Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Indulgences and Time in Purgatory

In a comment James R. asks about how "time" can be said to exist in Purgatory, since Purgatory, like Heaven and Hell, is a state of being. I think he is refering here to an old custom of referring to a five-day indulgence, or a three-year indulgence.

In Catholic theology the time measure in such indulgences does not refer to any passing period, but it is clear that many of the faithful were confused. In recent teaching there are now only plenary and partial indulgences, not ones callibrated in terms of days, weeks, years, etc. It's worth mentioning that it is not that hard to get a plenary indulgence: if my memory is correct, saying a rosary (5 decades) in public, or in the family obtains a plenary indulgence, as does reading the Bible for at least 15 minutes each day for a month. [The rules require three other things - 1. to go to confession within a reasonable time, 2. To receive communion at mass within a reasonable time, 3. to pray for the pope's intentions.]

This time measurement aspect of indulgences is actually a transfer from the "mid middle ages," an era when lists of sins and penences - the penitentials - assigned specific canonical penances for each sin in terms of a period of time of canonical penance. At an early stage in western church history, serious sinners (adulterers, murderers, etc.) who were penitent had been required to stay away from church for up to several years. Canonical penance in the penitentials was considerably less severe. Usually it meant living on bread and water - so a penance of 5 days would mean 5 days on bread and water.

Later on, when the notion of indulgences was developped, a given partial indulgence would be said to be equal to doing canonical penance for 5 days. Usually this was abbreviated to a 5 day indulgence. Eventually, and not surprisingly, in the popular mind this came to be seen as referring to periods of time in purgatory.

No comments: