Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. In close connection with the sacrament of Penance, our
reflection today turns to a theme particularly related to the
celebration of the Jubilee: I am referring to the gift of
indulgences, which are offered in particular abundance during
the Jubilee Year, as indicated in the Bull Incarnationis
mysterium and the attached decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
It is a sensitive subject, which has suffered historical
misunderstandings that have had a negative impact on communion
between Christians. In the present ecumenical context, the
Church is aware of the need for this ancient practice to be
properly understood and accepted as a significant expression of
God's mercy. Experience shows, in fact, that indulgences are
sometimes received with superficial attitudes that ultimately
frustrate God's gift and cast a shadow on the very truths and
values taught by the Church.
2. The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the
abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The
crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has
offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the
possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1: 12-13) in the Holy
Spirit (cf. Gal 4: 6; Rom 5: 5; 8: 15-16).
However, in the logic of the covenant, which is the heart of the
whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach us without
our acceptance and response.
In the light of this principle, it is not difficult to
understand how reconciliation with God, although based on a free
and abundant offer of mercy, at the same time implies an arduous
process which involves the individual's personal effort and the
Church's sacramental work. For the forgiveness of sins committed
after Baptism, this process is centred on the sacrament of
Penance, but it continues after the sacramental celebration. The
person must be gradually "healed" of the negative effects which
sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the
"punishments" and "remains" of sin).
3. At first sight, to speak of punishment after sacramental
forgiveness might seem inconsistent. The Old Testament, however,
shows us how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after
forgiveness. God, after describing himself as "a God merciful
and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin",
adds: "yet not without punishing" (Ex 34: 6-7). In the Second
Book of Samuel, King David's humble confession after his grave
sin obtains God's forgiveness (cf. 2 Sm 12: 13), but not the
prevention of the foretold chastisement (cf. ibid., 12: 11; 16:
21). God's fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if
the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful
justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of
man's own good (cf. Heb 12: 4-11).
In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of
suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still
marked by those "remains" of sin which do not leave them totally
open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the
sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion towards
the fullness of love.
In this process God's mercy comes to his aid in special ways.
The temporal punishment itself serves as "medicine" to the
extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake
his own profound conversion. This is the meaning of the
"satisfaction" required in the sacrament of Penance.
4. The meaning of indulgences must be seen against this
background of man's total renewal by the grace of Christ the
Redeemer through the Church's ministry. They began historically
with the ancient Church's awareness of being able to express the
mercy of God by mitigating the canonical penances imposed for
the sacramental remission of sins. The mitigation was offset,
however, by personal and community obligations as a substitute
for the punishment's "medicinal" purpose.
We can now understand how an indulgence is "a remission before
God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has
already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly
disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the
action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption,
dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the
satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (Enchiridion
Indulgentiarum, Normae de Indulgentiis, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana, 1999, p. 21; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.
The Church has a treasury, then, which is "dispensed" as it were
through indulgences. This "distribution" should not be
understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were
speaking of "things". It is instead 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. In the unfathomable mystery of divine
wisdom, this gift of intercession can also benefit the faithful
departed, who receive its fruits in a way appropriate to their
5. We can see, then, how indulgences, far from being a sort of
"discount" on the duty of conversion, are instead an aid to its
prompt, generous and radical fulfilment. This is required to
such an extent that the spiritual condition for receiving a
plenary indulgence is the exclusion "of all attachment to sin,
even venial sin" (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, p. 25).
Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that we can receive
this gift by simply performing certain outward acts. On the
contrary, they are required as the expression and support of our
progress in conversion. They particularly show our faith in
God's mercy and in the marvellous reality of communion, which
Christ has achieved by indissolubly uniting the Church to
himself as his Body and Bride.