One of the newest things in the Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest. Middle Ages old, to be exact. Indulgences are back. Unused for decades, the rites that the faithful believe lessen punishment for sins are now being offered by 15 churches in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that have been designated as pilgrimage sites. While it has taken time to educate parishioners, things are picking up now that Lent is in full swing.
"The first phase involved teaching," said the Rev. Jon Vander Ploeg of the Catholic Church of Saint Paul, a pilgrimage site in Ham Lake. "But now we're getting a very good response."
An exact count isn't available because people seeking indulgences aren't required to check in. They go to a pilgrimage site and to recite a set of private prayers.
But considering the volume of unfamiliar faces the Rev. Thomas Wilson is seeing at All Saints Catholic Church in Lakeville, he says that indulgences are finding a widespread audience. "It's an important part of their spirituality."
That opinion is supported by postings on Internet blogs, where people write about finding "a sense of comfort, connection and renewed hope" and the security that comes from "reclaiming historical traditions in a time of uncertainty."
The Roman Catholic Church stopped granting indulgences as part of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. While many Catholics over age 50 consider their revival as a curious blast from the past, others welcome renewed focus on the ritual.
"We're seeing a resurgence in the interest of traditional piety, especially among the young," said the Rev. John Paul Erickson, director of the Archdiocese's Office of Worship.
At the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, student after student confirmed Erickson's view. In fact, junior Sarah Legatt not only knew about them, but she was also able to offer an explanation of the difference between an indulgence and a confession that was as succinct as anything offered by a priest.
"I think of it as a chalkboard," she said. "A confession is like erasing the board, which always leaves a little chalk dust behind. An indulgence is liking washing it with a wet rag."
Their support is not universal among the college crowd. Jamie Manson, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she got a master's degree in Catholic theology, wrote an essay for the National Catholic Reporter in which she criticized the church for "assuming power that belongs to God alone."
Many Catholics who are not rushing out to get indulgences argue that it has nothing to do with a lack of spirituality but a different perspective on the church's role.
"When I was growing up, the focus of the church was getting members into heaven," said Connie Alagada, 68, who serves on the parish council at the Community of St. Matthew in St. Paul and is a member of Call to Action, a national organization that bills itself as "Catholics working together to foster peace and justice."
"Now the focus of the church is much broader," she said. "The church, to quote the phrase I've heard while sitting in the pew, 'is meant to be the visible expression of God in the community.' That means that we help people by sponsoring social programs like Loaves and Fishes and hosting health fairs. We're not doing this to get into heaven; we're doing it to help people."
The point men
The task of explaining indulgences in the Twin Cities area has been assigned to Erickson and his assistant, the Rev. Andrew Cozzens, who offers this analogy:
"Say I steal something from someone. The consequence of that might be that the person I stole from is under distress, so he goes home and is mean to his family, and then they go out and are mean to other people. A web of bad emanates from the stealing.
"I go to confession and am forgiven by God for stealing. But what about all the other people that were hurt by my sin? How can I make up for that?"
One way is an indulgence, which the church describes as "a gift of self or goods." You can't track down all the people you might have hurt to pay them back, Cozzens said, but you can "in effect, 'pay it forward.' The same way bad rippled out from what you did, good can ripple out."
In the early church, indulgences were a way to shorten or cancel one's time in purgatory. But the system was subject to abuse, including con-men priests charging money to grant them. Indulgences were one of the major points of contention for Martin Luther during the Reformation in the 1500s.
As the Catholic Church moved toward a more contemporary approach in the '60s -- including the shelving of Latin mass and no-meat Fridays -- indulgences fell by the wayside.
Remembering St. Paul
Their return now comes as part of the pope's proclamation about the Jubilee Year of St. Paul (the saint, not the city). As part of the celebration of the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul's birth, Archbishop John Nienstedt designated the 15 pilgrimage sites in the Twin Cities.
Coming less than two years after Pope Benedict opened the door for the reintroduction of the Latin mass, many observers see the return of indulgences as another sign of the church's swing toward conservatism.
"Absolutely," said Sister Avis Allmaras, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul. "But we have a different theological outlook now. I don't think as many people believe that we can pray our way into heaven."
But where the revival of the traditional Latin mass met with protest, the voluntary nature of indulgences has mitigated most grumbling.
"Everybody is free to do what they want" in regard to indulgences, Allmaras said. "If it works for them, God bless them."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392