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The gift of Indulgences

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the History of Salvation
General Audience, Wednesday 29 September 1999 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. In close connection with the sacrament of Penance, our reflection today turns to a theme particularly related to the celebration of the Jubilee:  I am referring to the gift of indulgences, which are offered in particular abundance during the Jubilee Year, as indicated in the Bull Incarnationis mysterium and the attached decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

It is a sensitive subject, which has suffered historical misunderstandings that have had a negative impact on communion between Christians. In the present ecumenical context, the Church is aware of the need for this ancient practice to be properly understood and accepted as a significant expression of God's mercy. Experience shows, in fact, that indulgences are sometimes received with superficial attitudes that ultimately frustrate God's gift and cast a shadow on the very truths and values taught by the Church.

2. The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1: 12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 4: 6; Rom 5: 5; 8: 15-16).

However, in the logic of the covenant, which is the heart of the whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach us without our acceptance and response.

In the light of this principle, it is not difficult to understand how reconciliation with God, although based on a free and abundant offer of mercy, at the same time implies an arduous process which involves the individual's personal effort and the Church's sacramental work. For the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, this process is centred on the sacrament of Penance, but it continues after the sacramental celebration. The person must be gradually "healed" of the negative effects which sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the "punishments" and "remains" of sin).

3. At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as "a God merciful and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin", adds:  "yet not without punishing" (Ex 34: 6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David's humble confession after his grave sin obtains God's forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12: 13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12: 11; 16: 21). God's fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man's own good (cf. Heb 12: 4-11).

In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still marked by those "remains" of sin which do not leave them totally open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion towards the fullness of love.

On this pathway God's mercy comes to his aid in special ways. The temporal punishment itself serves as "medicine" to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound conversion. This is the meaning of the "satisfaction" required in the sacrament of Penance.

4. The meaning of indulgences must be seen against this background of man's total renewal by the grace of Christ the Redeemer through the Church's ministry. They began historically with the ancient Church's awareness of being able to express the mercy of God by mitigating the canonical penances imposed for the sacramental remission of sins. The mitigation was offset, however, by personal and community obligations as a substitute for the punishment's "medicinal" purpose.

We can now understand how 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" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, Normae de Indulgentiis, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1999, p. 21; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1471).

There thus exists the treasury of the Church, which is "dispensed" as it were through indulgences. This "distribution" should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of "things". It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when - in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints - she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace. In the unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their condition.

5. We can see, then, how indulgences, far from being a sort of "discount" on the duty of conversion, are instead an aid to its prompt, generous and radical fulfilment. This is required to such an extent that the spiritual condition for receiving a plenary indulgence is the exclusion "of all attachment to sin, even venial sin" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, p. 25).

Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that we can receive this gift by simply performing certain outward acts. On the contrary, they are required as the expression and support of our progress in conversion. They particularly show our faith in God's mercy and in the marvellous reality of communion, which Christ has achieved by indissolubly uniting the Church to himself as his Body and Bride."

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages:

Chers frères et sœurs,

J'acueille avec plaisir les francophones présents ce matin. Je salue particulièrement les pèlerins du diocèse de Rennes. Je souhaite que leur séjour à Rome les fasse grandir dans la foi au Christ. A tous je donne de grand cœur la Bénédiction Apostolique.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am happy to greet the Capuchin Friars taking part in the Capuchin Heritage Programme: may this be a time of deep spiritual for you! I also welcome the Maori Veterans from New Zealand.

Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States of America, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God bless you all.

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

Auch eine Pilgerfahrt nach Rom kann ein Schritt sein, um dem Leben eine neue Richtung zu geben. So grüße ich die vielen Brüder und Schwestern aus den Ländern deutscher Sprache. Besonders heiße ich die Teilnehmer an der zwanzigsten Pilgerfahrt »Rom im Rollstuhl « willkommen. Außerdem freue ich mich, daß so viele Schüler- und Jugendgruppen zu dieser Begegnung gekommen sind.

Euch, Euren Lieben zu Hause sowie allen, die mit uns über Radio Vatikan und das Fernsehen verbunden sind, erteile ich von Herzen den Apostolischen Segen.

Queridos hermanos y hermanas,

Doy la bienvenida a todos los peregrinos procedentes de Espana y Latinoamérica. Saludo a las Religiosas de San José de Girona, a la « Sociedad Italiana de Mutuo Socorro e Instrucción » de Sa ladino (Buenos Aires), a los peregrinos de la diócesis de Zacatecoluca (El Salvador).

Invocando sobre todos el amor misericordioso de Dios Padre, os bendigo de todo corazón.

Caríssimos Irmâos e Irmâs!

Saúdo os peregrinos de língua portuguesa que porventura aqui se encontrem, nomeadamente os visitantes provindos de Portugal do Brasil. Invoco para todos a abundância dos dons divinos, ao conceder de bom grado a minha Bênção Apostólica.

Witam pielgrzymów Z Polski: grupy parafialne z Kielc, Mikołowa, Środy Wielkopolskiej, Warszawy i Wrocławia; grupy polonijne z Australii, Norwegii i Niemiec - z Amberga, Bremy i Hanoweru, oraz Duszpasterstwo Misyjne Sióstr Pallotynek i Europejskie Stowarzyszenie Misteriów Męki Pańskiej; grupy młodzieżowe z Inowrocławia, Poznania i harcerzy Chorągwi Wielkopolskiej; grupy turystyczno-pielgrzymkowe z Bielska-Białej, Białegostoku, Bydgoszczy, Cieszyna, Częstochowy, Jeleśni, Lublina, Łodzi, Opola, Poznania, Rzeszowa, Szczecina, Tarnowa, Warszawy i innych miast Polski.

Dzisiejsza katecheza poświęcona jest odpustom. W sakramencie pokuty dostępujemy odpuszczenia win, grzechów. Odpuszczenie i odpust to brzmi podobnie, a jednak to drugie słowo: « odpust », dotyczy darowania kar doczesnych i własnie ten temat odpustów (indulgentiae), jest szczególnie ważny w perspektywie Wielkiego Jubileuszu. Jubileusz bowiem jest czasem odpuszczenia grzechów, pojednania z Bogiem i odpuszczenia kar - wielkim czasem odpustu.

Zostala wydana w związku z tym specjalna instrukcja Penitencjarii Apostolskiej (Penitenzieria Apostolica), która te sprawy szczegółowo wyjaśnia. Odsyłam do tej instrukcji także wszystkich zainteresowanych z Polski.

Bardzo wam dziękuję za obecność waszą w dniu dzisiejszym, nazajutrz po święcie św. Wacława, patrona katedry krakowskiej, i w uroczystość Świętych Archaniołów Michała, Gabriela i Rafała. Niech Bóg wszystkim błogosławi.

Pochwalony Jezus Chrystus!

Da Timor Orientale continuano a giungere in questi giorni tragiche notizie di stragi perpetrate contro inermi cittadini, contro cristiani, sacerdoti, religiosi e religiose che hanno speso la propria vita al servizio di tutti.

In particolare, ho appreso con profondo dolore che sabato pomeriggio vicino a Baucau, sono state assassinate numerose persone, tra le quali anche due missionarie canossiane.

Vi invito a ricordarle nella preghiera, insieme a tutte le vittime della tragedia timorese. Preghiamo per i sofferenti nel corpo e nello spirito, per i profughi e i rifugiati, come pure per quanti operano in loro favore e per la pacificazione del territorio.

Chiediamo al Signore che l’esempio di questi testimoni della carità fino al dono totale della loro esistenza possa contribuire a far nascere in Timor Orientale un futuro di speranza.

Esprimo anche il mio apprezzamento per l’iniziativa delle emittenti radiofoniche aderenti alla Conferenza delle Radio Cristiane Europee, che oggi testimoniano insieme la loro solidarietà con la Chiesa e il popolo di Timor Orientale dedicando ad essi trasmissioni ed appelli.

Rivolgo ora uno speciale saluto a tutti i pellegrini di lingua italiana, in particolare ai partecipanti al Convegno degli Artisti promosso nell'Arcidiocesi di Siena-Colle di Val d'Elsa-Montalcino. Carissimi, vi ringrazio per la vostra visita, ed auspico di cuore che l'impegno artistico sia di stimolo per una sempre maggiore elevazione dello spirito a Dio.

Saluto anche i membri del gruppo delle Industrie Merloni e li ringrazio per la loro partecipazione.

Saluto poi i giovani, gli ammalati e gli sposi novelli.

L'odierna festa degli Arcangeli Michele, Gabriele e Raffaele e quella imminente dei santi Angeli Custodi, ci spingono a pensare alla provvida premura con cui Dio si occupa di ogni persona umana.

Sentite accanto a voi, cari giovani, la presenza degli Angeli e lasciatevi guidare da loro, affinché tutta la vostra vita sia ascolto docile della Parola di Dio e fedele esecuzione dei suoi comandamenti.

E voi, cari ammalati, aiutati dai vostri Angeli Custodi, unite le vostre sofferenze a quelle di Cristo per il rinnovamento spirituale dell'umana società.

Voi, infine, cari sposi novelli, ricorrete sovente all'aiuto dei vostri Angeli Custodi, affinché possiate crescere nella costante testimonianza di un amore autentico e rendiate la vostra famiglia luogo di reciproca comprensione e di crescente unità in Cristo.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

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