The Church has learned from experience that authentic popular devotions are an invaluable means of promoting an increased love of God. The important role of popular devotions was discussed at the Synod for America and received particular mention in Pope John Paul II's post-synodal apostolic exhortation The Church in America (Ecclesia in America):
The Synod Fathers stressed the urgency of discovering the true spiritual values present in popular religiosity, so that, enriched by genuine Catholic doctrine, it might lead to a sincere conversion and a practical exercise of charity. If properly guided, popular piety also leads the faithful to a deeper sense of their membership of the Church, increasing the fervor of their attachment and thus offering an effective response to the challenges of today's secularization. 54
As Pope Paul VI recognized, popular devotional practices can sometimes manifest certain limitations:
Popular religiosity of course certainly has its limits. It is often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions. It frequently remains at the level of forms of worship not involving a true acceptance by faith. It can even lead to the creation of sects and endanger the true ecclesial community. 55
This should not obscure, however, the great benefits to be derived from the practice of sound popular devotions. Pope Paul VI went on to say that if popular religiosity is well oriented, above all by a pedagogy of evangelization, it is rich in values. It manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of manifesting belief. It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the Cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion. . . . When it is well oriented, this popular religiosity can be more and more for multitudes of our people a true encounter with God in Jesus Christ. 56
A number of popular devotions have indulgences attached to them. Indeed, the fact that a particular devotion has an indulgence attached to it is an indication that this devotional practice has proven itself within the Church to be helpful in bringing people closer to God. Because of the close association between popular devotions and indulgences, a clear understanding of the Church's teaching on indulgences is necessary to appreciate the role of popular devotional practices in the life of the Church.
i. What are indulgences?
An indulgence does not confer grace. An indulgence is not a remission of the guilt due to sin. The guilt due to sin is ordinarily taken away by the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance (confession), in which we receive forgiveness for sins through Jesus Christ. Although guilt is taken away, and with it the eternal penalty that is due to sin,namely, damnation, the eternal loss of the presence of God,there remain consequences for sins that those who have committed them must bear. There is what is traditionally called the temporal punishment for sin.
By its very nature, every sin inevitably causes suffering for the one who has committed it. Every sinful act creates a disorder within the soul of the human person; it distorts our desires and affections, leaving us with "an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory." 57 Furthermore, sin disrupts one's relationships with God, with the Church, with other people, and with the world as a whole. The communion intended by God is damaged or lost. Those who have received forgiveness for their sins still have an obligation to undergo a difficult and painful process (the temporal penalty for sin) to be purified of the consequences of their sins and to restore the disrupted relationships. "While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace." 58 The necessary and painful process that brings restoration and purification can take place either in this life or in Purgatory, as whatever part of the process remains unfinished at death must be completed in Purgatory. 59
Through an indulgence, God grants the prayer of the Church that the temporal penalty for sin due to someone be reduced (or possibly eliminated). By God's grace, participation in a prayer or action that has an indulgence attached to it brings about the necessary restoration and reparation without the suffering that would normally accompany it. The granting of an indulgence by the Church is "the expression of the Church''s full confidence of being heard by the Father when,in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints,she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace." 60
ii. How can indulgences remove some or all of the temporal punishment for sin
It is because of the Communion of Saints that some or all of the temporal punishment for sin is removed. Although we always have to face the consequences of our sins in the form of the temporal punishment for sin,that is, the painful process of restoration and reparation,as members of the Body of Christ we are never simply on our own. We are linked with Christ and with the martyrs and saints and can benefit from their holiness in such a way as to be freed from at least a portion of the temporal punishment for sin. "In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others." 61
As a result of the communion that exists between Christ and all the members of the Church, the Church has a treasury of spiritual goods that is inexhaustible. The source of these spiritual goods is Christ. Pope Paul VI taught that this treasury of the Church is not to be likened to a centuries-old accumulation of material wealth. It means rather the limitless and inexhaustible value that the expiations and merits offered by Christ have in the eyes of God for the liberation of all humanity from sin and for the creation of communion with the Father. The treasury of the Church is Christ the Redeemer himself: in him the atonement and merit of his redemption exist and are at work. 62
Since the martyrs and saints have accomplished all that they have in union with Christ, this treasury also includes the value of all their prayers and good works. "As they followed Christ through the power of his grace, they became holy and they have accomplished a work pleasing to the Father. As a result, in working out their own salvation they have also contributed to the salvation of their co-members in Christ's Mystical Body." 63
Through her union with Christ, the Church has the authority to dispense this treasury. When the Church does this, in order to spur people to acts of piety and charity, the Church requires those who seek an indulgence to perform some good work or act of devotion. 64 Furthermore, for reception of a plenary indulgence, which grants the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, in addition to this good work or act of devotion, the Church specifies four conditions: (1) sacramental confession, (2) reception of Holy Communion, (3) prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father, and (4) complete detachment from all sin, even venial sin. 65 It must not be thought, however, that such acts of ours are somehow of themselves sufficient to earn the remission of the temporal punishment for sins. Our efforts, themselves the work of God's grace, express our openness to receive God's mercy. In the work of our salvation, it is always God's grace that is primary, with a power that far exceeds all our efforts.
iii. How can we help the deceased through indulgences?
Just as it is because of the Communion of Saints within the Body of Christ that the Church can grant an indulgence to someone, it is likewise because of the Communion of Saints that one person can obtain an indulgence for someone who has died in order to reduce his or her temporal punishment in Purgatory. We the living are not separated from the faithful departed by death and can still do things for their benefit. As Pope John Paul II has pointed out, "the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others,living or dead,to become ever more intimately united with the Father in heaven." 66 At the same time, all of us in the Communion of Saints need to recognize that whatever help we can give each other ultimately comes not from ourselves but from Christ. "For when the faithful gain indulgences they realize that by their own powers they cannot atone for the evil that they have afflicted upon themselves and the entire community by sinning; they therefore are moved to a healthy humility." 67
For Further Reading
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (December 2001).
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Message of Fatima (June 26, 2000). In Origins 30:8 (July 6, 2000): 113-124.
Pope John Paul II. Apostolic letter On the Most Holy Rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae) (October 16, 2002).
Pope Paul VI. Apostolic exhortation For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Marialis Cultus) (February 2, 1974).
Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina) (January 1, 1967).
1Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), no. 7, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003): "Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members."
2Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7.
3Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10.
4Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 12. See 1 Thes 5:17.
5Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), no. 1675.
6Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 13.
7 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic letter On the Most Holy Rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae) (October 16, 2002) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002), no. 43.
8 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical letter On the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei) (November 20, 1947), no. 175, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003).
9 Pope John Paul II, Post-synodal apostolic exhortation The Church in America (Ecclesia in America) (January 22, 1999) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999), no. 16, quoting Propositio 21.
10 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (December 2001), no. 50, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003).
11Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 13.
12Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, no. 58.
13 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic exhortation For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Marialis Cultus) (February 2, 1974), no. 31, in Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops-Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1974) 22-23: "What is needed on the part of the leaders of the local communities is effort, pastoral sensitivity and perseverance, while the faithful on their part must show a willingness to accept guidelines and ideas drawn from the true nature of Christian worship; this sometimes makes it necessary to change long-standing customs wherein the real nature of this Christian worship has become somewhat obscured."
14Marialis Cultus, no. 31.
15Marialis Cultus, no. 31.
16Marialis Cultus, no. 31.
17Marialis Cultus, no. 30.
18Marialis Cultus, no. 31.
19On the Most Holy Rosary, no. 29.
20On the Most Holy Rosary, no. 29.
21Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, no. 63.
22 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Message of Fatima (June 26, 2000), in Origins 30:8 (July 6, 2000): 121.
23The Church in America, no. 16.
24The Church in America, no. 16.
25The Church in America, no. 16.
26Marialis Cultus, no. 36.
27 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), no. 49, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003): "For all who are in Christ, having His Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in Him. Therefore the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods."
28Lumen Gentium, no. 49.
29Lumen Gentium, no. 50.
30Lumen Gentium, no. 50.
31Lumen Gentium, no. 53.
32Lumen Gentium, no. 56: "Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she 'being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.'"
33Lumen Gentium, no. 66.
34 "Latreutic" worship is divine worship in the strict sense, the adoration given to God alone, as opposed to dulia, which is the veneration given to the angels and saints.
35Lumen Gentium, no. 51.
36Lumen Gentium, no. 60.
37Lumen Gentium, no. 62.
38Lumen Gentium, no. 60.
39The Message of Fatima, 120.
40 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), no. 10, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003).
41The Message of Fatima, 120. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 66.
42Dei Verbum, no. 4.
43The Message of Fatima, 121.
44 The Congregation quotes the statement from the treatise by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (who became Pope Benedict XIV) regarding private revelation: "An assent of Catholic faith is not due to revelations approved in this way; it is not even possible. These revelations seek rather an assent of human faith in keeping with the requirements of prudence, which puts them before us as probable and credible to piety" ( The Message of Fatima, 121).
45 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pastoral letter Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith (November 21, 1973), no. 100, in Pastoral Letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, Volume III, 1962-1974 (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1983).
46The Message of Fatima, 121.
47Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 67.
48The Message of Fatima, 121.
49The Message of Fatima, 121. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 67: "Christian faith cannot accept 'revelations' that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such 'revelations.'"
50Lumen Gentium, no. 23.
51 See Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, nos. 21, 84, and 92.
52 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical letter On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) (December 30, 1987) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988), no. 38.
53Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1397.
54The Church in America, no. 16.
55 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi) (December 8, 1975) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1975), no. 48.
56On Evangelization in the Modern World, no. 48.
57Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1472.
58Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1473.
59 The pains of Purgatory are, to be sure, "a purification altogether different from the punishment of the damned." Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions Regarding Eschatology,Recentiores Episcoporum Synodi (Epistola de Quibusdam Quaestionibus ad Eschatologiam Spectantibus) (May 17, 1979): Acta Apostolicae Sedis 71 (1979), 939-943.
60 Pope John Paul II, General audience (September 29, 1999), no. 4, http://www.vatican.va (accessed September 2003).
61Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1475.
62 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina) (January 1, 1967), no. 5, in Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982), 999.
63Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, no. 5.
64Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1478.
65Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, Norm 7.
66 Pope John Paul II, Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 (Incarnationis Mysterium) (November 29, 1998) (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999), no. 10.
67Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, no. 9.
Popular Devotional Practices: Basic Questions and Answers was developed by the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It was approved for publication by the full body of bishops at their November 2003 General Meeting and has been authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Msgr. William P. Fay
General Secretary, USCCB
Scripture texts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, copyright © 1991, 1986, and 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. 20017, and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All rights reserved.
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