The daily pilgrimage of every prisoner takes on new meaning this year, thanks to Pope Francis and the Jubilee Year of Mercy that began on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8. From now until the end of November 2016, each time a prisoner walks across the threshold of his jail cell mercy and relief from the pain of sin awaits.
Pope Francis has made every jail cell door into a holy door for the Year of Mercy.
“May the gesture of directing their thought and prayer to the Father each time they cross the threshold of their cell signify for them their passage through the Holy Door, because the mercy of God is able to transform hearts, and is also able to transform bars into an experience of freedom,” the pope wrote in a letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. The Sept. 1 letter lays out conditions the faithful must fulfil to obtain a plenary indulgence during the Year of Mercy.
“When I read that, I tweeted that everywhere,” said an excited Rev. Ted Hughes. “Like everything Pope Francis is doing, if people are informed of it I think it has meaning in their life — especially for prisoners, for sure.”
Hughes is a Catholic representative to the federal prison system’s interfaith chaplaincy advisory board and a regular speaker on prison life and prison ministry.
The concept of an indulgence may be more than a little foreign to most convicts, but that doesn’t mean the extension of mercy to prisoners is not meaningful, said Hughes.
“Prisoners wouldn’t really know what indulgences were per se,” conceded Hughes. “But the fact the pope said that there’s something special about this — like it’s in the cathedrals, it’s in St. Peter’s, it’s in some basilicas and it’s in your jail — it certainly would make them think.”
In fact, the concept of indulgences is a little hard to grasp for many Catholics, not just the jailhouse population.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it as “remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
In lay terms, indulgences begin with the understanding that there are always consequences for sin — whether we’re aware of them or not. A plenary indulgence, an expression of God’s mercy on sinners, is a way to mitigate those consequences by lessening time in purgatory or relieving a repentant’s spiritual suffering on Earth.
Like indulgences that have been declared for jubilee years over the centuries — there have been 26 ordinary jubilees and three extraordinary; this Year of Mercy is extraordinary — the usual procedure for obtaining an indulgence is to make a pilgrimage that ends by passing through a designated holy door, making confession, receiving communion (it’s better but not essential that this be done at mass) and praying for the pope’s intentions.
The language of the church is often grandly metaphorical because the reality of our salvation cannot be squeezed into ordinary words.
Freedom is difficult to understand unless we attach it to the act of being set free. For the earth bound, freedom only exists in contrast to its opposite. But for God, freedom pre-exists the prisons we build for ourselves and others. Freedom came before the things that tie us down — our punishments, our sins, even death. Mercy exists even before our oppression, our bondage, our limitations, our difficulties. Our punishments, our pain, our struggles are the exception in a universe God created in love and for love.
So we talk of mercy and indulgence, but God talks of love and freedom.
The metaphors of Christian life are never restricted to words. They extend to our actions and our way of being. Thus the tradition of indulgences in the Catholic Church is wound up intimately with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Pope Francis hopes Catholics will “rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy” this year.
“Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence,” he wrote Sept. 1. “Hence the commitment to live by mercy so as to obtain the grace of complete and exhaustive forgiveness by the power of the love of the Father who excludes no one.”
It isn’t just prisoners whom the pope has singled out for special treatment. Pope Francis also wants women who have had abortions to know that neither God nor the church has abandoned them.
“I am aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” he wrote. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
During the Year of Mercy, by special permission, every priest who hears confessions may forgive the sin of abortion and fulfil that forgiveness with “words of genuine welcome.”
Such a welcome would erase the automatic exscommunication of those who actively seek an abortion — a function normally reserved to the bishop or priests specially designated by the bishop for this duty.