Enjoying a Sunday afternoon with a couple of friends, the conversation turned, as it usually does, to matters spiritual. We talked about Medjugorje (far too much was said to recount here, but all in a spirit of charity), which lead to a brief chat about the new Brown Scapular one of them had just received. He's a fairly recent convert to Catholicism, and a guy of such good humour, honest nature, and a real working-man (an electrician), that I always imagine he'd have been in his element 'talking shop' with those other holy working-men, the Apostles.
It turns out that none of us knew very much about the Brown Scapular, other than it was something to do with the Carmelites. The guy who'd given it to him had told him that if you die whilst wearing, you go straight to Heaven, at which point I made the 'wrong answer' noise from Family Fortunes [errrhhh-uurrrhhh!]. A quick check on the Carmelites' website revealed, as I suspected, that this is nonsense and that they've taken pains to distance themselves from the silly superstitions which have become attached to this devotion, which is almost as old as the Rosary. I also discovered that it's an English devotion of sorts, so naturally I'm all for it.
Something the guy told my friend which was true, however, was that an indulgence could be gained by kissing the Scapular. Unfortunately, you have to be formally enrolled in the Scapular to gain this indulgence, and I get the impression that the guy gave it to him as some sort of 'good luck charm', or the Catholic equivalent at any rate. Needless to say, my friend "just started wearing in" but didn't know any of this at the time.
On the plus side, it did lead him to ask about indulgences, about which he knew even less than the scapular he'd been wearing for weeks. Certainly, this is one of those topics, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or Galileo, about which so many lies have been spread by critics of the Church, and for so long, that even Catholics think they must be true (indulgences are "buying your way out of Hell" etc...). That being the case, it's more important than ever for us Catholics to understand precisely what an Indulgence is, and what it is not, and more important still, to make them part of our practice of the Faith.
The Church's teaching on Indulgences is clearly laid out in the Catechism, 1471-1479. However, this is all theological language, and can be difficult for some. This is how I explained it...
Imagine you're playing football outside in the garden of the house which is owned by your friend, in which you rent a room, and you're having so much fun you start to get carried away. Perhaps you even think to yourself, "I should calm down a bit. This could all end in tears," but you're having such a good time, you don't listen to Jimminy Cricket, and so, almost inevitably, you end up breaking your friend's window. [This is the act of sin].
However, two things are actually broken now - the window, and your friendship with your friend. After all, it was your fault, and you were being silly. [cf. CCC 1472 - sin deprives us of communion/friendship with God, which is called 'eternal punishment due to sin', and also has here-and-now consequences, which is called 'temporal punishment'.]
So, seeing the damage you've caused, you apologise profusely, promise not to behave like an animal in or around their house again, and being merciful, your friend forgives you, and your friendship is restored [the same happens through the Sacrament of Confession; we ask forgiveness for our sins, and God forgives us, and so we are spared the eternal punishment due to the sins we've just confessed, and are restored to friendship with God].
However, as nice as it is that you're on friendly terms again, none of that fixes the broken window. Someone is going to have to pay for it, and in all fairness (a better word is 'justice'), it should be you - you broke it, you pay for it. It's not a penalty, or a harsh fine that's being inflicted on you, it's the debt you owe as a direct result of your carelessness [cf. CCC 1473 - "sufferings and trials of all kinds" come our way as a direct result of our sinful actions. The Christian should accept these as a grace, an opportunity to pay our debt, even taking up works of mercy, penances, and prayer as well, as a way to grow spiritually so as to avoid sinning in the future].
As it happens, you're in luck, because you know that your friend has put by a fund for just such an occasion. It turns out, that through your friend's contributions, and the contributions of lots of others who've lived in the house before you, there's lots of money in the fund, and all you need to do is apply for it, and the window will be fixed lickety-split [cf CCC 1476-77. This is the act of gaining the Indulgence, whereby our temporal punishment due to sin is remitted, 'paid for' by the merits of Christ and the saints from the Treasury of Merit.]
That, in a nutshell, is the process and purpose of Indulgences, yet more does need to be said. In the next post, we'll look at two of the most common objections to Indulgences, and then see on what basis the Church holds to this doctrine.