"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling"

So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.
(Phil 2:12-13)

You may have heard that Pope Francis has granted special indulgences as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is this all about?

The for those of you who are already familiar with indulgences: you can simply read the decree from the Apostolic Penitentiary. The short answer is that special plenary indulgences are being granted to:

  • Those who are ill and quarantined
  • The health care workers who are risking their safety to treat the sick
  • Those who pray for and and to the epidemic in certain prescribed ways
It also reminds people of the existing plenary indulgence at the moment of death for those who are unable to receive the last rites and apostolic blessing.

For those of you who aren't familiar with indulgences, read on.

What is an Indulgence, Anyway?

You may have a vague memory from your religious ed class that 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)
Or, maybe not. Either way, very few Catholics have a firm grasp on what all this means.

Wasn't I Forgiven in the Confessional?

The first thing to tackle is the concept of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Normally, when we think about sin and forgiveness, we think in terms of eternal punishment. All sins injure our relationship with God. Some sins (called grave or mortal sins) separate us from God. They break the relationship altogether. The result, of course, of unrepentant grave sin is eternal separation from God.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) restores that relationship.

But there is another effect of sin. It not only damages our relationship with God, but even venial sins damage us. Again from the Catechism:
"Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory."
(CCC 1472) 
So this is not about God inflicting some kind of 'extra' punishment. Its about our hearts being damaged by our own poor choices and being in need of healing. This is needed because, while the eternal forgiveness we receive in the confessional restores our hope of heaven, an eternity stuck with the unhealthy attachments and brokenness of this life would not be a paradise, but a punishment.

So, we have to let go of those attachments to sin. The preference is to do it in this life...but the Lord realizes that we are frail and that our purification may not be complete at the moment of our death. Thus, the grace of Purgatory.

So How are We Purified?

The short answer: Through love.

The fire of love for God and neighbor that we receive as a grace from God himself can do it in this life. We can work out our salvation in fear and trembling (see the quote from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians above). If not, it is up to the love of God and the love of the Church, expressed through the prayers of both the faithful on earth and the saints in heaven, to help free us after death.

To be clear, the Church doesn't know what the scenery in Purgatory looks like or how long it takes...but we know three things:

  • Everyone who is going through it is going to heaven--they are on their way
  • It is a painful experience to give up our attachments in Purgatory--just as it is here on earth
  • The prayers of the faithful and the intercession of the Church both on earth and in heaven provide help in the process
The Church can help us on this way of purgation...

"The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person."
(CCC 1474)

Being Carried on the Way

So indulgences are a way that the Church provides for assistance in our struggle to be free of the attachments that weigh us down...that temporal punishment due to sin.

It isn't 'magic'...indulgences require our participation in prayer and devout works in order to benefit from them. We must also be properly disposed, meaning free of of grave sin and attachment to sin (as well as meeting any other requirements of the indulgence).

In other words, if we place ourselves on the way of purgation by performing the acts or prayers associated with the indulgence, the Church pledges its support from the accumulated love of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the other saints...what we call the treasury of the Church.

This help can be obtained not only for ourselves, but for also for those of our brothers and sisters who have passed on and are still struggling with their own purification.

"'[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)
So, get to it. Gain some indulgences. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, both for yourself and those you love. 

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