In contrast with media reports of “time off of purgatory” for Pope Francis' Twitter followers, a canon lawyer says indulgences are a way that the Church encourages Christians to prayer.
“Because the Church has the spiritual authority that Christ has given it, the Church can invite us to particularly sanctifying moments and particularly sanctifying opportunities,” JD Flynn, special assistant to Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., told CNA July 18.
An indulgence is defined as the remission of the temporal punishment – the unhealthy attachment to created things – due to sins which have already been forgiven.
The Vatican announced July 9 that Pope Francis had allowed that the faithful can receive indulgences through participation in World Youth Day.
A plenary indulgence is offered once a day to those who “devoutly participate in the sacred rites and exercise of devotion” taking place as part of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro from July 22 to 29. The announcement was made June 24 by decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican office dealing with indulgences and confession.
Plenary indulgences are also offered to those who cannot attend the event yet who “participate in spirit in the sacred functions,” provided they follow the rites and exercises by television, radio, or “always with the proper devotion, through the new means of social communication.”
Some mainstream media outlets proclaimed Twitter followers were getting out of purgatory, with a recent headline from the U.K.'s Guardian reading, “Vatican offers 'time off purgatory' to followers of Pope Francis tweets.”
Flynn, who holds a licentiate in canon law from Catholic University of America, explained that “a better way to say it would be that the Vatican recognizes that the more time we spend in prayer, the less time we spend in purgatory.”
Allowing indulgences to those who follow World Youth Day through “the new means of social communication,” is “really an invitation to spend time in prayer with the pilgrims of World Youth Day,” he said.
“And because of the Church's authority, that prayer comes with the special graces of an indulgence.”
Indulgences are based on the Church's “special recognition … that certain activities, and activities especially at certain times, can be particularly sanctifying,” Flynn said.
He noted the historical link between pilgrimages and indulgences, saying that “a person is invited oftentimes to make a pilgrimage, and in the context of that pilgrimage is invited to sacramental confession, and also invited to pray for the Church, to pray for the Holy Father, to pray for the souls in purgatory – and those are the sanctifying things.”
“People who make spiritual pilgrimages receive in a particular way the grace to overcome the temporal penalties of their sins,” he reflected.
“The great thing about the age we live in is that people can make pilgrimages … even when they can't be physically present, so the extension of the World Youth Day indulgences to so-called 'digital pilgrims' is really a recognition that we, as members of the body of Christ, can participate in prayer and spiritual communion with one another, even when we're not in physical proximity with one another.”
Flynn explained that an indulgence “isn't a magical formula,” but is a way of participating in the graces won by Christ. The decree specifies that to obtain a plenary indulgence, a person must be “truly repentant and contrite” for their sins.
Merely following the the tweets of Pope Francis won't gain a plenary indulgence – the Apostolic Penitentiary also specified that “the usual conditions” apply.
Those usual conditions are that the individual be in the state of grace by the completion of the acts, have complete detachment from sin, and pray for the Pope's intentions. The person must also sacramentally confess their sins and receive Communion, up to about twenty days before or after the indulgenced act.
These additional requirements show that, “like everything else in Catholicism,” indulgences “are something we participate in, but it's not something that we merit.” Christ's graces obtained through indulgences come through “a particular commitment to prayer, pilgrimage, sacrifice,” Flynn explained.
He added that the authority for granting indulgences comes from the “teaching, sanctifying and governing authority of the Church” which “comes definitely from Christ,” who appointed St. Peter “to be his vicar on earth, to act in his place in order to lead people to him.”
In granting indulgences, he said, the Church “acts in accord with her vocation to lead souls to Christ.”
“We know that our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom to Saint Peter, and here the successor of St. Peter is inviting us to prayer and communion with Christ in a special way.”
“Thank God for Twitter,” Flynn emphasized.
“Thank God for Facebook, thank God for the digital continent, because here's an opportunity where they allow us to be in communion with the Church around the world, even when we can't be physically present.”