Pope Francis, in calling the Church to celebrate this Jubilee Year of Mercy, invites Catholics everywhere to "gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father's action in our lives."
The central symbol of this and every Jubilee Year is the Holy Door, which was opened in December in Rome and in churches throughout the world including here in our diocese*. The Holy Father explains the meaning of pilgrimage to and through a Holy Door: "By crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God's mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us." It is a simple act expressing the desire to enter into more intimate friendship with Christ, the Face of the Father's mercy.
To enhance the spiritual renewal of those making pilgrimage to a church with a Holy Door, Pope Francis has authorized the granting of a plenary indulgence. Indulgences have gotten a bad name because of the reprehensible medieval practice of selling indulgences, which was one of several factors that ignited the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Because of that sad history, there is much misunderstanding of what an indulgence is. Let me explain the Church's understanding of this gift of divine mercy, beginning with Pope Francis' own words: "God's forgiveness knows no bounds ... The mercy of God ... becomes indulgence on the part of the Father who, through ... His Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequences of sin. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful 'indulgence.'"
The Church's teaching and practice of indulgences is closely tied to the effects of the sacrament of Penance. Here is Blessed Pope Paul VI's definition: "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 prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." An indulgence is partial or plenary according to whether it removes part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.
To understand this, it is helpful to recall that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God, making us incapable of eternal life. Every sin, even venial sin, must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state we call purgatory. This purification frees us from the "temporal punishment" of sin. Forgiveness of sin remits the eternal punishment of sin, but the temporal punishment remains.
To gain an indulgence, there are a few conditions. First, it is necessary to be in the state of grace (free of mortal sin) at the time the indulgenced action is completed. A plenary indulgence can be gained once daily. The individual must have an inner disposition of detachment from sin, have gone to confession and received the Eucharist within several days of the indulgenced work, and prayed for the intentions of the Holy Father. Because of our communion with those who have died, indulgences can be applied to the souls of the deceased as well to oneself.
Besides pilgrimage to a church with a Holy Door, indulgences may be gained by works of mercy or charity and acts of penance or fasting, or abstain from meat and donate a proportionate sum of money to the poor.
The bottom line is that this Jubilee Year of Mercy is a time of unique opportunity for spiritual renewal and deepening, a blessed moment of extraordinary graces. Don't miss out!
*The following churches have Holy Doors:
St. Joseph Cathedral, Buffalo
Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna
St. Leo the Great, Amherst
St. Hyacinth Church, Blessed Mary Angela Parish, Dunkirk
St. Mary of the Angels, Olean
Our Lady of Mercy, LeRoy
Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, Youngstown
Corpus Christi, Buffalo (from Palm Sunday through Corpus Christi Feast)