Indulgences: Counted & Forfeited

I counted indulgences when I was a child. Quite likely, some of you did the same, though maybe not as fastidiously as I did. Every First Friday and First Saturday, there I was indemnifying myself against the wages of sin. My insurance agent was St. Helena’s Church on Olmstead Avenue alongside the IRT Pelham Line; my carrier, Catholic devotions in all their gaudy splendor.


Heinrich Voghherr. A Preacher Reading Out an Indulgence (16th C).
Heinrich Voghherr. A Preacher Reading Out an Indulgence (16th C).

Sparkhill Dominicans assured me His eye was on the sparrow. But that was no guarantee it was on a latchkey kid in the Bronx. Lest the Creator of all things visible and invisible be preoccupied elsewhere, I kept a ledger for tallying up my earned assets. (Just in case He lost track and needed a reminder.) It was one of those black-and-white marbled Mead composition books that had been a staple of classroom technology in the analog days.

Like any childhood game, my variant of double-entry bookkeeping was played in earnest. Saturday afternoon confession took care of the debit side. My little ledger memorialized the credit side. Pages were ruled in half to make two columns. I pored over them both: one for partial indulgences, the other—marked in the margin with a star—for plenaries. It added up to an enviable reckoning.

Five years for every Apostles Creed; three years for each Act of Faith, Hope, Love and Contrition. (That last was a favorite back then. Still is.) The Angelus, though, defeated me. What was a ten-year rebate against eternity? That was not sufficient motivation for the job of reciting it three times a day. At dawn, I was still asleep; at noon, in school; eventide was time for Black Beauty or Heidi. So you can see how impossible it would have been to try for a plenary indulgence by saying the Angelus every day for a whole month.

Albrecht Durer. The Lamb of God from the Apocalypse suite (1508).
Albrecht Durer. The Lamb of God from the Apocalypse suite (1508).

The Memorare came more easily. It brought only a three year indulgence for hit-or-miss recitations but promised a full reprieve if recited daily for a month. That I could do. Quite a few gold stars racked up next to entries for the Memorare. All the approved litanies were another good investment: seven years for the Holy Name of Jesus, seven for the Blessed Virgin Mary; five for St. Joseph. (Only five? There began my sympathy for the underdog.)

Lent and Advent were a time to luxuriate in a riot of penances. The Forty Hours Devotion was a carousel that spun from St. Helena’s to St. Raymond’s, on to St. Mary Star of the Sea, and back again. Trekking across neighborhoods from one church to the next, a brass ring in view, absorbed the loneliness of a solitary child.

Indulgences accumulated. Years of remission turned into centuries. If my ledger was telling the truth, my collected IOUs stretched into the eons. It was a cache that no one person could ever empty. No glutton, I began signing them over in secret to other people, bequeathing them where they might be in demand.

Grandpa Powey was old. He would be needing them soon. Grandpa Harry was not Catholic so he probably really required some. Did anyone bother about Crazy Aunt Mary who kept a kitchen knife in her bedroom? No doubt she could use an indulgence or two. On it went. My philanthropy was as exhilarating as delinquency.

Inexorable and merciless as the tides, the sins of childhood slowly receded. The sins of an adult advanced. The Cross lengthened with them; it grew larger and blistering hot. Incandescent, it scorched my ledger to ash. The soul’s green eyeshades fell away. I stopped counting.

It has been years since I remembered my childish account book. It came to mind yesterday during the Missa Cantata of a newly ordained young priest. After Mass, the priest invited the congregation to come forward and kneel for his first blessing. It is a gracious ritual. There is something in the laying on of hands that reaches to the marrow, touches the blood.

Fr. Sean Connolly bestowing his first blessing to the Latin Mass congregation in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
Fr. Sean Connolly bestowing his first blessing to the Latin Mass congregation in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

The blessing ends with the congregant kissing the priest’s consecrated fingers. On queue to the altar, a shadow fell; something in me balked. I could not do it. I stepped suddenly off the line. Might I accept his blessing without kissing his hands? For reasons too many and too dense to explain in this context, the kiss would have been dishonest—a fraud enacted in display of a piety that I neither felt nor assented to.

I brought my question to a second priest standing in choir. Yes, it was permissible to kneel for the blessing yet omit the kiss. No slight to the priest was involved. But, he reminded, an indulgence attaches to the kiss. That would be forfeited without it.

Adult sins have consequences felt in the lives of other people. It is rash, unfitting, to presume to erase consequence to ourselves when we cannot, in charity, undo the realities of cause and effect. We will be judged in relationship to Christ, to Him Whom we meet—fail to meet or wound—in others. Those failures stand and others’ wounds still bleed, no matter the total of indulgences.

This was a forfeiture I owed.

Note: My apologies for turning Ben Franklin into Little Richard in the previous post. (All fixed.) There is no copy editor here. I rely on the line-item kindness of readers.