Ever since the Jubilee Year indulgences promulgated by the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, interest in the doctrine of indulgences has been rising. Unfortunately, few people today knows what an indulgence is or how indulgences work. In order to understand this teaching, we have to have a good understanding of how grace works in our lives and how sin affects the workings of grace.
First, we must realize that grace is power. Grace is the power that keeps the world working the way it should. When I sin, I remove grace from the world. As a result, the world doesn't have the necessary grace, the necessary power, to work the way God intended it to.
So, let's say I am engaged in a very private sin, which no one knows about. I get drunk secretly. In fact, I get drunk secretly on a regular basis, but I go to work sober, so no one can tell. However, because I regularly get drunk, that is, I regularly sin, I remove grace from the world, I remove grace from myself.
Now, grace is the power to be joyful, the power to treat others as true images of God. Because I threw away grace through my sin, I no longer have the power, I no longer have the ability, to treat you the way you should be treated. Though no one knows about my secret drinking, everyone knows I'm a pain to work with. I'm mean, maybe not a lot mean, but mean nonetheless. I treat you badly when I see you.
When I treat you badly in the morning, you will be tempted to treat someone else badly later in the day as a result. I have taken grace out of our relationship by the very fact that I removed grace from myself through sin. In fact, I've removed grace from every relationship I'm in - everyone I meet the day after a drunk is not going to be treated as well as I should treat them. Even my relationship with God is harmed, because I am not giving Him proper respect either, since I am not treating the gifts He gave me - like my body and my mind - with the honor they deserve. I am supposed to treat myself like a temple of the Holy Spirit, and instead I throw the Spirit out and replace Him with spirits.
So, all of the people I interact with during the day are tempted to be mean to everyone they meet because they are simmering about the injustice I have inflicted on them. The effects of my sin are rippling out into the world, more grace is being stripped away with every interaction, and I'm at least an indirect cause of every loss of grace.
Now, when I Christ sends me the grace necessary to drive me to the confessional and I respond to it, Christ absolves my sins in that sacrament and restores to me the grace that I threw away. But, even if I go to confession immediately after having mistreated you, I have a problem. Though I am restored to a life of grace, there's a rippling circle of sin out in the world. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people are mistreating one another because I encouraged them to do so: I mistreated them first. This rippling could go on for a very long time. Indeed, this mistreatment could reverberate for quite some time after I'm dead. I am supposed to live my life on earth so I bring joy to everyone I meet. I haven’t. I sinned.
And, even though my sins are forgiven, the consequences of those sins need to be cleaned up. But I can't clean them up. This situation can only be healed by an infusion of grace, of power, an infusion of the very thing I stripped out of the world. I can’t restore the missing grace. I am not a source of grace - only Christ is. But I am supposed to be an image of Christ. Christ brought nothing but grace into the world. And even though I am now in a life of grace and look like Him in respect to myself, I have stripped grace away from the world, and am totally unlike Him in respect to his interaction with the world. What to do?
Well, we are God's coworkers, according to Scripture. God's work is the healing of the sins of the world, both temporal effects and spiritual effects. Thus, you and I also have the work of healing the sins of the world, both temporal and spiritual effects. What God commands us to do, God provides the grace to accomplish.
My act of sin was an act of arbitrary disobedience. Christ invites me to heal the consequences of my sin by giving me the grace to do arbitrary acts of obedience. I arbitrarily chose to strip away grace and ignore Him before. Now that I am in a state of grace and again conformed to His image through reconciliation, Christ establishes arbitrary acts of obedience that He rewards with even more grace. In this way, I can heal the world and restore it to what it would have been like if I had not sinned.
The grace that He makes available to the world through an indulgenced act is drawn from “the treasury of merit.” It is the infinite ocean of grace won by Christ on the Cross, and won by all the saints who lived in perfect conformance to Christ. Just as Peter wiped away his three-fold disobedience on the night of the trial with a three-fold act of love on the seashore, so I must make similar acts of love to wipe away my acts of disobedience. Christ established for Peter the acts he needed to take, the Church establishes for me the acts I need to take. Just as Peter's ability to affirm his love for Christ came from the Crucifixion, so the graces which heal the world of the effects of my sins come only from the Crucifixion, the infinite treasury of grace won by Christ on the Cross. He allows me to imitate Him by allowing me to win graces for the world in a way somewhat similar to the way He won graces for the world. He did it first, and He rewards my pale imitation by passing the graces onto me, so I may look like Him.
Thus, when I perform an indulgence for myself, all the people who find themselves living out grace-deficient relationships because of my sin will, because I do these acts of arbitrary obedience out of love of Christ, suddenly find the grace I had taken out of their relationships restored to them. In this way, Christ empowers me to become His co-worker, doing His work on earth. In this way, it is no more I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.
Now, Christ expects each one of us to heal the world and clean up our own mess. That means I can’t do an indulgence for another living person; the only living person I can only do them for is myself. As Paul tells us in Hebrews, obedience always involves suffering. If I don't get this mess cleaned up here, if I don’t get these acts of obedience/suffering finished while on earth, then I have to get them done before I can enter heaven. Only the perfect enter heaven, only those whose life left the world a better place get to see God. As long as any part of any one of my sins still afflict the world at the moment of my death, I have to do what is necessary to clean that mess up. This creates a problem.
My body was made to carry the load of suffering. When I die, my soul is separated from my body. Death separates me from the very tool I need most in order to do my work of obedience/suffering. This means the suffering of Purgatory has to be tremendously greater if it is to accomplish the same amount of clean-up work that could have been done while I was alive on earth. Because the souls in Purgatory don’t have their bodies with them, and are therefore at a distinct disadvantage in getting their work done, the Church permits we who are living to do indulgenced works for the dead, as a way to help them. In this way, 1 Corinthians 12 is fulfilled: those parts of the body that can carry the load help those that cannot.
This, in a nutshell, is an indulgence. Once Reconciliation has conformed me to Christ, I must then do indulgences to conform all my relationships in the world to Him as well. If I get this work done on earth, I leave the world a better place, with none having been harmed by me. That means I am a saint. So, at my death, I enter directly into heaven.
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