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Medieval Catholic practice makes comeback

Twin Cities churches offer indulgences

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MINNEAPOLIS -- One of the newest things in the Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest. Middle Ages old, to be exact.

Indulgences are back.

Unused for decades, the rites that the faithful believe wipe away punishment for sins are now being offered by 15 churches in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that have been designated as pilgrimage sites. While it has taken time to educate parishioners, things are picking up now that Lent is in full swing.

"The first phase involved teaching," said the Rev. Jon Vander Ploeg of the Catholic Church of Saint Paul, Minn., a pilgrimage site in Ham Lake. "But now we're getting a very good response."

An exact count isn't available because people seeking indulgences aren't required to check in. They go to a pilgrimage site and recite a set of prayers privately.

But considering the volume of unfamiliar faces the Rev. Thomas Wilson is seeing at All Saints Catholic Church in Lakeville, Minn., he says that indulgences are finding a widespread audience. "It's an important part of their spirituality."

That opinion is supported by postings on Internet blogs, where people write about finding "a sense of comfort, connection and renewed hope" and the security that comes from "reclaiming historical traditions in a time of uncertainty."

The Roman Catholic Church stopped granting indulgences as part of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. While many Catholics older than 50 consider their revival as a curious blast from the past, others welcome renewed focus on the ritual.

"We're seeing a resurgence in the interest of traditional piety, especially among the young," said the Rev. John Paul Erickson, director of the Archdiocese's Office of Worship. "The young faithful are excited about these" indulgences.

On the campus at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, student after student confirmed Erickson's view. In fact, St. Thomas junior Sarah Legatt not only knew about them, but she was also able to offer an explanation of the difference between an indulgence and a confession that was as succinct as anything offered by a priest.

"I think of it as a chalkboard," she said. "A confession is like erasing the board, which always leaves a little chalk dust behind. An indulgence is liking washing it with a wet rag."

The task of explaining indulgences in the Twin Cities area has been assigned to Erickson and his assistant, the Rev. Andrew Cozzens, who offers this analogy: "Say I steal something from someone. The consequence of that might be that the person I stole from is under distress, so he goes home and is mean to his family, and then they go out and are mean to other people. A web of bad emanates from the stealing.

"I go to confession and am forgiven by God for stealing. But what about all the other people that were hurt by my sin? How can I make up for that?"

One way is an indulgence, which the church describes as "a gift of self or goods."

You can't track down all the people you might have hurt to pay them back, Cozzens said, but you can "in effect, 'pay it forward.' The same way bad rippled out from what you did, good can ripple out."

In the early church, indulgences were a way to shorten or cancel one's time in purgatory, a place where Catholics believed they went after death until their sins were "purged away." But the system was subject to abuse, including con-men priests charging money to grant them. Indulgences were one of the major points of contention for Martin Luther during the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Catholic Church moved toward a more contemporary approach in the 1960s -- including the shelving of Latin mass and no-meat Fridays -- indulgences fell by the wayside.

"They were never officially abolished," Erickson said. "They just became a forgotten practice."

Their return now comes as part of Pope Benedict's proclamation about the Jubilee Year of St. Paul (the saint, not the city).

As part of the celebration of the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul's birth and coinciding with Lent, Archbishop John Nienstedt designated the 15 pilgrimage sites in the Twin Cities.

The Jubilee Year might be the framework, but the motivation runs deeper, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He argues that the underlying desire for indulgences was to get Catholics back in the habit of going to confession.

The late Pope John Paul II described an indulgence as "a happy incentive" for confession.

-- Star Tribune

What exactly is an indulgence?

For those who want to go straight to the source, there is the church's official Manual of Indulgences. It's 172 pages and available online for US$19.95. (You also can find copies at Amazon.com, where they're being offered for as little as US$12.52.)

There are two prerequisites for seeking an indulgence: You must be baptized and you must be in "full communion" with the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond that, there are five steps to follow:

Performing an act of love or devotion.

Having no attachment to sin.

Receiving communion.

Attending confession.

Saying prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father.

The Jubilee Year in honour of St. Paul, also called the Pauline Year, ends June 29. On that day, people seeking an indulgence can go to any Roman Catholic church.

-- Star Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2009 B9

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