Also time spent in shopping malls, or at the dentist, or reviewing Dan Brown novels should be good for years, if not centuries, off purgatory.
However, some folks have honest questions and concerns about purgatory, so they write me:
I have a two-fold question for you concerning Pope Francis granting indulgences for those who follow him on Twitter.
1. A friend of mine asks the following, and I don’t have a great answer for them (partly because of my own struggles with the concept of indulgences):
“The pope is knocking off years in Purgatory just for following him on Twitter. That doesn’t quite feel right to me. Why would God care about Twitter and how does this aid people in nurturing their faith?”
Actually, it’s not that simple. Fr. James Martin explains it all for you.
That is, it’s not enough simply to follow the pope on Twitter. It’s not even enough to check his Twitter feed frequently. You need to be (a) contrite, (b) trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live and (c) performing these acts with “due devotion.”
In other words, the Vatican is clearly referring to prayerful participation in these events by men and women who could not otherwise go, through the various “new means of social communication.”
An example: A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. After I told her that I would pray for her, I mentioned that the shrine of Lourdes had a 24-hour webcam in the famous Grotto, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared in 1858.
She e-mailed me a few days later to say that “visiting” the Grotto, via the web, had helped her to pray. It brought her a great sense of peace. This is the kind of “due devotion” that the Vatican has in mind, despite what the headlines might say.
My reader continues:
2. My own questions about indulgences: If the Church has the authority to remit the temporal punishment of a person’s sins (Purgatory), why would She put limits on who receives that grace and not just offer it to all of the sincerely repentant at the Sacrament of Confession? I really appreciate the Catholic understanding of Purgatory. While painful (in some way), I see it as a place of profound healing with Jesus waiting for us on the other side. In other words, I see Purgatory as a place that is ultimately good because it cleanses one of the effects of sin, a cleansing that we all seek. But if it is a good place, why would the Church, by offering a “free pass,” not desire all of those who need this cleansing to go there? I am very open to the idea that my understanding of indulgences and Purgatory is wrong, but I have yet to come across good answers to my questions. Your wisdom would be appreciated.
As it happens, I have written piece on both Purgatory and Indulgences. You are right that Purgatory is basically about completion of the process of sanctification. As to indulgences, if you believe that God mediates spiritual gifts to the world through creatures at all, you are already have the answer to your difficulties about indulgences, since exactly the same principle applies when a priest gives a sacrament to one but not another, or God sends his Son to one geographic location but not another. God gives his creatures gifts, which they in turn mediate to others. Indulgences are a minor manifestation of the principle that God gives spiritual gifts through his Church. They are not to be bought (that is simony, the attempt to purchase grace) but are better thought of as scholarships for people who want to study holiness. The Church can, and has, attached them to all sorts of minor pious acts such as reading the Bible for 15 minutes. In this case, the pious act is “taking the time to listen to what the Pope has to say.” It’s not “earning the grace of God” but simply one manifestation of the fact that God communicates grace in a human way through human beings.