop.

Today, the practice of gaining indulgences is relatively unknown. Allegedly, there was debate within the Vatican itself about their distribution during the Holy Year that stretches from Christmas Eve 1999 to January 6, 2001. Even conservative bureaucrats were content to let sleeping indulgences -- or a sleeping Martin Luther -- lie rather than to drag an anachronism into the third millennium. But John Paul II prefers to open the vaults of what we used to call “the spiritual treasury of the church.”

I loved indulgences. They, along with batting averages, taught me mathematics.

I varied my distribution policy. Once, I decided to apply my spiritual Green Stamps to the soul who had been in purgatory the longest. On the way home from church, I spotted a guy in a toga frolicking on the church lawn and figured he was a good candidate. I floated home and told my mother, but she assured me that it was only Mr. McGonagle in his nightgown, under the influence of a creature which she said he made in his bathtub.

My mother was a believer par excellence. “You’ll answer for that,” she would chide my father, who claimed he was exactly six feet tall. (Church teaching, in my mother’s indulgence-stuffed soul, held that only Jesus was exactly six feet tall.) But she often gave bad advice, suggesting, for example, that I assign a portion of my treasury to the soul closest to heaven’s gate. I would reluctantly contribute seven years and seven quarantines, probably only to have some Visigoth go zooming by a poor Canterbury pilgrim who had laughed at one of Chaucer’s stories.

“It’s very powerful,” Sr. Ursulina used to remind us of the three-word aspiration, “My Jesus Mercy.” It could be prayed fast and was worth at least seven years. I learned to say it so fast that I developed carpal tunnel syndrome of the neck, bowing my head at the name Jesus with the agility of a Jewish pilgrim at the Wailing Wall. I couldn’t tote up my indulgences in my little book fast enough. Souls were flying out of purgatory like fat off of sizzling bacon.

The history and theology of indulgences are complicated. While baptism removed all traces of sin and penance assured reconciliation, there remained some vestiges, called temporal punishment, that clung to the soul like used gum. As early as the third century, the intercession of confessors and those awaiting martyrdom was allowed by ecclesiastical authorities to shorten the canonical discipline for those under penance. Later, the introduction of indulgences was an easy transition.

With the beginning of the Crusades, indulgences became both popular and monetary. Christians who couldn’t ride a horse or lug a spear could donate money. The crusaders themselves got a plenary at the moment of death, making it one of the toughest indulgences to earn.

Years later, Martin Luther would base part of his reformation on his opposition to indulgences, which he saw as denying the gratuity of God’s grace and the fullness of Jesus’ redemptive act. The Council of Trent supported indulgences but, centuries later, Vatican II called for a reformulation of both the theology and practice of indulgences.

In 1967, Paul VI wrote a response (Indulgentiarum Doctrina) in which he tried to avoid any commercial overtones. The number of plenary indulgences was greatly reduced, and partial indulgences were no longer measured in days and years. In essence, he made the use of indulgences completely voluntary.

But all that was after my time. During my youth, my rosary alone was so loaded with indulgences that I had to carry it in a wheelbarrow. Every mission priest who came to the parish brought another rosary indulgence that had been usually given to the congregation’s founder. Two laps around the rosary and Ivan the Terrible, followed by Rasputin, would zoom by my pew.

The four pages of instruction that accompany John Paul’s recent letter present new opportunities for remitting the temporal punishment due to forgiven sins. Now, for example, by abstaining from alcohol for a full day and giving the money saved to charity, one can gain some unspecified merit. I must therefore choose between the delayed pleasure of a spiritual upgrade and the proven pleasure of a Jack Daniels.

Sin, at least venial sin, bespeaks an unhealthy attachment to creatures -- like Libby Swanik and Jack Daniels -- which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called purgatory. The new catechism tells us that this process must not be seen as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but in my youth I sure saw it that way. My adolescent devotion to the Blessed Mother was fueled largely by a fear of a God of huge muscles who wielded a sword that could dismember a brontosaurus.

My slide down the slippery slope to an overdrawn indulgence account started when my friend Harry came to me with two venials and a mortal, which he had incurred when he baptized his cat. He had confessed all to our pastor, a man gifted with poor hearing. Harry was free from eternal punishment, but the temporal debt was cluttering his soul.

Harry had a rare Rube Wadell card that I desperately needed for my collection. My fallen nature won out, and I gave from my treasury to help Harry’s overdraft. I reasoned that, if the saints and Mary could distribute from their superabundant graces, I could be just as generous, and have my Rube Wadell in the bargain.

I was reminded of my selfishness almost immediately when I tried to bail out one of St. Augustine’s old girlfriends and found myself two quarantines short. She simmered while I stared at my ill-gotten Rube Wadell.

There was no stopping me after that. Although I still had enough indulgences saved to put off the “old man” and put on the “new man,” as the catechism urged, I fell victim to a human oil slick of a kid who didn’t even go to St. Alice’s. I turned over my entire account book to him in exchange for a Mel Ott. Soon after, when Sister asked us to come up front and show our account books, I had nothing but the loose change of a few hundred “My Jesus Mercies.” She inflicted temporal punishment that I could understand.

Now, John Paul II has brought indulgences down from the church’s vast attic in time for the millennium. In fairness, he doesn’t view the indulgence system as a credit card payback. There is no price book in his exhortation. He’s trying to give support to the spirits of penitence and charity. He’s not trying to spring Mussolini’s mother on whom I lavished five rosaries.

Who knows? It might be a booster shot to the millennium.

I’m concerned that it’s not everybody’s millennium. For those who follow the ancient Egyptian calendar, it will be 6236; for the Jews, it will be 5760. The Mayans will celebrate 5119 and the Muslims will raise their fannies to 1420.

I’m not even certain that it will be my millennium, but if indulgences will raise our hearts and minds to God, especially toward works of charity -- then let’s meet the millennium at the door with a plenary or two.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he still remembers the seven gifts and 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit. To gain an indulgence, contact him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999