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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 07 Apr 2002

First Indulgence?- QUESTION from Mr. Ronald Smith October 27, 1999 In what year or time period does any document show the first indulgence(s) being approved by the Church?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on November 1, 1999 Dear Mr. Smith:
The first indulgence, strictly speaking, was granted in the 11th century. Penitents bound by their confessors to three days fast during Lent could have their penance commuted to two days if they contributed to the construction of San Pedro Portella. There were practices which foreshadowed indulgences, and the doctrines which legitamized them-- the communion of saints and vicarious atonement-- have been known since the beginning of the Church.
The doctrine of the Communion of saints can be found in Saint Paul's letter to the Colossians (1:24) I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church. The saints are all united in one body, and they act as a body, so that when one part of the body ails, the other members try to cure it, even suffering for him, just like St. Paul does. There is also a hint of vicarious atonement-- St. Paul is happy to suffer for the good (I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions) for the sake of another (for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.)
Clement of Alexandria (circa. 200 A.D.) reported that the Apostle John fasted and prayed for a chief robber at Ephesus for his conversion. And from this ancient report we can deduce that vicarious atonement-- taking on another's penance for his sake-- is a very ancient doctrine. This doctrine may not have been elaborated in doctrinal language in such an early, but it was certainly known.
The logical conclusion to draw from the combination of these doctrines is that Christians may have their temporal penance lessened or commuted through the suffering of others. In fact, this is one reason why penance was long, arduous and public in the Early Church: the penitent was expected to ask his fellow believers to help him. It was thought that the prayers and sufferings of martyrs would be especially potent.
Today the legitimacy of indulgences is explained by the faithful's reliance on the treasury of merit stored up by Christ and his saints. This doctrine is of a relatively late date. It was developed by Hugh of Saint- Cher in the thirteenth century, and promulgated by Pope Clement VI in his jubilee bull of 1343.
Certain customs in the early Middle Ages paralleled the use of indulgences. In the ninth centuries, popes and confessors would end their letters with absolution grants -- a solemn prayer asking God through the intercession of Christ and his saints to absolve the sinner of all the penalities due to sin. This request did not necessarily guarantee that the recipient would necessarily benefit from it.
One of the most famous indulgences ever granted was the one granted by Pope Urban II to the crusaders in 1095. A.D. Many controversialists distort the facts of this event for their own ends. They think that the crusaders were essentially granted a license to sin and a guarantee of heaven. Obviously this is not the case. As with any other indulgence, the crusaders had to have confessed their sins, and any insincerity on their part would not have diminished their temporal punishment at all.
Indulgences for the dead were first issued in 1476 in a bull by Pope Sixtus IV, who suggested that their efficacy for the dead was not guaranteed; it was up to Divine Mercy to make the final judgment.
Though they were subject to many abuses, the alms collected from indulgences provided income for hospitals, schools, monasteries and churches, and as such contributed to the spiritual, social and economic development of Europe. The popes tried to counter abuses, but the centuries-old battle to eliminate them utterly failed (and they were one of the bones of contention that led to the Protestant Reformatin). Indulgences involving the collection of funds were suppressed in 1567 by Pope St. Pius V, at a great financial loss to the Church, including schools, churches, monasteries and hospitals.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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