Confusion Over Indulgences at St. Paul’s


Indulgences were common in medieval times in the Catholic Church and are gaining popularity again today. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/MCT)

Published: February 26, 2009

In the days of Geoffrey Chaucer, indulgences were sold to those who could afford them in an attempt to shorten the time they would spend in purgatory later on. The practice of selling indulgences ended soon after Martin Luther objected to it, though many assumed indulgences were gone altogether. Now, however, indulgences are receiving more attention than they have in centuries, and many are wondering why—and what their importance is.

A Feb. 9 New York Times article gave some readers the impression that indulgences had “returned” to the Catholic Church. Despite the fact that many Catholics and non-Catholics interpreted the article to mean that indulgences were being re-issued in the Church, in actuality, indulgences never went away.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, said, “Indulgences were never done away with. They may not have been as widely promoted for a while as they had been in the past, but it’s not as though they were done away with and then brought back.” Modern indulgences are not bought, and they usually consist of prayers.

The availability of church-given indulgences remains limited, because the authorization to offer indulgences must come from the Vatican. The only church in the New York Archdiocese to currently offer Pauline indulgences is Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s (FCLC) neighbor, St. Paul the Apostle.

Zwilling said, “[Indulgences are being offered at] the Church of St. Paul because this is a year devoted to St. Paul…People who wish to receive a plenary indulgence could receive it during this year [by visiting the Church of St. Paul].” Zwilling also noted that indulgences are offered at churches dedicated to Mary during Marian years and that indulgences are often “offered in connection with special church observances.”

Joan Cavanagh, associate director for Campus Ministry at FCLC, explained that indulgences lessen the time one will have to spend in purgatory as a result of his or her sins because unless people die in a perfect state—a “state of grace”—they will have to “do time” for their sins in purgatory.

Rev. Vincent DeCola, S.J., campus minister at FCLC, said, “Indulgences are intended to be a sacramental practice, [to make] you a better person. You don’t have to spend as much time in purgatory being purified because you purified yourself.”

DeCola compared indulgences to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit church. “Doing physical exercises on a regular basis tones your body. [The Church may be] promoting particular indulgences as a way to rally people, but indulgences are [exercises] you can do anywhere to tone up your spiritual self.” He described the indulgences offered by St. Paul’s as “certain [prayers or exercises] that they picked,” and said that indulgences don’t necessarily have to be authorized by the Church. Catholics can receive indulgences on their own by saying prayers. Both Cavanagh and DeCola stressed that confession is a prerequisite for receiving indulgences.

The Pauline year runs from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009, according to EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. It states that the Pauline indulgence can only be obtained by going to a church named for St. Paul and saying a series of prayers.

Why all the uproar about St. Paul’s indulgences? Katryn Hurtado, FCLC ’11, a classics major who is getting baptized this spring, said that she feels it is because indulgences have a “negative connotation”—derived from medieval times when indulgences were able to be bought and sold.

She said, “If people really look into what the church’s …stance is and what is actually involved in indulgences and getting an indulgence, there’s not really anything in it that’s backward or negative. It’s more the idea that people have of what an indulgence is that’s not really accurate.”

Helen Lee, FCLC ’11, agreed, saying “Indulgences have become a dirty word.” She continued, “All you have to do to get it is say a bunch of prayers. There’s no reason why you should feel that that is something wrong.” Lee said that now that she knows about the availability of indulgences at St. Paul’s, she will take advantage of the opportunity to receive them.

Rev. Gilbert Martinez, C.S.P., pastor at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, said that any regular churchgoer has likely been made aware of the availability of indulgences in the parish, but that there is no information on the church’s Web site about how to obtain an indulgence.

“You don’t hear much about it because [the giving of indulgences by churches as a result of performing specific exercises] has to be authorized by the [Vatican],” Martinez said. “We’re getting a lot of pilgrimage groups.” He noted that people have come from various parts of the city as well as New Jersey and “even further” in order to receive indulgences.

So why offer indulgences? Cavanagh said, “It’s an appeal to older Catholics. Most younger Catholics aren’t familiar with what [indulgences] are or what they were. For some people who are alienated from the Catholic Church, it might feel like there is no way back. [Indulgences might seem like] a second chance.”

Martinez says the increased popularity of indulgences is “a real sign of hope.” He said, “What it really says is that God is always trying to help us purify ourselves and come closer to him, helping us release from guilt.” He called seeking reconciliation by way of indulgence an “extension of the hope of God.”

Cavanagh said, “I don’t feel that [indulgences are a second chance] for me. Taking part in sacraments and having a prayer life is my way of keeping right relations with God.” She did add, however, that “any spiritual practice that helps you to grow closer to God is good.”