and Why they Remain Vital to
How many of us
— indeed, all of us — have at one time or another said, "Ah ...
would that I had never done that! Could I only go back in time!
Confucius, in one of his well known Analects,
summarized it best: "What is said cannot be unsaid." How true. What
is more, in so many, many ways, what is done cannot be undone ...
We are prisoners of our past — and Time, the
stern warden, it appears, has thrown away the key.
We are prisoners to what we have said and to
what we have done. In spite of all our longing — and despite every reparation
— we have done what we have done and said what we have said. And we
know it! And even this we cannot "unknow".
However much we have amended our lives or corrected
our ways, we cannot escape what we have done and what we have said.
They are deeds and words indited, chiseled as it were, in a ledger of
adamantine stone that we understand as the truthful history of our lives.
For all our blithe protestations that, "we
have moved on, moved beyond them", they remain withal the secret burden
in our hearts, the darkest closets in our memories in fearfully remote
corners of our minds. In the dark watches of the night they often return
to us, or totally unbidden, come to us as we walk down the street. Indeed,
even the prophet says,
|"I know my iniquity, and
my sin is always before me."
And yet the same prophet tells
|"If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities:
Lord, who shall stand it. For with thee there is merciful
In light of this undeniable reality, how are
we to understand the forgiveness of God afforded us in
Holy and Sacramental Confession? On the one hand God forgives
our sins ... while on the other He retains our punishment ... How is
that the forgiveness extended to our sins does not extend to
the punishment due sin? More simply put, does not forgiveness
of the act entail remission of the punishment? In a word,
Justice and Satisfaction for Sin
First of all, not every sin is susceptible
to restitution in the way, say, that the sin of stealing $100
can be rectified (not undone ...) by repaying the $100 to the
person from whom it was stolen. This sinful act can be remediated by
simply restoring what was wrongly taken. A lie can be redressed by telling
the truth. However, this clearly is not the case with the sins of adultery
and murder ... among many others. We cannot, of ourselves, restore,
rehabilitate, or redress every sin. We cannot bring to life whom
we have murdered. We cannot restore our virginity or that of another.
We may be forgiven such sins but there is no path to restitution.
This is to say that we cannot make satisfaction for them.
In such cases a commensurable privation, or
punishment, is the only satisfaction possible in justice
— and God is just (however frequently and conveniently overlooked).
That justice is a good is indisputable. Were it not, then injustice
would be good — and no one reasonable will argue this. God, then, Who
is perfect, and perfectly good, cannot be wanting in any good,
and we have agreed that justice is an indefeasible good. There is, in
a word, no incongruity between God's goodness and God's justice. In
fact, the two are both mutual and reciprocal. The notion of punishment,
then, in no way derogates from God as good and God as just.
Since justice demands the atonement of sin,
the punishment justly due sin must be satisfied either in this life
or in the next. It appears inescapable. Satisfaction in this life is
generally held by the Saints and Doctors of the Church to be less rigorous
than the satisfaction exacted in the life to come. In this life or the
next, justice will be satisfied.
But since all things are possible to God, why
cannot the punishment due sin be commuted also? Since God is
all good and all loving — as well as just — would He not make
this at least possible? The answer to this question is precisely the
point of this article.
The KEY to Understanding that All Things
are Possible to God
The answer is yes.
To understand this, let us look at an analogy
in secular life. The President of the United States, (or the Governor
of any State) is granted the power of Executive Clemency, or the power
to commute the sentence due in justice to an individual guilty
of a crime ... even a capital offense. He exercises this power
ex meru motu, or of his own accord, and independent of
the sentence or penalty already delivered by a Court of Justice. This
power is accorded him by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.
The question implicit in the exercise of this
power is this: why would the President of the United States be granted
— by the Constitution of the United States — this power to entirely
commute the sentence delivered by a court that demands, and would exact,
justice — if he was never intended to exercise it? In other words, why
would any power be given any individual if it were never intended that
the power so granted be exercised? The question, really, is rhetorical:
it would be absurd to do so. Are we agreed?
Let us then look at Indulgences and the power
to grant them by the Pope. It is a power explicitly granted him by no
less an authority than Christ Himself in Sacred Scripture:
ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificábo
Ecclésiam meam, et portæ ínferi non prævalébunt advérsus
eam. Et tibi dabo claves regni cælórum. Et quodcúmque ligáveris
super terram, erit ligátum et in Cælis : et quodcúmque sólveris
super terram, erit solútum et in Cælis."
“And I say to
thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build
my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against
it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom
of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth,
it shall be bound also in Heaven: and whatsoever thou
shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven.”
(St. Matthew 16.18-19)
Let us re-frame the question we initially asked
relative to Executive Clemency in the state of secular affairs: why
would the Pope be granted — by Christ Himself — this power to entirely
commute the demands of justice — if he was never intended to exercise
it? In other words, why would the Pope be given this power if Christ
never intended that the power so granted be exercised? Once again, such
an assumption is absurd. If such power resides in the President of the
United States through the Constitution — a fortiori ... that
is to say, with greater force still, does the power to grant Plenary
Indulgences reside in the Pope through Christ.
This is, literally, the KEY to
understanding Indulgences: the key to Kingdom of Heaven
given to Peter with a commission of such profound authority that, Christ
tells Peter, "whatsoever
thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven:
and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also
Peter, the Pope, has power that extends to Heaven
itself, such that it is eo ipso ratified by God Himself in Peter's
The State of Innocence Regained: undoing the
done and unsaying the said
In acquiring a Plenary Indulgence one effectively
regains the state of Baptismal Innocence. It is a stunning realization
— and an unspeakable gift! It is nothing less than life absolutely anew
in Christ! All that we had done in the way of sin has, through the Power
of the Keys of Peter, been undone; all that had been said, is unsaid.
They cease to be. Within our lives in Christ, these things no longer
exist and never occurred. They have been totally abrogated, canceled,
expunged, through the pronouncement of Peter — which is ipso facto
ratified in Heaven itself!
In beginning this article, we had expressed
the universal lamentation: "Ah ... would that I had never done that!
Could I only go back in time!" You cannot go back in time. But what
you have done can, after all — and to our amazement — be undone.
But not of ourselves. This prerogative belongs to Peter, to the Pope,
alone — to undo what we have done, to unsay what we have said. He has
the power because he has been given the power — and he was given that
power by Christ with a purpose and to an end. And Peter — the Pope —
exercises this power, and is being faithful to this commission, in granting
Plenary Indulgences to the Faithful under stipulations that he himself
determines. And when he does — it is instantly ratified in Heaven!
Do you wish be truly, totally,
free of the burden of your sins? Of the penalties — in justice
demanded of them, and which, in all likelihood and with good reason,
you fear when pondering the hour of your death ... and what lies beyond?
Christ has spoken much of this.
But He also spoke to Peter — and through Peter,
to us. A Plenary Indulgence — the forgiveness of all the sins of
your entire life, and the punishment due in justice for them, is
held out to you by God ... in the hands of Peter. 1
Why the Gaining of a Plenary indulgence for Oneself is not a Selfish
First we must understand two fundamental
and extremely important features about the dogma and doctrine of Plenary
- The benefits of an indulgence can be applied to oneself.
- Or they can be applied in the way of suffrage for the souls
of the dead: We can ask God to grant the benefits of the indulgence
that we claim (under very specific stipulations outlined in the
to the soul of one we love who has died — with a clear understanding
that the graces offered through the indulgence are God's Alone to
give as He wills. In other words, He may very well accept your petition
that the indulgence be granted to the specific person for whom you
offer it. But we can never contravene, or violate, the free will
of God; it is God's prerogative to apply the indulgence that
you offer to any soul Whom He chooses! It may be a soul in
far greater need of the indulgence than the soul for whom you intended
it. That soul then gains the merits of the indulgence you
have claimed, rather than the soul for whom you petitioned. The
indulgence is never lost, nor obtained in vain; it is, rather, granted
according to the most holy will of God: for the person on whose
behalf you offer it, or for another soul to Whom He chooses
to apply its merits. Ultimately, God Alone knows upon whom He chooses
to confer the merits of the indulgence that you have obtained. God
is not heedless of our hearts. He knows the love and faith that
motivates your offering of an indulgence for one who has been dear
to you in this life. God honors and answers specific prayers that
we place in humility and trust before Him. We know this. Holy Scripture
is senseless apart from it. Whatever our intention, some soul,
is granted that extraordinary grace, and goes to Heaven at once,
beholding the very face of God! One day you will know whom, and
it will be the person you have loved ... or another that will greet
you in the company of Angels and Saints and reveal it to you. In
either case your own joy will be overwhelming!
has been asked: "Is it not selfish
for me to apply the indulgence to myself, when I could have obtained
it for another?"
No. And this is why: First we must remember Christ's admonition to
us to remove the beam from our own eye before we attempt to remove it
from the eye of another (St. Matthew 7.5). Holy Mother Church has always
taught that our first obligation in the way of salvation
and holiness, is to ourselves! We must pray for ourselves
first before we can pray for others, seek to be holy ourselves before
attempting to lead others to holiness. We must seek to be perfect even
as our Father in Heaven is perfect (St. Matthew 5.48) until we can say
with Saint Paul, "I live, now not I; but Christ
liveth in me." (Gal. 2.20). Such a soul is surely heard by
God in every petition, yes? This is not to say that contrite sinners
are not heard by God. We have the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee
to testify to this (Saint Luke 18.10-14). It nevertheless remains that
one free from sin and living in a state of grace is both pleasing to
God and heard by Him. Within such a soul God sees His own Son, as Saint
Paul tells us above. The stain of sin has been washed away, revealing
the unmarred, unblemished, imago Dei (the image of God)
in which it was created and in which there is no contrariety to God;
in a word, a soul conformed to Christ Jesus.
When you yourself, for yourself, have obtained the
graces and merits of a Plenary Indulgence that abrogates all temporal
punishment and places you in a state of grace, conformed to God and
free of sin together with its just punishment, you are then prepared
to pray for others, to intercede for others. Your prayer is more
efficacious because it is no longer simply you who plead, but Christ
Jesus within you! "Jesus answered, and said
to him: If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will
love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him."
(St. John 14.23). In other words, through the Plenary Indulgence that
you have claimed for yourself you have been cleansed of all the detritus
of sin and every impediment before God —
and are then enabled to more efficaciously pray for others! It
is quite the opposite of selfishness: it is the impetus born of selfless
love to pray more effectively for others —
who have entrusted to you their own intentions, asking
that you pray for them!
Do you think it presumptuous that the prayer of one who has obtained
for himself the graces and merits of a Plenary Indulgence is
more efficacious than the prayer of one who has not? Does it offend
your democratic instincts that all should be heard equally by
God, irrespective of their lives? The Parable of the Publican and the
Pharisee is a beautifully inverse paradigm. "Democratically", we vote
for the Pharisee who is "blameless" and has the credentials, even as
we abhor his self-righteousness (as God does, as well). The Publican
has no credentials; just a list of the very reasons God should not hear
him, but imploring God's mercy nonetheless. We know who walked away
justified before God: the Publican who prayed, unlike the Pharisee
who also prayed — but not both!
God heard the prayers of the Patriarch Joseph
— but not those of his eleven brothers.
Moses and Joshua were allowed into God's very Presence
— but not Aaron or Levi. God heard — and answered
— the prayers of Moses, but not of the grumbling Israelites. The list
of examples of God answering the prayers of the just over the prayers
of the unjust are innumerable. The point is that God hears all
our prayers — but is especially inclined to answer the prayers
of those who have spurned sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil —
those who have washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb. In our own
day, who among us would presume that our own prayers were as likely
to be answered as those of, say, Saint Padre Pio — to whom people flocked
to present their own petitions to God? Indeed, why do we come to the
holy Nun, Friar, Monk, or Priest to assist us with their prayers? Why,
indeed, to the Saints at all? It is because throughout history we have
recognized the extraordinary efficaciousness of the prayers of the holy
(who, incidentally, never acknowledge themselves to be so) on our own
behalf. Who has not petitioned another they deem holy to present their
own needs to God, confident that God will answer because such
a one — cleansed of sin, ever striving against it, and pleasing to God
— will be heard and answered? And one becomes so — eminently — through
a Plenary Indulgence first gained for themselves — in order to assist,
through the love of Christ and neighbor, those who come to them in need,
seeking their intercession before the God Who knows them — sees and
hears His very Son within them — to Whom they have conformed their
lives in contradiction to the world that never knew Him.
This is no selfish act simply to the end of
ones own sanctification at which one stops, much like the Pharisee in
the parable, satisfied that they have obtained salvation for themselves
and heedless of the salvation of others. It is acquired precisely
for the sanctification of others because once it is acquired
for oneself it is subsequently, and all the more efficaciously, offered
for others. So understood it is the ultimate act of the virtue of Spiritual
Mercy (as distinct from acts of Corporal Mercy) in which the self, as
the imago Dei, authentically reflects God Who is perfect in mercy.
In a word, one becomes like unto God in reflecting and enacting
the mercy we find in God Himself. Indeed, in so doing we find fulfilled
the promise of Christ: "Blessed are
the merciful, for they shall find mercy." (Saint Matthew
Boston Catholic Journal
Printable PDF Version
Click here for the Official
Indulgentiarum Doctrina on the Promulgation
of Sacred Indulgences in English
Of course, the forgiveness extended by God for any sin and under
all circumstances, presupposes and thus requires perfect Contrition,
or sorrow, for the sins committed together with the resolute amendment
to sin no more. Any petition to God for forgiveness of sins that is
not accompanied by genuine sorrow is, in conspect Dei, that is
to say, before God, an act of presumption and insolence, not reverence;
and in the Holy Confessional constitutes the grave sin of blasphemy,
such that the sinner leaves the Confessional, not only without absolution
(even if the priest has pronounced it), but more guilty than when he
entered it. Sorrow for sin is indispensable to its forgiveness.