Reflection on the Bull Incarnationis Mysterium

Author: Tullio Citrini

The spiritual pedagogy of indulgences

Tullio Citrini

In the Church's grant of the Jubilee indulgence something certainly appears very paradoxical to those with a worldly mentality. If we were not to focus on, ponder over and marvel at this paradox, we would be unable to participate personally and faithfully in the Jubilee, nor imagine constructive and exciting pastoral programmes for our Churches and communities.

The paradox lies in the fact that the Jubilee seems to propose rather demanding and difficult acts, although the Church's daily practices present them in a straightforward way accessible to everyone. The question, in brief, can be formulated thus: if the Jubilee indulgence is neither greater (how could it be any greater than plenary?) nor more frequent (at most, once a day) than the indulgence available every day to every Christian without much difficulty, why such effort and—so to speak—such a waste of energy? And if the value of the indulgence were to be measured by the effort put into it, what kind of an indulgence would that be?

1. Horizons

The meaning of the indulgence and one can wager—its value can be understood within the framework of the Jubilee grant, which balances gratuitousness and commitment, grace and freedom, the offer of reconciliation which comes from God and the conversion process of believers and of Churches. The indulgence has a meaning in the conversion process, and this is not intended to be laboured or minimalist. Understood by the tradition of faith as a remission or reduction of punishment, it is crucial that it be in no way imagined as a reduction of love; indeed, it should be an incentive and an opportunity for greater love. It is a question of promoting as much as possible what, in the very language of the forgiveness of our trespasses, the Lord has entrusted to us in the daily petition of the Our Father: "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" and what the Apostle expresses using the same kind of images, when he writes: "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another". Again, Jesus says this, commenting on the parable of the two debtors: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Lk 7:47).

The spiritual context for this love nurtured by the forgiveness of our debt is suggested by Incarnationis mysterium, which, citing Paul VI recalls: "When they gain indulgences, the faithful understand that by their own strength they would not be able to make good the evil which by sinning they have done to themselves and to the entire community, and therefore they are stirred to saving deeds of humility" (n. 10). With and through this humility, we are able to recognize and accept God's superabundant mercy towards us in Jesus Christ, and the fruit of this grace in the "marvellous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others" (ibid).

The Church's faith has always been aware of this communion of the faithful, and of all human beings, in good and in evil, in obedience and in disobedience, in grace and in sin. Solidarity in Christ, and correlatively in Adam, is the prototype: if in Adam, hence all the more in Christ, the Apostle teaches (Rom 5:15ff.); solidarity among us all is derivative but real. The invitation to meditate on this "as often as possible" and to enter into this hope-filled logic in the terms indicated by the text of the Bull cited above, which repeats n. 1475 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, attunes one's thoughts and feelings to God, for whom good and evil, salvation and sin are not at all symmetrical; on the contrary, in Christ he definitively exceeded himself in favour of salvation, revealing himself as love.

2. Objectives and acts

a) Love which is born of forgiveness

It is helpful to identify the first requirement of the pastoral use of the Jubilee indulgence as a concern to let ourselves be enveloped by this love, to free ourselves from any temptation to imagine love as something for which we ask a discount, and to guide and teach this to others. Since a love which lets us be moulded by God's love excludes all meanness, calculation and pettiness, the pastoral use of the Jubilee indulgence should be carefully presented in a way that expresses all the Jubilee's significance, without any minimalism or hasty cleverness.

Between the mystery of love and the indulgence, we must first situate the moment of forgiveness, which faith assures us is God's fervent desire, without trivializing it as self-evident, but instead, enabling it to be understood every time as something extraordinary. The objective of a good pastoral use of the Jubilee indulgence must certainly be to oppose any trivialization of forgiveness. This could be encouraged by the habit of receiving it; and perhaps today it is fostered by a culture which has rightly been criticized for excessive concern with being "sorry". This culture makes it an apparently absolute principle; in fact it always obliges "others" to forgive, suggests a settling of accounts without being concerned with the constructive ways of justice, and counts on cheap forgiveness, especially on God's part, for whom—they say—it costs nothing: as though the blood of his Son were a bargain.

Actually, the only sensible and Christian direction to which forgiveness and everything connected with it, such as indulgences, can lead is growth in love. How can this intrinsic orientation to what is the source and summit of all Christian virtues be promoted? It seems to me that an over-analytical interpretation of the various elements of forgiveness (guilt, punishment, etc.), which are well-founded and useful for explaining the theory, only obscures the unified vision in which these elements make sense in its attempt to explain them. I think, then, that a catechesis lost in details may not shed light on these elements, but can prevent us from seeing their beauty as a whole.

Certainly—to use the language of traditional doctrine—the expiation of "temporal punishment", analytically considered, is something other than a growth in love and in itself has no merit, while it is true that one of its typical "places" is purgatory, which the Catechism of the CatholicChurch appropriately defines by the abstract term of "the final purification of the elect", and which does not involve growth in love or merit. Yet when all this happens during earthly life, it is never without a journey of love; rather this love constitutes the most important moment, the all-embracing dimension which gives meaning to the entire process of reconciliation.

It is appropriately foreseen by the general Norms promulgated by Paul VI in the Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina that a plenary indulgence can only be gained by those who are free from "all attachment to sin, even venial sin" (n. 7). This is not a pretentious and impossible condition; it is simply required by a minimum of logic. And yet it will be important to insist on and to recall in these things the hierarchy of goals and conditions. The love that excludes all attachment to even venial sin cannot be understood as a simple condition for some other thing (i.e., the indulgence), but is instead a spiritual objective that is irreducibly an end in itself, for which the indulgence has meaning and not vice versa.

b) Educating with exercises of 'indulgent' solidarity.

It is not difficult to find in the ways in which love is currently practised, and which in the Church are part of normal everyday practice, concrete and very human examples of what the Church means by an indulgence, consideration of which and even more their practice can dispose people to the balanced attitudes and feelings which the Jubilee proposes and promotes. Wrong, sinful behaviour often produces effects that are objectively, visibly negative, in need of reparation, almost like—or an example of—the dissonances that Catholic teaching calls "temporal punishment". Just as often the reparation of these perverse effects, when they can be repaired, exceeds the possibilities of the person responsible for them, regardless of how he has changed his mind, or only because it is inappropriate to leave him to bear them on his own. Personal or community love which takes responsibility for these effects acts almost like an "indulgence", an act of solidarity that goes beyond the duty to restore the good conditions damaged, to remedy all that can be remedied—not everything can be—in what is the aftermath of sinful behaviour.

It would not be inappropriate for Christian communities to be taught the meaning of the indulgence by suggesting reparative initiatives of this kind, in the spirit of the forgiveness of sins requested and promised in the Our Father. To reorganize the finances of individuals, families or companies caught in the maelstrom of usury, drug-dependency or gambling, or just in generally unfair social developments; to work for the reconciliation of individuals, families, groups or peoples, among whom the accumulation of reciprocal offences and injustices has now become an inextricable tangle; to help restore dignity and hope to those who have been overwhelmed by their own sin or foolishness; to assume the burdensome care of ecclesial or civil communities that have broken-up for the most varied reasons: these are many forms of community reparation for the harmful consequences of error and sin.

They suggest the gratuitousness of love and at the same time require attentive vigilance, so that no one will intentionally exploit these initiatives to unload onto the social fabric or the Christian community the cost of criminal behaviour that is not ruinous but instead profitable. It is clear that one should avoid creating more injustices than those being repaired by favouring Cain, who was not very contrite, and neglecting Abel. God does not do this: going beyond the criteria of a narrow retributive justice—"the justice of God" mentioned in the Bible is very different—he looks after the welfare of all with a love that never lets itself be outdone or commanded. "He makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mt 5:45); and Jesus prescribes other such attitudes, if we are to be his children. Learning through initiatives of this kind, in a concise and symbolically expressive way, what the relationship between love and reparation is and the difference between the gratuitousness of forgiveness and the meanness of demanding it, we can have a balanced and clear insight into the logic and spirit of the indulgence, its ecclesial meaning, its pedagogy and, its message of hope.

c) Filial prayer

As for learning to be children of God, there is a very beautiful passage in Incarnationis mysterium which teaches us: "Everything comes from Christ, but since we belong to him, whatever is ours also becomes his and acquires a healing power. This is what is meant by the 'treasures of the Church', which are the good works of the saints. To pray in order to gain the indulgence means to enter into this spiritual communion and therefore to open oneself totally to others" (n. 10). To pray: a fundamental personal and pastoral concern for the gift of the indulgence takes the form of prayer.

Its meaning and logic should be appreciated: it is not a question of accumulating prayers to which an indulgence is "attached". It is a question of the pedagogy of prayer, and therefore of prayers which lead us to prayer, which help us to pray. The truth of this prayer is equivalent to that same filial relationship to which the Father offers indulgence through the ministry and the caring communion of Mother Church. Education in this filial relationship is obviously a primary objective of the Jubilee. The indulgence is not requested from the Church: but with the Church and in the Church we learn to request it from God.

d) The journey

In the same logic, we have to begin to learn, recognize and say that help and forgiveness do not come from ourselves. To come out of oneself and to set out as a sign, a statement of need, an expression of searching. A pilgrimage imbued with this meaning is extremely spontaneous. To go and ask forgiveness of the Father (cf. Lk 15:18. 20), to go and be reconciled with one's brother (Mt 5:24) are acts which need no comment. Instead, those who feel self-sufficient make no effort. A rich pedagogy is contained in the provision which also makes it possible for the faithful to gain the Jubilee indulgence "if they visit for a suitable time their brothers and sisters in need or in difficulty ... as if making a pilgrimage to Christ present in them" (Norms of the Apostolic Penitentiary, n. 4).

The goal of this movement, which is a sign of inner conversion, can only be the Eucharist, a moment of every pastoral journey as habitual as it is delicate. There is no plenary indulgence without the Eucharist, just as there is no fullness of love without participation in the grateful communion of the Body of Christ. Sacramental forgiveness, the Bull teaches in continuity with the most traditional sense of doctrine and theology, enables the sinner to "once more take part in the Eucharist as the sign that he has again found communion with the Father and with his Church" (n. 9). Commenting on this, the Norms of the Penitentiary present the celebration of the two sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist as the "paschal mystery of Christ our peace and our reconciliation: this is the transforming encounter which opens us to the gift of the indulgence for ourselves and for others".

With the Jubilee, the Church offers many other spiritual dynamics: these seem to me to be some of the features, perhaps the most important, of the great pedagogy of the Jubilee indulgence.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 May 1999, page 10

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