I started reading this booklet, How to avoid Purgatory, with not a little measure of scepticism. Grown in an environment where the non practising Catholics were rather indifferent (my parents) and the practising Catholics were rather stern (most notably: my rather steely grandmother) I grew up believing that Purgatory is something you grow to expect, hoping that it will be as little unpleasant as possible; that it is difficult enough to avoid Hell to have the presumption of thinking of even planning to avoid Purgatory; that this idea of asking for oneself something reserved for the most saintly Christians smells of arrogance or, as I would have put it in my childhood, of being a spoiled child.
Add to this that this booklet is clearly dated. The measuring of purgatory in terms of earthly days (so and so many days of indulgence for such and such prayers, or measuring purgatory in “years”) would have been considered extremely questionable even in 1936 and acceptable only as a way of explanation for the uneducated, and of encouragement for the very young.
Still: when one has read the entire booklet, has absorbed its meaning and has pondered a bit over the general tone and message of this little but very intelligent work (and, most importantly, has noticed the continuous effort of the author to explain that the desired behaviour will, in many cases, not be enough to avoid purgatory altogether, to which even my grandmother would have gravely nodded), one understands what blessings this little booklet can bring to the faithful.
If I were allowed to make a politically incorrect comparison, I’d say that the leitmotiv of the booklet reminds one of the typical behaviour of one of the two sexes. What it boils down to is: ruthless nagging of God, The Blessed Virgin and the Saints for what we desire; a countless number of little efforts and little prayers; an unceasing pushing made in little things, but repeated a huge numbers of time. The following of the practices suggested in the booklet (there are several of them; no one of them unpleasant; all of them rather easy; almost all repeatable at will; some rather daring and not frequently heard) is most fitting for those not strong enough for the heroic effort, but clever enough to recognise a deal on very favourable terms when they see one.
Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo. The drop hollows out the stone; not by force, but by frequent dropping. In our case, the stone is so willing to be hollowed out by our drops! And yes, without heroic virtue one will probably not attain avoidance of Purgatory anyway and not many are those who bring to the deal the necessary strenght. But very many of us can – if they but apply themselves to the acquiring of a limited number of not very uncomfortable, but very good habits – obtain such favours as to avoid that Purgatory – so it is not spared to us – is at least devoid of its harshest sting.
Come on, boys’ n girls….. Let’s start nagging!
The question of the detachment from venial sin as a necessary condition to obtain a plenary indulgence has been often discussed. One generally reads a bit of everything, from the hardliners thinking that only the saintliest could, on rare occasion, gain a plenary indulgence to the softies maintaining that the simple agreement that venial sins are to be avoided would suffice.
In my eyes, we must avoid falling into both the harshness of extreme severity and the “feel good-ism” so typical of our time. The best thing to do is, I think, to find inspiration in the life of the Saints.
St. Philip Neri once received from God the intelligence that the plenary indulgence the Pope had granted for that day – and about which he had just finished to preach to a full church – would be obtained only by himself and another person among the faithful present. If we consider this episode credible – and we do, because it can be easily found in publications sold from the Oratorians themselves – we must agree that a plenary indulgence is, whilst not impossible at all, certainly very difficult to achieve. Yes, St. Philip Neri lived in rather coarse times, but those were also times of much better catechesis and certainly keener awareness of sin. I rather doubt that – in the same full church – today’s result would be much different.
Where does this leave us? Methinks, in a rather useful spot. We do know that a plenary indulgence is something we might chase for an entire life without ever attaining it, but this knowledge will encourage us to a sustained effort. Through this effort we will accumulate more and more partial indulgences and become increasingly more aware of the offensiveness of our sins. As a result, Salvation will become much more probable.
This is, I think, the key. The idea that one would die and easily avoid Purgatory sounds more than a bit Protestant to me. A Catholic – and more so a conservative Catholic – is supposed to avoid illusions of easy entry into Paradise. The road is narrow and the sin of presumption never far away. Catholicism should in my eyes allow the faithful to get a sobering picture of his sins so that an effort is engendered through which irreparable damage is safely avoided. Every illusion of easy achievement may well become a double-edged sword and lull the faithful into a dangerous sense of security.
Keep chasing your plenary indulgence. You may well never get one. But it is a very good way to avoid Hell.
Dear reader, if you are a non-Catholic you have probably heard a lot of nonsense about indulgences and if you are a cradle Catholic you might not have heard anything at all. I will try here to give you some compact information about what Indulgences are and why they are so important in the life of a Catholic. If you want more detailed information you’ll find it here.
To understand the indulgences you must realise that sins demand – even after they have been forgiven – a temporal punishment. When the sin was forgiven the soul was cleansed, but the necessity for the punishment remained. You can make a parallel with everyday life by thinking that if by parking on the street you damage your neighbour’s car, you or your insurance will be expected to pay for the damage even after your neighbour has wholeheartedly accepted your excuses.
As human nature is, in the course of our life we accumulate many such parking accidents and even if we regularly go to confession and have our sins forgiven, the list of the temporal punishments for which we are liable is destined to grow. Instead of paying this debt in its entirety in Purgatory after our death, the Lord’s mercy allows us to – as it were – start paying this debt whilst we are alive, either reducing it or – in extreme cases – cancelling it in its entirety. This partial or total anticipated payment is called “indulgence”. In order to profit from the indulgence, you are required to do something special that shows your willingness to accept that you own the debt and to pay it. In His turn, the Lord reacts to your willingness by remitting your debt with extreme generosity. Indulgences are a deal on exceptionally favourable conditions or – to put it in financial terms – the equivalent of redeeming your IOUs at a peppercorn for the pound. Every Catholic does well to profit from such a generous deal as long as it is available, because the offer ends at the moment of our death and we will afterwards have to rely on the deals other people can get for us.
The main distinction concerning indulgences is between partial and plenary. Partial indulgences gain you a partial remission of your debt, plenary indulgences the remission of all the debts you have accumulated up to that moment. The deal is, though, not as easy at it may seem as the criteria to get a plenary indulgence are so strict – namely the absence of all attachment to sin, even venial sin – that only the most saintly among the faithful will be in a position to gain it. If a plenary indulgence cannot be obtained, a partial indulgence will apply. Indulgences can never be sold.
You can easily see, dear reader, how just and at the same time merciful the indulgences are. The Lord in His justice does not allow us to escape the punishment for the sins we have committed, but in His mercy He allows us to pay our debt on, shall we say, extremely favourable terms. As in real life, we get a better deal if we pay before the time the debt is due and have an easier life if we show ourselves willing to do our best to clean ourselves of our obligations.
The Enchiridion of Indulgences contains a catalogue of indulgences that can be obtained at any time and explains the conditions necessary to profit from them. The conditions are generally: 1) contrite heart; 2) confession; 3) communion and 4) prayer for the intention of the Pope, but further conditions may be attached to particular indulgences. In addition to this, there are indulgences that are made available only within a certain time frame and with the conditions attached to them from time to time. As I write, there is a plenary indulgence granted for the 12th June, the day of conclusion of the Year for Priests. In case you decide to pay particular attention to plenary indulgences, a catalogue is published here.
Dear reader, you can easily see that in your lifetime you will never get another deal as good as this one. He is a wise Catholic (or better still: traditional Catholic) who pays attention to the debts dues to the Lord. The offer is on extremely favourable conditions and available every day; it requires to do some little extra, but this extra is almost nothing compared to the benefit obtained. It also trains the faithful to keep his eyes on his eternal destiny, which will help him to go through his day and will slowly but surely improve his habits. Once again, Catholicism discloses to the faithful a world where justice and love meet, both contributing to keep him on that straight and narrow way built to lead him to his eternal reward.
Indulgences are, truly, the deal of your life.