In this Year of Mercy, the Lenten season will be a time for Catholics to reflect on the meaning of mercy and the importance of forgiveness, both of which have a long tradition in the Church. According to Pope Francis, in this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy the sacrament of reconciliation becomes more important than ever, with indulgences granted.
Father Czeslaw Krysa, rector of St. Casimir Church in Buffalo and director of the Diocesan Office of Worship, cites the significance of indulgences in Lent and the Year of Mercy, placing particular emphasis on the fact that "indulgences" in modern usage are not the same as the negative connotation the word has had when associated with the Protestant Reformation.
"Because of our school system, whatever it be, people go back to selling indulgences and what caused the Reformation," Father Krysa said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with that, nothing at all. It has to do with, in contemporary words, the most intensive dose of God's grace, or God's love and His loving kindness, that God can give a person who is seeking it."
According to Pope Francis, who wrote about this in "Vultus Misericordiae," a Jubilee involves granting of indulgences, which are an important, but somewhat overlooked component of the Year of Mercy.
"This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy," Pope Francis wrote in this papal bull. "God's forgiveness knows no bounds. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes even more evident His love and its power to destroy all human sin. Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church."
Although Catholics go to confession and are forgiven, Father Krysa said sin is often not something that happens on only one occasion, but is an aspect of human weakness that frequently repeats itself. He said Pope Francis applies the concept of indulgences to a "strengthening grace" that, when consciously and intentionally received, helps people overcome their weaknesses.
"It goes beyond the actual forgiveness. It actually looks to God's strength to overcome," Father Krysa said. "Instead of just a firm desire of amendment - in confession, a person goes, 'I'm going to make a firm desire of change,' but that sheds light on the person's initiative. Here, Francis is showing God's strength and power to overcome and to actually help the person making a firm desire of amendment."
Today, indulgences are either partial or plenary. A partial indulgence is focused on a particular event of weakness or action. Plenary indulgences are a carte blanche forgiveness that can be applied to one's entire life situation. Plenary indulgences are received when a person goes on a pilgrimage and has three actions: walking through the door with intent of receiving the indulgence, going to confession and praying for the intention of the Holy Father. This is also where symbolism of the Door of Mercy comes into play.
"That's what's involved in visiting, or going on pilgrimage to one of the churches that are designated with the holy doors of forgiveness," Father Krysa said. "The pilgrimage aspect, the action would be going on pilgrimage to a particular place, not necessarily walking through the door. Walking through the door is mostly in the context of a holy year like this. It usually means a permanent door in the church that is designated just for that reason - all of the major basilicas in Rome have a door, which the pope opened."
According to Father Krysa, this is an opportunity for prayer and forgiveness. When done with a "good confession of true, full spirit," people receive all the grace in which God can forgive in order to strengthen people in their weakness, which he refers to as a "beautiful experience."
Pope Francis also wrote that while Catholics are called to live perfect lives, this is not possible due to human fallibility and people often feel burdened by some of their negative actions, even after going to confessions and being absolved of these in the eyes of the Church. However, the pope wrote that God's mercy is stronger than this and He forgives sin, which He "truly blots out."
Pope Francis explained that "To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, which bestows upon all the fruits of Christ's redemption so God's love and forgiveness may extend everywhere. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful 'indulgence.'"
Father Krysa said to look at it as Christ having two hands. He said one of these is the sacramental hand of the Church. The other hand is one of mercy to other people, so Catholics are called to use this mercy to help and give to others. In this sense it has a social justice aspect rather than just an individual one.
"'I received an indulgence.' Okay, now what are you doing with it?" Father Krysa asked. "Most of it talks about giving, and that giving can come from anybody: the needy in the world, a simple lifestyle, to interreligious dialogue and understanding amongst other religions, Pope Francis' whole take on the appropriate use of the world's resources as well, all of that. It's all what we're doing with this grace, this indulgence that we've received. It really is an exciting, energizing dynamism that we're talking about when we're talking about an indulgence, more than just a wiping away of a couple of days from a prayer book."