Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. There is a subject which is intimately related to the Sacrament of
Penance, and which is especially connected to the celebration of the
Jubilee: the topic is the gift of indulgences, which will be offered in
particular abundance during the Jubilee Year of 2000, as described in the
Papal Bull "Incarnationis Mysterium" and in the related instructions of the
This is a delicate topic, not lacking in historical misunderstandings which
have had a negative impact on Christian communion. The Church recognizes
how important it is in the current ecumenical context for this ancient
practice to be well understood and accepted as the meaningful expression of
the mercy of God which it was intended to be. In fact, experience tells us
that indulgences have at times been used with superficial attitudes, which
degrades the gift of God, obscuring its truth and values proposed by the
teaching of the Church.
2. The point of departure for understanding indulgences is the abundance of
God's mercy, made manifest in the cross of Christ. Jesus crucified is the
greatest "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity, allowing the
forgiveness of sins and the possibility of filial life (cf Jn 1:12-13) in
the Holy Spirit (cf Gal 4:6; Rm 5:5; 8:15-16).
However, this gift, in the logic of the covenant that is the heart of the
entire economy of salvation, does not reach us without our acceptance and
In light of this principle it is not difficult to understand how
reconciliation with God, freely offered and rich in mercy, implies at the
same time a laborious process, which involves man's personal responsibility
and the Church's sacramental mandate. For the pardon of those sins
committed after baptism, this process is centered on the sacrament of
Penance, but is also developed after its celebration. In fact, man must be
progressively "cleansed" of the negative consequences that sin has produced
in him (and which the theological tradition calls "penalties" and
"residues" of sin).
3. At first glance, speaking of penalties after sacramental pardon could
seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however, shows us how it is normal to
undergo reparation penalties after the pardon. In fact, after calling
himself a "merciful and compassionate God ... who forgives faults,
transgressions and sins", God adds: "but not without punishment" (Ez 34:
6-7). In the second book of Samuel, the humble confession of King David
following his grave sin obtains for him the God's forgiveness (cf 2 Sam
12:13), but not the suppression of his punishment (cf 2 Sam 12:13). The
paternal love of God does not exclude punishment, though it is always
included within a merciful justice which works for the good of man by
re-establishing the order violated by sin (cf Eb 12:4-11).
In this context, temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering
of he who is both reconciled to God and still marked by the "residue" of
sin, and thereby unable to be fully open himself to grace. Precisely in
view of this complete healing, the sinner is called to embark on a road of
purification towards the fullness of love.
On this road the mercy of God meets us with its special assistance. The
same temporal punishment is "medicinal" according to the extent that man
lets it work towards his deep conversion. This is also the meaning of the
"satisfaction" required in the sacrament of Penance.
4. The meaning of indulgences must be understood within this horizon of the
total renewal of man in virtue of the grace of Christ the Redeemer, through
the ministry of the Church. Indulgences have their historical origin in the
ancient Church's awareness of being able to express the mercy of God by
lessening the canonical penance required for the sacramental remission of
sins. However, this mitigation was always balanced by personal and
communitarian responsibility, which would take on, by way of substitution,
the "medicinal" function of the penalty.
Now we can understand how indulgences were intended as the "remission
before God of the temporal punishment for sins, the blame for which already
having been removed, that the faithful, duly disposed and according to the
determined conditions, acquire through the Church's intervention. The
Church acts as the minister of redemption, authoritatively dispensing and
applying the treasury of the satisfaction of Christ and the Saints"
(Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, Normae de Indulgentiis, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana 1999, p. 21; cf Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471).
Therefore the Church has a treasury from which it "dispenses" by means of
indulgences. Such "distribution" is not meant as a sort of automatic
transferal, as if they were "things". It is rather an expression of the
Church's full faith in being heard by the Father when -- in view of the
merits of Christ and, as his gift, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the
Saints -- it asks Him to mitigate or annul the sorrowful aspect of the
penalty, stressing the medicinal aspect of the way of grace. In the
unfathomable mystery of divine wisdom, this gift of intercession can
benefit even the faithfully departed, who receive its fruits in according
to their condition.
5. It is therefore clear that, far from being a sort of "discount" for the
obligations of conversion, indulgences instead are an aid to carry out
those obligations more quickly, generously and radically. To receive a
plenary indulgence a spiritual disposition is required that excludes "every
affection towards all sin, even venial" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, p. 25).
It would be a mistake to think that this gift can be received by simply
carrying out some exterior deed. On the contrary, the deeds are required as
an expression and support on the road to conversion. In particular they
manifest the faith in God's abundant mercy and in the wonderful reality of
communion that Christ has realized, indissolubly uniting the Church to
Himself as His Body and His Spouse.