The “Butterfly Effect”: Indulgences a way mercy is applied to sin’s unseen effects

Indulgences a way mercy is applied to sin’s unseen effects

By Bishop Robert Vasa/Bishop of Baker, Oregon

BEND – While you are reading this, I hope to back in the United States. I hope to have returned safely from Australia and I hope to have had a very positive and uplifting experience with the Holy Father in Sydney. I hope all of these things because, as of the time of this writing, I have not yet boarded the plane for the southern hemisphere. As the time for that embarkation nears I find that I am more and more hopeful and possibly even a little excited. While I do not travel well it has been my experience that travel is enriching and rewarding. One of the spiritual benefits of travel is the opportunity to break out of some of the encrusted ways of thinking that can adversely afflict us. This would entail a fracturing of some of the provincial or “parochial” modes of thinking to which we are all susceptible.

This can entail a kind of “conversion.” It requires an openness to God’s grace, an openness to a fresh reading of the Gospels and an openness to the teachings of the Catholic Church. While travel is not absolutely essential to this conversion process it does seem to play an important part. At least a part of the Church’s notion of pilgrimage is the physical action of going from one place to another, from one state of mind to another, from one spiritual state to another. The movement is symbolic of the spiritual journey which often coincides with the physical journey.

This year, from June 2008 through June 2009, has been designated by the Holy Father as the Year of Saint Paul. It is also designated as a “Pilgrimage Year” in that various churches both in the Diocese of Baker and in every diocese of the United States have been designated by the respective bishops as “Pilgrimage Churches.” Here in the Diocese of Baker the churches include Saint Francis de Sales Cathedral in Baker City; Saint Francis of Assisi in Bend, the downtown Church; Holy Family in Burns; Saint Patrick in Heppner; Sacred Heart in Klamath Falls; Saint Patrick in Lakeview; Blessed Sacrament in Ontario; and Saint Peter in The Dalles.

Information has been sent to every pastor and occasional reminders will be generated throughout this Year of Saint Paul about the possibility of gaining a plenary indulgence on the occasion of a prayerful visit to one of these churches with the fulfillment of designated spiritual works including recent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, reception of Holy Communion and prayers for the Holy Father.

There is perhaps some concern raised the moment the Church begins to make reference to “indulgences” since the concept is frightfully plagued by rumors, innuendoes, misconceptions, myths, lies and accusations. First, a definition: An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins, whose guilt is forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and clearly defined conditions through the intervention of the Church, which, as the minister of Redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the expiatory works of Christ and the saints. The concept of indulgences requires an acceptance of the existence of purgatory since it is in purgatory that the “temporal punishment for sins whose guilt is forgiven” is worked out.

To some this may sound like forgiven does not mean forgiven at all. Perhaps examples will help. Imagine that you broke a window on purpose out of anger and spite. Imagine the subsequent sadness, sorrow, remorse and then a resolve to go to confession but the window is still broken. In confession the sin is forgiven but the window is still broken. The priest will indicate the need to make restitution for the broken window and you may well anonymously send $20 to the owner of the now broken window but the window is still broken. Then you die with all your sins forgiven and restitution having been made but the window is still broken. The need to fix the window which you broke is a part of the “temporal punishment due to sin.”

There may also be some residual delight in having vented your spleen on your neighbor via his window and this too needs yet to be spiritually resolved. Imagine also the intangibles which may flow from your initial action. Perhaps the father comes home to find the window broken and wrongly blames and punishes one of his own children for the breakage. Who is responsible for that subsequent spiritual harm? Certainly the father is uniquely responsible but you have played an unintentional and unwitting part. The innocent child could well look at you and say that it was all your fault, and, in some sense, he would be entirely right. How do we make spiritual amends for all of the unseen and unintended consequences of our sinful actions? While responsibility to “make amends” is required, the truth is that it is impossible for us to have any genuinely accurate idea of the vast ramifications of our sins.

There is a science fiction theory known as the “butterfly effect” which posits that something as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings in South America impacts to the tiniest degree on the air currents and participates, in some miniscule fashion, in the formation or direction of a subsequent hurricane. Every sin participates in a real and spiritual “butterfly effect” for which the perpetrator of the sin is partially responsible. You will be thrown into prison (purgatory) until the last element of the debt is paid.

If the actions required to gain the plenary indulgence were merely perfunctory then this would seem to be rather “mercenary.” One of the requirements, however, is an authentic freedom from any and all attachment to sin, even venial sin.

Now, being free from sin after confession is a lot different than being free from an attachment to venial sin. Yet the Church is quite explicit: “It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete – the indulgence will only be partial.”

The pilgrimage to Australia will be spiritually enriching but your interior graced pilgrimage and your pilgrimages to your Diocesan “Year of Saint Paul” sites can likewise be opportunities for grace and conversion. Remember the “butterfly effect.”

The Catholic Sentinel

Photo Hattip – Pierre Pouliquin


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