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Pope Offers the World's First Cyber Indulgence

Pope Francis

From July 22–29 Catholic youth will gather in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, a celebration initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Every three years (two in this case) a different city hosts WYD, a week of prayer and talks that culminates in a Mass celebrated by the Pope. Attendance at WYD is considered a pilgrimage, so participants can avail themselves of what is called a plenary indulgence. But this year the Pope has added a twist: those who cannot make it to Rio can receive the same indulgence by following the week through radio, TV, and social media. That’s right: by following the Pope’s tweets (among other media) throughout the week, the faithful can receive a plenary indulgence.

This news reminds us of the famous Johann Tetzel couplet “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” The updated version might run something like this: “As soon as the mouse on ‘follow’ clicks/a soul leaves purgatory, quick.” Well, maybe not so quick; consider the canon law fine print on indulgences. According to Catholic doctrine, every sin incurs both temporal and spiritual punishment; the spiritual is forgiven in the sacrament of confession, but the temporal remains. Purgatory is the time of purification in the afterlife when the temporal punishment is received in a way that brings the soul closer to God.

Plenary indulgences are offered to the faithful as a way to remove the temporal punishment they will experience in purgatory (partial indulgences reduce it), and they don’t come easy: you have pray for the pope, go to Mass and confession within seven days of receiving the indulgence, and you have to be “free from attachment to sin” for it to be efficacious.

All of which is to say, heaven isn’t just a click away. That doesn’t mean Pope Francis’s gesture isn’t important. The Catholic Church has always devised ways for people at home to join their prayers with those of pilgrims. The stations of the cross that you see in every Catholic Church were originally put in to allow locals who couldn’t make it to Jerusalem to pray the way of the cross. It only makes sense that the Church would strive to reproduce a similar thing in our time, in light of the technology we now have.

Those who care about the future of Christianity often note that Christian leaders need to find ways of reinventing faith in a ways that appeal to a new generation. It would be too much to say that this is an example of the creative appropriation of technology that’s essential to the future of Christianity. But it’s certainly a noteworthy nod in that direction.

[Image of Pope Francis courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Pete

    Right now, Catholics shun the confessional box in drove, to say the least.

    If the Pope is going hi-tech, he might also consider call-in or Internet-type confessions.

    This will result in a flood of Catholics participating in the sacrament of penance.

    Hey, why not? It will happen sooner or later so why wait?

    • Andrew Allison

      Nothing, absolutely nothing, posted to the Internet is private. I don’t think there’s going to any stampede to confess your sins to NSA LOL

  • Ruth Murray

    Please note that this is an incomplete reporting. In addition to going to the trouble of going on a pilgrimage (and here, Pope Francis bends the rules a bit for those who cannot get there), an indulgence is NOT granted unless the person meets a variety of other conditions: one must pray for the intentions of the Pope, attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, and to to Confession, and sincerely free oneself from any attachment to even the most venial (small) sin. It’s the conversion of heart here that is the point of the whole matter. If you don’t understand that, it’s easy to jeer and point fingers.

    • Jim__L

      The Tetzel comparison wasn’t entirely fair, you’re right. But apart from that, the article brings up some good points, which are more positive than negative on today’s “rerum novarum”. Hopefully that bit of flippancy won’t discolor your view of VM too much, which has good quality religious coverage more often than not.

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