(Acts 4:32-35, 1Jn 5:1-6, Jn 20:19-31)
I once heard a caricature story about heaven. Picture St. Peter standing at the Pearly Gates with his book of names and a long line of recently deceased people waiting to be either allowed in or rejected. After some time Peter takes a break and goes inside. He says to himself, “Wait a minute. Who’s that guy over there? I didn’t let him in!” And then a little further on, “Hey, how’d THAT guy get in?! He wasn’t on my list!” As he investigates a little more he finds that Mother Mary has been letting a few people in through a back window who had shown some devotion to her.
Today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. For me, it’s sort of like God’s strict Justice is standing at the gates of heaven straining out those who didn’t quite make the grade, and then God’s Mercy is finding ways to let some people in through a back window.
It’s hard for us to understand how God can be both infinitely just and infinitely merciful at the same time. It’s beyond the capacity of our finite minds. Those two qualities of God have to be kept in a healthy tension. In the past, maybe God’s justice was emphasized too much. Maybe today the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
But if God makes it too easy for us to go to heaven we will take it lightly and might even have an attitude of entitlement. Think of a parent giving money to a child. If he gives it too freely, the child won’t appreciate it as much and will be more likely to blow it on frivolous things. But if he pays him for tasks around the house like taking out the garbage, raking the leaves, painting the fence — the child will have a more responsible view of money and where it comes from. It will also make him feel better about himself, too — the average person doesn’t want to be on welfare.
So, the Catholic Church teaches that, yes, our sins are forgiven when we partake of the sacrament of confession, but there still remains temporal punishment for us to work off either in this world or the next. In this world it would be through prayer and good works; in the next, through purgatory. We see God’s mercy coming into play through confession; and his justice in the temporal punishment.
But God’s mercy is always trying to find ways to mitigate the debt of temporal punishment, while at the same time not causing us to take sin too lightly. One way is through indulgences — both plenary and partial. Like a good parent, God sets up tasks for us to perform in order to download some of the vast amount of merit racked up by the Saints and Our Lord. We perform the work and fulfill the requirements, and then either all or a big chunk of our temporal punishment is written off.
And the tasks are about as arduous as taking out the garbage. Here, for example, are three separate ways to gain a plenary indulgence: reading Scripture for half an hour; praying five decades of the rosary either in a group or, if by oneself, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; doing the Stations of the Cross in a church or oratory. See how Holy Mother Church is trying to promote these pious works? –Sort of dangling the carrot in order to get us to do something that’s healthy for us.
But there are also some other requirements besides “the work” itself before one can gain a full or “plenary” indulgence.
One has to attend Mass and receive Communion.
Sacramental confession within either eight days before or after the work performed.
Prayers for the holy intentions of the Pope (which could be fulfilled, for example, with an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be).
Free from all attachment to sin, even venial sin.
It is possible to gain a plenary indulgence for oneself or for the dead, but not for another living person. And it would be possible to gain one everyday, applying them, for instance, to the poor souls in purgatory. In that case, one Mass and Communion per work performed. But one single confession could be applied to seventeen days.
The toughest requirement is being free from all attachment to sin. Without that requirement it’s only a partial indulgence. It’s similar to the “firm purpose of amendment” requirement for a confession to be valid. In the Act of Contrition we say, “And I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” It seems to me like if we are not willing to give up an attachment to grave sin then our confession will not be valid. If we are not willing to give up an attachment to venial sin, then we won’t be able to obtain a plenary indulgence.
But what does “attachment to sin” look like? Say that someone comes to me in confession and they’re living in an irregular relationship — in other words, their relationship is something other than a valid marriage recognized by the Catholic Church and they are sexually active with their partner. If they’re planning on going back and continuing to be sexually active, then I can’t give them absolution because they lack a “firm purpose of amendment.” But if they sincerely resolve to live chastely and sleep in separate rooms, I would be more willing to give absolution.
That would be an example of attachment to grave sin. Attachment to venial sin might be as simple as keeping food in my room. As a monk, I took a vow of obedience. It’s against the rules to keep food in my room. If I throw out all the food in my room and resolve not to do that anymore, I’m free from that attachment. If not, I’m still attached.
See how it’s sort of like the reward and punishment system that a parent might use in raising a child? We’re encouraged to do things that are good for us like praying, almsgiving, and reading Scripture. We are discouraged from being ensnared by sin.
But God, being such an indulgent parent, finds ways to make it even simpler for us to erase our temporal punishment debt. He told St. Faustina that he wanted a new feast established on the first Sunday after Easter — Divine Mercy Sunday — and it became a reality under another Polish person: Pope Saint John Paul II. God told Sr. Faustina, “On that day, the floodgates of my Mercy will be opened.” If we have the intention to wipe out all our temporal punishment and fulfill the usual requirements of confession within the octave, Communion, etc., then we will gain the equivalent of a plenary indulgence. In my opinion, however, the “no attachment to sin” requirement is loosened a little bit today. Otherwise, how could God say the floodgates of his mercy are opened today if it’s the same as gaining a plenary indulgence on any of the other 365 days of the year? No attachment to grave sin still remains firm; otherwise, the confession required would not be valid. But there might be some wiggle room on attachment to venial sin.
Anyway, God, with his mercy and justice, is trying to walk the tightrope of presumption on our part (like, oh I’ll go ahead and enjoy this sin and then invoke God’s mercy afterwards), and an unhealthy sense of fear and shame and guilt and even despair. As in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God is an incredibly loving Father. But he is no fairy godmother.