“But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal” (Matthew 6:20).
As we stand on the threshold of the year of mercy, we hear quite a bit about indulgences being offered for participating in various acts and activities that Pope Francis wants to emphasise as integral to celebrating the mercy of God. This tends to bring up the question, just what are indulgences, anyway? In my own journey into the Church from Protestantism, I had a lot of trouble finding the answer to this question. Essentially, all I knew about them as a Protestant was that indulgences caused the Reformation. While I came to learn and understand that Martin Luther was overreacting to abuses of indulgences, and that the stereotypical idea that indulgences “buy your way into heaven” were false, getting to the truth was still tricky. Unfortunately, my RCIA experience was not at all helpful in this regard–when I asked the lead teacher, the reply I got was “Oh, we don’t do that anymore.” But avoiding the question (or writing off the practice as mediæval superstition) is really not helpful, and in fact ignores an amazing aspect of God’s mercy and its application in the “economy of salvation”.
I’ve come to learn that this phrase, “economy of salvation”, is essential to understanding indulgences. As a Protestant, salvation was seen as a “zero-sum” arrangement–that is, Jesus did all the work, and our part is only to believe in order to be saved. The Catholic view recognises that salvation is something we ourselves participate in. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross makes salvation possible by meriting an infinitude of grace for us, but our response of faith and of loving obedience is how we appropriate His grace. And in living this life of faithful obedience, we become holy. Yet, as we all know, we fall short of perfect holiness, and through sin we can injure, or in the case of mortal sin, destroy completely the life of grace in us. Through Confession, the grace of God is restored to us, but it is through the often – neglected role of penance that we, through the grace of God restored in the sacrament, make back those strides toward holiness that we had been taking before we stumbled into sin. And the beautiful thing about Catholicism, is that we’re not striving on our own with Jesus, but that our meritorious acts of penance are, in a sense, deposited into a heavenly bank account known traditionally as “the treasury of merit”. St. Paul makes this clear in Colossians 1:24, when he talks about his sufferings filling up what is lacking in Christ’s passion, on behalf of the Church.
The verse quoted at the beginning of this article illustrates the “treasury of merit”, and it’s one of those many verses to which I was blind in my zero-sum Protestant understanding of salvation. Had someone asked me what it meant to store up treasures in heaven, I would have said that it was through our good works, though they didn’t save us. But my understanding of how our obedience to Jesus made treasures in heaven was vague, at best. That there was an account, from which the chief stewards (those, that is, with the divinely given authority to “bind and loose”–Matt. 16:19 and 18:18) could draw from and apply to certain acts of faithful love in order to mitigate against the penances needed to sanctify us, was completely unknown to me..
Perhaps even more importantly, those who died in God’s grace, but not perfectly sanctified, who are suffering in Purgatory with no ability of themselves to make any meritorious acts to alleviate their need for the purifying fires, can benefit from our indulgenced acts applied to them, either partially or completely mitigating their stay in Purgatory!
Strict justice demands that our sinful rebellion against God merits complete separation from Him and the eternal death of Hell. In His infinite mercy, He gave us salvation through His Son, so that through His grace, we may be made alive in grace and through that grace, may merit an increase in holiness. Going even further still in His unfathomable mercy, Christ gave us a Church which bestows His grace liberally through the Sacraments, continually enlivening that life of grace within us, and resurrecting it when through sin, we have killed it. His grace makes us able to make satisfaction for our guilt through penance, and as though that were still too little, He enables us, through the binding and loosing authority of His Church, to perform extra acts of love and devotion in order to reduce the amount of penance required for our sanctification–and even the sanctification of those who can no longer merit anything for themselves in Purgatory!
How rich indeed is the Mercy of God! How blessed we are to celebrate it throughout this coming year!
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