August 2 is the Feast of the Portiuncula, the “Little Portion” chapel used by Francis and his first followers. To celebrate the date of its dedication, Francis asked Pope Honorius III to extend an indulgence to those who celebrated with him. For those of you who need to brush the dust off your Enchiridion, let me explain—in a very abbreviated way—the general idea.
We humans sin. I do and, unless you’re one of about two people I can name, you do too. But God is merciful and the Church offers us many aids in finding that mercy (prayer and the sacraments, for starters). Once we have understood our sin, repented, and been absolved, though, there is still some unfinished business—temporal punishment. We usually think of this in terms of Purgatory. (It took St. Thomas Aquinas a good portion of volume 5 of the Summa to tackle indulgences; now that I’ve added Purgatory to the mix, we may never get to the end of this post. I will wait while you read the Summa.) Now that you understand that even the best among us require some sort of purification before we meet our Maker, and that an indulgence can shorten the time it takes to accomplish that purification, we can move on.
Indulgences had been around as long as the faith itself, but Francis did not settle for any old indulgence. I imagine his conversation with the pope went something like this:
F: I would like the Church to offer an indulgence to those who visit the Portiuncula on its feast day and say and do the usual things under the usual conditions.
PHIII: Yes, my son. To help your order become established, the Church is pleased to grant a partial indulgence as you ask, perhaps for ten years or so?
F: Not partial.
PHIII: What do you mean, “not partial”? All we have is partial.
PHIII: (popes generally have good vocabularies) Plenary. As in all. You want the Church to remit all the temporal punishment a person has racked up in a lifetime of human sinfulness. Just because someone has gone to the trouble to visit your chapel on a particular day.
F: Could we stretch it out a bit? Maybe they could visit and pray on the first Sunday in August, but have a little more time for confession and Communion. A week? Ish?
PHIII: Ish? Like 8 days?
F: And it might be hard for everyone to make it to this tiny church…. I know, we’ll make it valid for all Franciscan churches. No, wait: All churches.
PHIII: All churches?
F: Yes! But maybe there will be some people who have many loved ones in Purgatory, but few left in this life. They will need to be able to get more than one plenary indulgence.
PHIII: More than one. Plenary. Indulgence. How many do you think will be enough?
F: Well, it’s hard to say—we do get some big families! Let’s just leave it open-ended. People can have as many as they want.
PHIII: (gambling that Francis is just having him on) Won’t that create some safety issues, with all the sinners of the world popping in and out of churches for the next ten years? We wouldn’t want anyone to be injured.
F: Hmmm. Good point. Let’s stretch it past the ten years.
PHIII: (having lost aforementioned gamble) How…far…exactly were you thinking?
F: For all time to come!
PHIII: (popes are generally very smart) Deal.
Loosely thus, the Portiuncula Indulgence—the first plenary indulgence in Church history—was established and it’s the best deal you’ve probably never heard of. (Though I did exaggerate slightly. If you’re actually in Hell, this won’t help you. It would explain why you’re reading this interminably long blog post, though.) If you thought that indulgences were a thing of the past, you owe it to yourself to brush up on this scrumptious bit of theology (treasury of grace, anyone?)
In the meantime, get to church!
Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.