Sunday, April 10, 2016

Reparation and Indulgences

Bishop Tobin opened our Holy Door in December of last year.

(Third Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 10, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 21: 1-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2016]

When was Peter forgiven?

We know when he sinned.  There’s no question about that: He sinned on Holy Thursday night in the courtyard of the high priest, when he denied Jesus three times.

But when exactly did he receive forgiveness for those terrible sins?

Some would say that it was during the encounter we just heard about in today’s gospel reading from John 21:  this encounter that Peter and a few others had with the risen Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias.  They see forgiveness implied in the three invitations that Jesus gave to Peter to profess his love: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

But I would disagree.  I would say that Peter had been forgiven by Jesus long before he had this discussion with our Lord.  In fact, I would maintain that the words Jesus spoke from the cross—“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”—didn’t just apply to our Lord’s enemies.  They also applied to his friends who had abandoned him and who had betrayed him—especially Peter!

This story, therefore, is not about forgiveness, since Peter had already experienced that grace—that gift—from Jesus.  Rather the story is about reparation: it’s about Peter making reparation for sins—three sins—three terrible sins—that he had already been forgiven for.

The need that we have as human beings to make reparation for our forgiven sins—either here on earth or in purgatory—is something that many Catholics seem to be unaware of these days.  To make reparation basically means “to make amends”—to make amends by trying as best we can to undo the negative consequences that our sins have caused (especially in the lives of others).

As the Catechism says in paragraph 2487: Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. When it is impossible publicly to make reparation for a wrong, it must be made secretly. If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another's reputation.”

One issue where most people can very easily see the need for reparation is the issue of thievery.  As the Catechism reminds us in paragraph 2454: Every manner of taking and using another's property unjustly is contrary to the seventh commandment [Thou shalt not steal]. The injustice committed requires reparation. Commutative justice requires the restitution of stolen goods.”

That means if you steal $100 from somebody, it’s not enough to go to confession and confess the sin to a priest.  You also have to give back the hundred bucks!

You need to return the money in reparation for the sin.  And if, for some reason, you can’t return it to the person from whom you stole it, you need to make some other comparable sacrifice.  I would tell the person to give the money to a worthy charity—like St. Pius X Church!  (That, of course, would only be a suggestion.  Any worthy charity would be okay.)

In today’s gospel story Jesus helps Peter to make reparation for his three denials on Holy Thursday night by giving him an opportunity to profess his love three times.  That’s really what’s going on here.  Peter had committed three separate offences against our Lord, consequently he needed to make reparation for those sins with three separate professions of love for our Lord.

One way for us to make reparation for our sins is through prayer.  This is why, when I give a penance of prayers to a person in the sacrament of Reconciliation, I will never just say, “Pray x-number of Hail Marys.”  I’ll normally say, “Pray x-number of Hail Marys for the people you have hurt by your sins.”  Or maybe I’ll ask the penitent to pray for one or two of the people that he or she mentioned during the confession.  (It depends on how the Spirit moves me.)  But in either case it’s what I would call a “targeted penance”—meaning that I ask the person to pray for specific individuals, as an act of reparation for the sins that the person committed against those individuals.

This is also where indulgences come into the picture.  Some Catholics think that the Church dropped its belief in indulgences after the Second Vatican Council—but that’s not true!  The Church still believes in indulgences because the Church has always believed—and will always believe—in the need people have to make reparation for their sins.  In fact, that’s basically what indulgences are all about: they’re about the saints in heaven helping those of us still here on earth (as well as the souls currently in purgatory) to make reparation. 

Here’s how I would explain it: the prayers that the saints said and the good works that they performed during their earthly lives resulted in a lot of what you might call “reparation grace”—far more than they themselves needed.  So God allows them to share those graces with all of us through indulgences.

And that’s very good news because these graces can help to lessen our need for purgatory—or eliminate it altogether!

I’m sure many of you already know that a plenary indulgence (which totally eliminates the need for us to make reparation for our past sins) can be obtained during this Jubilee Year of Mercy by passing through one of the officially designated “Holy Doors”.

Every cathedral in the world (including ours in Providence) has one, as do a number of special shrines. 

But it’s not just a matter of taking a little walk through an open door in a big church.  There are other requirements that also need to be fulfilled (aside from being in the state of grace, which is presumed).  Here’s the explanation given in the Church’s handbook on indulgences: “To acquire a plenary indulgence, it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached [in this case, passing through a Holy Door] and to fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff.  It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.”

That last requirement is the most difficult one to fulfill, and it’s the reason why most people who try to obtain a plenary indulgence for their forgiven sins do not end up receiving it.

Most people—even very good people—still have at least some attachment to their favorite sins in their hearts.

I read a story once about St. Philip Neri, who lived back in the 16th century.  One day, as he was preaching a jubilee indulgence in a very crowded church, he received a private revelation from the Lord.  In that revelation God indicated to him that only he and an old cleaning woman who was there in attendance were actually receiving a plenary (or full) indulgence.

Of course, many of the people in the church for that service probably did receive a partial indulgence—which is still very good.

And this is why we should make plans to take a little trip to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence sometime soon, pass through the Holy Door that’s there, and then fulfill the other requirements for the plenary indulgence—even if we only end up receiving a partial one.

It will eliminate at least some of the reparation we need to make for our sins—or it will help a deceased relative or friend make some of their reparation, since we can apply indulgences either to ourselves or to souls in purgatory.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

When Peter was given the chance to make reparation for his three denials of Jesus on Holy Thursday night, he made the most of it.  He took full advantage of the opportunity the Lord gave him to make amends for what he had done.  May we do the same with respect to our own personal sins during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.