We were taught about partial and plenary indulgences, and in the front of our trusty Baltimore Catechism were pages of common prayers which listed the partial indulgence, if any, attributed to the prayer. The indulgence of each prayer, if any, was in a stated duration of physical penance ranging from 300 days to 10 Years. Although I did not know this at the time, I believe that the technical name for these durations was “the determination of days and years”, but that term was absent from my Baltimore Catechism.
When I think of physical penance, I think of the fifth century. I am thinking of myself kneeling outside of the cathedral, on the cobblestones, in the middle of winter, in the snow, wearing sackcloth and ashes, renouncing my sins and asking forgiveness of all who pass. And I’m not even going to discuss the pigeons. Hey, that’s tough stuff!
Those members of my class who were destined to become MBA’s in later years quickly concluded that the most indulgence for the least amount of effort consisted in repeatedly praying the ejaculation, “My Jesus, Mercy”. Three words of a total of five syllables were good for 300 days! There was a girl who sat near me in class who kept a book of strokes and slashes indicating the count of her “My Jesus, Mercies”. Whenever, Sister Mary Inviolata, I.H.M. took leave of the class, usually to pow wow with another sister in the hall outside the classroom, that book of hash marks came out and got updated.
In my opinion, the selection of “My Jesus, Mercy” by my third grade class as the go to prayer demonstrated remarkable discernment. The beloved bishop Fulton Sheen once related the story of a man dying of “cancer of the face” who remained, upon his death bed, unrepentant. After refusing the opportunity to confess his sins and receive Viaticum, he ordered Sheen out of his hospital room. Sheen’s last words to the man were “Before you die tonight; please do one thing for me; say ‘My Jesus, Mercy’”. It was later reported to Sheen that after he had left the room, the dying man said the prayer, and then continued repeating it until the time of his death hours later.
Unfortunately, my third grade Baltimore catechism is long gone, but, recently, I was able to obtain an actual Baltimore Catechism No. 3 with a copyright date of 1957. The following information is gleaned from the sections on prayers and on prayers said after mass:
• These prayers are listed without indulgences:
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The Hail Mary
- The Glory Be to the Father
- The Apostles’ Creed
- The Confiteor
- The Morning Offering
- The Regina Coeli (see also below)
• All the prayers referred to as the acts (Faith, Hope, Charity and Contrition) are indulgenced. (3 years)
• The sign of the cross is indulgenced. (3 years. With holy water, 7 years.) [I have heard the argument that it is unnecessary to make the sign of the cross with holy water upon leaving the church. This argument ignores the fact that even if we leave church in a sinless state, the temporal punishment due to sin remains and by blessing ourselves as we leave the church some of that temporal punishment is removed.]
• Hail Holy Queen ( 5 years)
So what about that ten year indulgence?
There were three prayers listed with ten year indulgences:
- The Saint Michael Prayer – The famous prayer of Pope Leo XIII, and, when I was a kid, it was said immediately after every mass.
- The Angelus -- The Angelus is a prayer said specifically at 6 am, noon and 6 pm. Ten years indulgence for each recitation amounts to 30 years a day. That’s a lifetime of physical penance for an early middle ages kind of guy or gal, and probably a few lifetimes for you or me. (How long do you think you would last out there on the cobblestones?)
- The Regina Coeli when said at Eastertide in place of the Angelus.
While, in the Fifties, Sister Mary Inviolata’s third grade class had a very clear picture of what those days and years meant and how they related to physical penance which is performed here on earth, by the time we get to the Sixties the perception of the durations morphed from days of physical penance here on earth into days off from purgatory. So three hundred days of physical penance morphs directly into three hundred days off from a sentence to purgatory? I don’t think so. But what does it mean to spend a day in purgatory? I contend that, you cannot answer that question unless you have been there and done that, and if you have been there and done that then what are you doing here? The important thing worth noting is that the people’s perceptions changed, either due to misunderstanding or poor catechesis, but the teaching never did!
No matter, because in 1968 Pope Paul VI removed the days and years from all partial indulgences.
The document that did this was entitled “INDULGENTIARUM DOCTRINA (Apostolic Constitution On Indulgences)”. You can find it here.
What follows is from chapter five section 12 paragraph 4:
Regarding partial indulgences, with the abolishment of the former determination of days and years, a new norm or measurement has been established which takes into consideration the action itself of the faithful Christian who performs a work to which an indulgence is attached.
It would be nice to have a metric; metrics allow for rational decision making. The above paragraph seems to hint at a new norm or measurement, but consider the very next paragraph in the document:
Since by their acts the faithful can obtain, in addition to the merit which is the principal fruit of the act, a further remission of temporal punishment in proportion to the degree to which the charity of the one performing the act is greater, and in proportion to the degree to which the act itself is performed in a more perfect way, it has been considered fitting that this remission of temporal punishment which the Christian faithful acquire through an action should serve as the measurement for the remission of punishment which the ecclesiastical authority bountifully adds by way of partial indulgence.
Somehow, that wasn’t the kind of metric I was expecting.
The last two sections of the encyclical are devoted to Norms. Here is N-13:
n.13—The Enchiridion Indulgentiarium [collection of indulgenced prayers and works] is to be revised with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity and penance.
At the very end of that document, “Enchiridion of Indulgences”, in an appendix, appears the following section:
APPENDIX: PIOUS INVOCATIONS
In regard to any invocation, the following observations are to be noted:
1) An invocation, as far as indulgences are concerned, is no longer considered a work, distinct and complete in itself, but as complementing an action, by which the faithful raise their heart and mind with humble confidence to God in performing their duties or bearing the trials of life. Hence, a pious invocation perfects the inward elevation; both together are as a precious jewel joined to one's ordinary actions to adorn them, as salt added to them to season them properly.
A bit further down in this section is the only reference to my third grade prayer that can be found in the entire document:
Examples of Invocations in Customary Use [Other invocations, as expressed in the vernacular, may be found in commonly used prayer-books. For example, in English, My Jesus, mercy (proposed by St. Leonard of Port Maurice); …]
I was able to find an example in keeping with the spirit of the Enchiridion of Indulgences, you can find it here . If you take the link you will discover that my little third grade prayer has become the responsorial line in a litany, and I suppose there it fulfills its role as salt, but I cannot help thinking that, sadly, its best years are behind it. Litanies are great when recited en masse by the faithful, and everybody is on the same page, but they are not simple prayers. Quick now! How many litanies can you recite from memory? The days may well be gone when such a simple prayer could stir the imagination of a third grade class, or save the soul of a sinner on his deathbed.
“…Ask and you will receive…”—Jn 16:24. Within hours of finishing the paragraph where I asked about spending a day in purgatory, I found myself in the back of St. Peter’s in LeRoy scanning the pamphlet racks. A title caught my eye – “Heaven, Hell and Purgatory according to passages from the diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905 – 1938)”. I took a well thumbed copy which appeared to be the last one from the slot. In the section of this pamphlet titled “Purgatory”, St. Faustina is ordered by her Guardian Angel to follow the angel into Purgatory where she meets with some of the holy souls who suffer there. Afterwards, she is summoned to the judgment seat of God where she is allowed to see the complete condition of her soul. Now, keep in mind the remark attributed to Bishop Sheen about hearing nuns' confessions being akin to being stoned to death with popcorn. Jesus tells her, “You are guilty of one day of fire in purgatory”. Then He gives her a choice “Suffer here and now in Purgatory, or for a short while on earth.” Faustina, proving to be the saint she is, elects to suffer both. Jesus, proving to be the merciful God He is, sends her back to earth telling her, “You will suffer much, but not for long”.
RIP Churchmouse 5/2013