Monday, 25 April 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) - Year A

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

By coincidence a few weeks ago I was puzzling over what to say for Divine Mercy Sunday this year when a friend knocked at my door. I put my problem to him and his answer was interesting. He told me he had been to many Divine Mercy celebrations in his parish and the one thing he had never heard the priest speak about was the topic of indulgences. I promised him I would do my best this year and so here goes.

To understand an indulgence we have to understand sin. There are of two types of sin:

Firstly, the kind of sin that is so grave it deprives us of the life of God within us. We lose our friendship with God and become incapable of eternal life – and for this reason this sin is called mortal.

The second kind of sin is called venial. It wounds our relationship with God but does not deprive us of communion with him.

These words, mortal and venial, are not dreamed up somewhere in a Vatican office they are part of every person’s experience of sin. Every married couple know, for example, as does every young person in the school playground, that there are some actions they can do to their friends, or which their friends can do to them, which destroy friendship and some which only wound it. The same applied to our relationship with God.

So, if you want a working definition of sin you can say: Mortal sin destroys our relationship with God, venial sin weakens or wounds it.

Naturally, many questions remain to be answered on this subject of sin but we don’t have time to go into them here. Above all we remember that mortal sin is forgiven in face to face confession and venial sin is forgiven in various other ways – through a good act of contrition, at the penitential rite at Mass, through Holy Communion, and so on.

To understand indulgences we have to realize that sin has a double consequence.

Since mortal sin makes us incapable of eternal life we say that it carried with it an "eternal punishment" unless, of course, and hopefully, it is forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession. But every sin, even venial sin, has its corrupting effect within us which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.

To give a simple example, I might decide I’m going to give up smoking or drugs. The decision I make is a good and wonderful decision but, generally, a huge battle will take place in the following months as my body and mind and will come to accept that it can no longer have the cigarettes or the drugs. Sin is like that.

We have within us a tendency or an attachment to certain sins. Try making a resolution to forgive someone who has hurt us. That’s the easy part. The battle to ‘become’ that forgiving person can often be long and difficult. What the Catechism is wisely saying is that if we don’t complete the process here on earth, the merciful God will give us time to complete it in Purgatory. I, for one, thank God for giving us Purgatory, when he does for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, and removes every last vestige of attachment to sin in our hearts and minds, since nothing impure can enter heaven.

So we see that the eternal punishment of hell goes on forever; the temporal punishment of Purgatory comes to an end when the soul has been purified from all attachment to sin. There is a difference between having been forgiven for our sins and having been purified of those sins. Or again, there is a difference between having the guilt of sin removed and the punishment due to that sin remitted.

Take another example from daily life. Imagine a man or woman who had stolen money from their workplace for many decades, so that it eventually added up to a very considerable sum. One day they confess their sin. The guilt is removed but justice requires the money be repaid; the guilt is removed but the punishment remains. This money can be repaid here on earth, or, if this is not possible, real prayer and penance can be undertaken until eventually this ‘temporal punishment’ is remitted.

This is precisely where indulgences come in. An indulgence is a gift from the Church by which a person, who fulfils certain conditions and is properly disposed, gains a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to his or her sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.

We must not doubt that the Church has the God given power to do this. The treasury of Christ’s redemption has been put in her charge and she, like her merciful Master, shows mercy to us poor sinners by ‘indulging’ us in this way.

There are two kinds of indulgences: a partial indulgence or a plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due to sin and a plenary indulgence removes all punishment due to sin. Furthermore, we can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

So now you are going to ask, ‘Ok, so what are the ‘certain conditions’ we have to fulfil and what are the proper dispositions?’

The usual conditions for every plenary indulgence are:

1. sacramental confession, within abut 20 days before or after.
2. Eucharistic communion, preferably on the day, or the days before or after.
3. prayer for the intentions of the Pope (the prayers are not specified).

The specific conditions for the plenary Indulgence offered for the Feast of Divine Mercy are:

1. in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy.
2. or, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!").

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