To Bind And To Loose

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Binding and loosing  are two diametrically opposite actions. Yet, it  is natural that the  one who has the right to bind  should have the right to  let loose  also. In the Bible we see our Lord granting this  great power to bind and loose to the Church, his mystical body. It was but an extension of  the ministry of  Jesus Christ as he was the one who declared, ‘All power in heaven and on earth  has been given to me’ (Mt. 28:18).  He is the one  about whom it is written; 

‘He shall  open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open’ (Isaiah 22:22). 

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and  forever. That is why John saw him  exactly as Isaiah prophesied; ‘These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens  and no one will shut, who shuts and  no one opens’ (Rev. 3:7). We read that  Jesus bestowed the  power  to  bind and to loose upon  Peter whom he chose as the rock on which to build his Church. Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven as well so that  he may  use this  power  judiciously as  the Vicar of Christ on  earth.

Today we are  discussing about ‘Indulgence’  which flows from  the ‘power of the  keys’ granted to Peter. It  has been a contentious issue through  centuries. It was the   reason for one  of the major splits in the universal Church.  For many, the term ‘Indulgence’   provokes  the  memories of  an Augustinian monk  who pasted  ninety-five theses on the  wall of  Wittenberg Castle Church. His immediate provocation was the abuse of   the  theory and practice of indulgences.  Admittedly, there were certain grey areas  in the  administration of indulgences  in those days, which the Catholic Church rectified later.  In course of time, the  norms regarding the grant of indulgences were codified  in the ‘Raccolta’. In  1967 under the  papacy of  Paul VI  it went for another round of  modifications and as of now the   teachings  of the Church vis-a-vis the  subject of Indulgences is available in the apostolic constitution ‘Indulgentiarum Doctrina’  published the same year. 

To have a meaningful discourse about  such a contentious issue we need to start from the  basics, lest we may be  prompted to jump into  conclusions heavily  biased towards either direction.  With a prayer to the Holy Ghost to  illuminate our  hearts to  understand the  subject  in its true  perspective, let us  proceed.

What is an Indulgence?

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“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.” ( CCC 1471)

So, indulgence is  the remission of   the temporal punishment  due to sins. Doubts might start coming up right away. What is this temporal  punishment? We know that there is  a punishment  for sin unless it is forgiven. The normal  route for forgiveness is  through  the sacrament of Confession.  We are taught that  every person  who  approaches the confessional with a truly contrite heart and  confesses his sins, obtains absolution from all the  liability of guilt and  he becomes entitled to eternal life. Where  in the  picture, then, does this temporal punishment come?  Apart from eternal punishment, is there another punishment awaiting a sinner?

Let us address the issues one by one. The primary consequence of  any sin is separation from God.  Church  teaches us that any person dying in  a state of mortal sin  cannot enter eternal life.  But there  are those souls who  have no unrepented and unforgiven  mortal sins outstanding against them at the time of death. Yet, there could still be some venial sins committed by them that are  not confessed.  Even in   the case of  a person who has  confessed  all his sins and obtained  absolution, the negative effects  of his actions (sins) need to be  corrected in some way.  For example,  a person stealing something from his neighbor can  get  forgiveness of the sin  at a  later time provided he  repents sincerely and  receives the sacrament of  confession with a contrite heart. But it doesn’t absolve him from the liability to  give back what  was stolen. Unless and until this is  done, we cannot say that we have done perfect justice.  God being perfect, we cannot  be united with God if  we are not perfect.  To make the  soul perfect, a process of purification is  required. This purification can be either  here before death or  in purgatory  after death.  This element of  suffering which we are bound to  accept  is called the temporal punishment of sin.   The theology and logic behind the  concept of  temporal punishment is that  every person is  responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, even though   God in his abundant mercy has absolved them from eternal punishment which is   undoubtedly the gravest of  consequences.   An  example will   help us grasp  this better. 

David was a righteous man and the only blemish  on this person was that  ‘he struck  down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and took Uriah’s wife to be  his wife and  got  the  poor soldier  killed  with the sword of the Ammonites’. We are familiar with the rest of the story. Nathan comes to David and after explaining his guilt with the help of a parable, dramatically declares ; “You are the man”. Then follows the words of  the Lord: “Now therefore the sword shall  never depart from your house, for you have  despised me, and  have taken the wife of  Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise  up  trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall  lie with your wives in the light of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this  thing before all Israel, and before the sun” (2 Sam. 12:10-12).

At the words of  Nathan, David did  repent from the depths of  his heart  saying; “I  have sinned against the  Lord”. The depth of  his  contrition  can be  read in  Psalm 51. But  he cannot  undo  what is already done.  Before  leaving the  scene Nathan conveyed the final message from  Lord the God; “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because of this  deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the  child that is born to you shall die” (2 Sam 12:13-14).

God will never forsake a person who  repents about  his  sins. Nevertheless God’s justice demands that the sinner should  suffer something, though not proportionate to the  gravity of  the sin committed, as  expiation for  his wrongs. As per law, the punishment for  the  sins committed by  David – adultery  and  murder – is  nothing  less than death. But God’s  forgiveness  saved him from the capital punishment, but  he was commanded to undergo a different  kind of  punishment.  

Relating  David’s experience  to our subject, death means eternal punishment  from which  David was  saved by the boundless  mercy of God. But he had to  go through  those troubles prophesied against him in  due course  of time. It was the  temporal punishment awarded to  David. Confession takes away the  sins and saves a person from hell. But he has to  undergo its   temporal punishment. We can say that by  accepting  the  misfortunes sent on him, David paid off for his misdeeds.  He had no other way but to suffer. But after  the  sacrifice of Jesus Christ on  the cross, we  are assured of  forgiveness  through his blood,  and for  remission of the  temporal punishment, we have recourse to the  Church, the mystical body of Christ. Indulgence is the surest  way to get the   liability of temporal punishment remitted.

Ideally, we are supposed to  complete the purification  of our souls during  our lifetime itself.  It can take various forms. Whenever restitution is  possible, as in the  case of  theft, the wrong  done  should be rectified by restitution.  But  when  restitution per se is not possible, our next  course is doing penance and reparation in a suitable way.  It is here that indulgences come into the  picture.  Catholic Church teaches: ‘The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man ( CCC 1473).

I hope the concept of indulgence is clear by now. Next and perhaps more important is  how the Church can offer  indulgence to a person. Many Christians,  Catholics  included, doubt  about the authority of the  Church to grant indulgences.  The answer is simple. We have no doubt that the Church has the authority to  grant forgiveness of sins as  representative of  Christ.  Indulgence, being the remission of temporal punishment, is a natural corollary to redemption from eternal punishment. Isn’t it  theologically and  logically a  sound argument  that the Church bestowed  with the power  and authority of saving a person from  eternal  fire has the  power and authority to  exempt him from the  immediate  punishment also, which is not as grave as eternal punishment? If the Church has the power to save  a person from  the unending suffering of hell,  why should we doubt about  the Church’s power to absolve him from a  lesser punishment?  This is what we understand from the ‘the power of binding and loosing’ granted  to the Church  by Jesus Christ.“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19)

While granting every indulgence  the  Church exercises this power to bind and loose granted to her by the Lord. Catechism explains it in these words; ‘An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not simply want to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity ( CCC 1478).

Every currency note printed is supposed to be  supported by  some kind of  monetary asset. Normally a central bank  or national monetary agency cannot issue  currency notes without supporting assets. The assets might be tangible or intangible. What asset does the  Church have to draw from and  disburse as  indulgences? This is again  a serious question. Fortunately, the Church has the  largest treasury in this world. It is made up  of Christ’s  merits  before  God, prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary  along with  the  prayers and    good  deeds of the  saints throughout centuries. Church as the mystical body of Christ, has been entrusted with  this priceless treasury of  merits which she distributes by way of  indulgences to those  coming with a humble heart and supplicating hands. Some might doubt about the efficacy of  the good deeds and prayers of  saints and  the Blessed Virgin in helping sinners to obtain remission of  punishments. To get an answer, we need to recite the  Apostles’ Creed once again. We profess that we believe  in the ‘communion of  saints’. Christ is one and  his  mystical body – Church – is also one and undivided. We, who are alive at present constitute only a part of the mystical body of Church. Those  preceded us  are  now in heaven, and some  others who couldn’t qualify for a direct entry into eternal bliss are still in purgatory with a solid hope that one day they will reach their  heavenly home.  Church is comprised of these three segments  of believers.  With this in mind, let us listen to what the Church teaches in this regard: 

‘In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin (CCC 1475).

We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the ‘Church’s treasury’, which is not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy (CCC 1476).

This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body. (CCC 1477)

With this, I  hope there should not remain any  doubts about the  theological foundation of the concept of  indulgences. Believe that the  Church has the power to grant  indulgences. Believe  that  what is  done   here on earth by the Church is ratified there  in heaven. Believe also  that  we as members of the mystical body of  Christ, can approach Mother Church to  draw from the  inexhaustible treasury  so as to  get remission of our temporal punishments.  

Now it  is time to  turn to the  practical side of how to gain indulgences. Before proceeding  further, please  keep in mind  that  indulgence is not a substitute  for sacramental confession.  Rather it is something that  should follow  a true confession. Indulgence is not a permission to  commit further wrongs nor can it be gained for future sins. Indulgence  cannot be  a substitute for  restitution. The following conditions  should be  complied with  by a faithful desiring to draw the gift of  indulgence  from the  treasury of the Church. They are

-They should be completely and whole-heartedly detached from  all sins of any kind, even venial sin.

-They should have done a valid sacramental confession

-They  should have  attended a full Mass and  received  the Holy Eucharist in a state of grace 

-They should pray for the intentions of the Pope. Traditionally  one  Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Glory be is recited  for  this intention. Some people add  the  Apostles’ Creed also to it. 

From the  above we observe that  faith in the  Holy Eucharist and   in  the forgiveness of sins  from Christ through the  sacrament of  confession are   pre-conditions  for seeking  indulgence. Once the above-mentioned conditions are satisfied, the next  step is to  do the  required ‘good work’ attached to indulgence. But before  proceeding please remember that “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either  a part, or all of the temporal punishment due to sin (CCC 1471). Accordingly the good works to be done for getting indulgence also differ considering the nature of indulgence sought. This can be reciting a prayer, visiting a particular church, reading the  Scripture, visiting the Blessed Sacrament   or  praying a Rosary. The list of  good works recommended by the  Church is  a lengthy one and need not be repeated here.  However, some of the  major devotions/good works that  qualify for indulgence are  given below: 

1. Visiting the Blessed Sacrament for the purpose of adoration for at least half an hour. 

2. Reading the sacred Scripture with the veneration due  to God’s word and as a form of spiritual reading  for  half an hour

3. Praying the Rosary in a Church, prayer group, community or family.  It should be with devout meditation on the mysteries  and without interruption.

4. Spending at least three full days in a spiritual retreat.

5. Stations of  the Cross – movement from   one station  to the   other is mandatory.

6. Attending the  Holy Mass  celebrated by a priest on the 25th or 50th  anniversary of his priestly ordination

7. Attending the  first Holy Mass of the newly ordained priest

8. Attending the Holy Mass  celebrated for  First Communion

9. Apostolic blessing given by the  priest  at the  time of  Last Sacraments.

In all these cases, a plenary indulgence is  granted to the faithful who are rightly disposed.

As far as partial indulgence is concerned making a sign of the Cross, reciting the Rosary  alone, using  devotional objects like crucifix, cross,  scapular etc rightly blessed by a priest, reciting  Psalm 51 in a spirit of penitence, reciting the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat), praying the litanies of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Precious Blood of Jesus, Sacred Heart of Jesus or Holy Name of Jesus, devoutly reciting Psalm 130, devoutly reciting  the Apostles’ Creed, praying the Angelus or  Regina Caeli and reciting the Act of Faith, Hope, Love and Contrition all entitles one to  gain partial  indulgence. Please bear in mind that  both the lists are not exhaustive. 

Having said this, we request the readers not to be swayed by the  false teaching that  it is easy to get away with the remission of   temporal punishments through the  short cut of  indulgences.  Every indulgence is a gift from God  and made available to us through the  perennial ministry of  the Church. Mere recitation of  a long litany of prayers will not make us entitled to it.  Before  submitting our supplications to  God for indulgences, the first and foremost  condition to be fulfilled is  that we should be detached from  all kinds of sins, including venial sins. Unless we approach  the seat of mercy with a clean heart and clean hands we cannot expect anything from Him.  Nowadays a  tendency is growing  in the  Church to  view Indulgences as something very simple. When  a plenary indulgence is  granted  on special occasions like  the year of mercy or the year dedicated to  Saint Joseph, many Catholics run to their churches as if it is  something freely distributed from there. No! We need to work for it.  Simply going through the  formalities   will not  absolve us from  the  liability of  temporal  punishment.   Let us remember the words of Pope Paul VI that an indulgence cannot be gained without a  sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God.  If these  conditions are satisfied, we can gain a plenary indulgence every day and we need not wait  for special occasions.  An Indulgence gained  on a special occasion has  no special value  when compared to  the Indulgences we   gain every day.  

Let us strive hard to  gain as many  indulgences as possible in the short time available to us. Indulgence is not for the living  alone, it is equally  available to the departed souls also.  Catechism of  the Catholic Church  underlines this  belief in gaining   indulgences for the dead. ‘The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead’. (CCC 1471). To pray  for the  dead is a work of mercy which  God  values very much.

Needless to say, gaining indulgences for  self and the  departed  dear ones should be given utmost  priority.  Make maximum use of the funds kept in the ‘treasury of the Church’ when   the treasury is still open.  Uncertain times are ahead and why  should we leave this world  with  a heavy baggage of  temporal  punishments?  May  Jesus Christ who gave  the  power to the Church to   bind and loose,  shower  his mercy on us through the instrument of Indulgence.

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