Your Grace, The Holy Father Pope John Paul II has said that this Jubilee Year of 2000 is an opportunity for Catholics to gain indulgences such as by going on pilgrimage to a church designated as a pilgrimage site or by making an act of charity towards one’s neighbor. The belief in indulgences is a doctrine long held by the Roman Catholic Church.

Are Melkite Catholics and all other Eastern Catholics obligated to believe in the doctrine of indulgences? I know of Eastern Catholics who say “no”, stating that it has no basis according to the Eastern understanding of sin, and that it is a “Latin” doctrine. I always understood the doctrine of indulgences to be a “Catholic” doctrine- not a “Latin” one – and therefore all Eastern and Western Catholics are to believe in it.

Are Eastern Catholics to believe in indulgences?

Bishop John’s Answer

You ask whether or not Eastern Catholics are to believe in indulgences. Yes, I too have heard some folks remark that the doctrine is incompatible with Eastern theology, however, they are sadly mistaken.

The notion of an indulgence that removes the temporal punishment due to sin is deeply rooted in the theological consciousness of both East and West. While it is an explicit doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus a doctrine that we Eastern Catholics accept as we walk with the successor of Peter, you will find ample evidence of our Eastern affirmation of the cleansing of the soul after death as we progress towards the moment when, through God’s generosity, we are admitted to eternal intimacy with Him.

When we look, for example, at the prayers that comprise the Sacrament of Holy Anointing that we celebrate as part of our observance of Holy Week, we find there, in several of the prayers, the notion that God’s healing comes to us as we submit ourselves to His cleansing grace. Repeatedly, the priest prays for a purification from the effects of sin, the complete remission of the effects of sin, and for a healing that penetrates both body and soul. Many of the sacred traditions of our Eastern Church that deal with our prayers of suffrage for the dead speak of our plea that the Lord will wipe away the effects of sin, cleanse us and the faithful departed from its effects so that they might enter fully into the kingdom.

The Church, as the living, mystical Body of Christ, dispenses the mercy of God in many ways. We find that the doctrine of indulgences is a beautiful expression of the Church’s role in bringing salvation and healing to both the living and the dead. Feel secure in the teachings of the Church. I suggest that you read No. 1471 of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church that Pope John Paul II addressed to all Venerable Cardinals, Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and to all faithful [of the East and West.] This is a jubilee year of abundant graces and many indulgences. We do well to take advantage of its many blessings.

Bishop John’s continues to explain indulgences and praying for the dead.

Several folks have asked questions concerning the doctrine of indulgences given the heightened interest in indulgences granted during this jubilee year. I am often astonished at remarks that the legal nature of indulgences seem to prove that they are applicable only to the Latin Church and are thus foreign to our Eastern theology. Many people do not realize that the legal aspects of church life, including canon law, began in the East. The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine court developed canons that are still the basis for many principles of law used in the church today.

Indulgences deal with the wider notion of praying for the dead. We ask the question: Are our prayers for the dead efficacious? Can we benefit our deceased loved ones by prayer, good works and suffrage prayers such as liturgies? Our Eastern liturgy is replete with prayers for the dead. Our calendar, unlike the calendar of the Latin Church, has several feast days that are set-aside for prayers for the dead. The Saturday before Pentecost and the Saturdays of Great Lent are good examples. Further, we observe the third, ninth, and fortieth day after the death of a loved one as important anniversaries that we observe with a Liturgy offered for the repose of the soul of a loved one. Clearly, both in the East and the West, we believe that our prayers benefit the dead. The writings of St. John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent describes some of the imagery that we find in our Eastern view of the soul’s ascent to God. Perhaps you have seen the ancient icon that portrays the soul on its ascent to God. We pray that the journey will be free of pain and diabolical attack.

Indulgences, while subject to abuses in the Middle Ages, and an object of polemics against the Catholic Church in many circles, are, nonetheless, connected to the valued doctrine of God’s mercy and generosity in dealing with us when we present ourselves to Him before the “awesome judgment seat of Christ”. The idea of temporal punishment due to sin is not entirely foreign to our Eastern theology. In some Eastern cultures, the surviving family members of dead offer candy to passersby at a Memorial Service, especially on the Saturday of the Dead, praying that the person would offer forgiveness to the deceased for any wrongs, imagined or real. In the prayers of absolution said over the deceased, the Church prays for the dissolution of any bonds that would keep the deceased tied, in a temporal way, to the corpse or to an intermediate state of purification. We see dying and death as a process of growing towards union with God in eternity. We assist our loved ones with our prayers, our sacrifices, and even by applying indulgences to them.

Our Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome have experienced theological developments and growth. We, as we walk with the successor of Peter, are not bound to the forms of the ancient East in a slavish manner, but rather interpret our liturgy and forms of prayer through the eyes and insights of a church that is both alive and evolving. It is a grave error to keep ourselves blindly confined to the theological ideas of the first 10 centuries. My family has been Melkite Catholic for many generations. Are we to discard our Catholic beliefs because they find their origins in Catholic thought of the 20th century? We appreciate and value our heritage, but we are open to the development of new theological insights as they develop under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We are a living Church.