August 29, 1999

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


August 29, 1999
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On the morning of January 1, 1300, Rome, the capital of the Christian world, was teeming with life. The Roman populace crowded towards the basilica of Saint Peter. They said to the Pope, "Holy Father, give us your blessing before we perish. We have heard talk from the old folks that all Christians who visit the tombs of the Apostles during this centenary year, will be delivered both from their faults and from punishment for their sins." During the evening, the flow of people was such that movement became nearly impossible in the nave and around the altars. There were the same crowds on the next day and in the days that followed. Pilgrims arrived from everywhere in order to visit the basilica, confess their sins, and pray at the tomb of the Apostles.

The first reaction of the Holy See was one of surprise: No one was aware of any such tradition. Pope Boniface VIII put the archivists to work, but in vain: no evidence was found for exceptional Indulgences, neither for the year 1200 nor in preceding centuries. While searching for oral witnesses, they did find an old man who stated: "My father went to Rome in 1200; he did indeed tell me not to miss out on such a grace if I myself managed to reach the new centenary." At the papal court, they remained perplexed.

You really had to see it to believe it!

Meanwhile the pilgrims continued to arrive. What to do? The piety of the people could not be left in uncertainty. On February 22, Boniface VIII presented the people with a Bull giving to the pilgrims of the year 1300, under certain conditions, a plenary indulgence. The promulgation of this document had a prodigious effect. From every country, people pressed towards Rome. A historian of that time estimated that 2 million pilgrims arrived during that year. The roads thronged with travelers. Young people, too poor to afford a horse, went on foot; old folks and the sick were carried in litters. Rich men could be seen traveling modestly like poor folks, in a spirit of penitence and humility. In Rome, it was necessary to control the traffic. Access via the Ponte Sant'Angelo, by which one arrives at Saint Peter's, was too narrow; a new route was opened in difficult circumstances. The bridge was divided in two by a palisade, in order to make a "one way." Even at night the visitors came to the basilicas. A witness stated, "You had to see it to believe it!"

Pope Boniface VIII had foreseen the celebration of a jubilee for each centenary. But, "due to the shortness of a human lifespan," Pope Clement VI shortened, in 1350, the timing of Jubilees to fifty years. The timing of Jubilees progressively shortened to 33 and then to 25 years. Progressively the Jubilee, which had originally consisted of an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence, took on a wider significance: an occasion for spiritual renewal in the love of God, faithfulness to the Gospel, and, through that, the progress of human society in justice and charity. During the proclamation of the 1950 Jubilee, Pope Pius XII said: "The very great Jubilee has as its principal goal to arouse all Christians, not only to expiate their sins and amend their lives, but also to acquire virtue and holiness, according to what has been said: Be ye holy, because I the Lord your God am holy (Lv 19: 2)  If men favorably listen to this voice of the Church,  not only private morals, but also public life will conform to the commandments and to the Christian spirit." To introduce the Jubilee of 1975, Pope Paul VI stated that the essential aspect of the Holy Year was "an interior renewal of man:   It is necessary to remake man on the inside. That is what the Gospel calls conversion, penitence  It is a time of grace which, as always, can only be obtained by bowing one's head."

With respect to the year 2000, numerous challenges present themselves to the Church. Bishop Cordes, then vice-president of the Pontifical Counsel for the Laity, presented them as follows in 1992, during an international meeting: "Within the Church, several million Catholics do not follow Christ and are not submitted to Him, even if they call themselves Catholics and occasionally participate in the liturgy of the Church. There are several million others who are confused and in the dark concerning the foundations of the faith,  even misled by erroneous catechesis. Even though Communism does not represent the menace it once did, Western materialism, secularization and consumerism (abusive use of the goods of this world) can be even greater threats to the life of the soul. And beyond the visible wounds of the Church, billions of our fellow men even today do not know Christ and live under various forms of personal and social oppression. Many are still slaves of sin and held in the clutches of evil. Why would we not recognize that Satan is at work separating people from God-as the Scriptures tell us: Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour (1 Pt 5: 8)?"

A strong pedagogy

Faced with these challenges, Pope John Paul II calls on all Christians to celebrate the great Jubilee of the year 2000: "The period of the Jubilee introduces us to the vigorous language which the divine pedagogy of salvation uses to lead man to conversion and penance. These are the beginning and the path of man's healing, and the necessary condition for him to recover what he could never attain by his own strength: God's friendship and grace, the supernatural life which alone can bring fulfillment to the deepest aspirations of the human heart" (Bull Incarnationis mysterium, IM, November 29, 1998, 2).

The "vigorous language" used by God with our salvation in mind, is that of the prophets up to and including Saint John the Baptist, and above all of Jesus, the Divine Master: Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish (Lk 13: 3). Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it (Mt 7: 13-14). Jesus revealed to us what is so seriously at stake during our life on earth: the way we live will irrevocably determine our eternal destiny. We have only one life here below: And it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment (Heb 9: 27). The Second Vatican Council taught, "Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with Him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth" (Lumen gentium, 48). The Lord has placed us before two roads: the way of life, and the way of death (Jer 21: 8). It is up to us to choose one way or the other.

Created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1: 26), we are capable of knowing Him and of freely loving Him. By this word "image," Holy Scripture means that we are called to friendship with God. What is more, Christ was sent by the Father that we might receive the adoption of sons (Gal 4: 5), that we might enter into the family of God, that we might be heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8: 17), in the Fatherland of Heaven. Such is the Hope of Christians. But no friendship can be imposed. Friendship, like adoption, must be freely accepted or refused. He who chooses refusal will not have inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5: 5). Through serious sin, man breaks the divine friendship and goes down the road that leads to eternal perdition. "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of Hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1861).

It is an evil and a bitter thing for thee to have left the Lord thy God

Quite often in the Gospel, Jesus puts us on guard against the eternal consequences of serious sin: And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into Hell. And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into Hell (Mt 5: 29-30). Saint Benedict echoes this teaching by the warning he gives to the monks to "fear the day of judgment" and to "dread Hell" (Rule, chap. 4). The Saviour invited us to a saving fear of eternal misery when He said: And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in Hell (Mt 10: 28). These words show us how much it is an evil and a bitter thing for thee to have left the Lord thy God (Jer 2: 19). They are destined to jolt the conscience in order to arouse contrition within it, that is, "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again" (CCC, 1451).

When contrition comes from love of God, loved more than anything else, it is called "perfect." Imperfect contrition, or "attrition," is born from consideration of the ugliness of the sin or the fear of the pains of Hell; if, excluding the desire to commit sin, it is accompanied by a hope of forgiveness, it is a true gift of God, an impulse from the Holy Spirit who, on earth, never stops offering His grace, even to those who have separated themselves from Him, for God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2: 4) (cf. CCC, 1452-1453). Saint Ignatius of Loyola explained in his Spiritual Exercises the beneficent role of imperfect contrition: "Though the zealous service of God our Lord out of pure love should be esteemed above all, we ought also to praise highly the fear of the Divine Majesty. For not only filial fear but also servile fear is pious and very holy. When nothing higher or more useful is attained, it is very helpful for rising from mortal sin, and once this is accomplished, one may easily advance to filial fear, which is wholly pleasing and agreeable to God our Lord since it is inseparably associated with the love of Him" (No. 370).

Imperfect contrition disposes one to receive the grace of Divine Forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. For a Christian, this is the normal way prescribed by God to obtain remission for serious sins committed after Baptism. Recourse to this sacrament is made by an individual and complete confession followed by absolution, "the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession" (CCC, 1484). This practice is derived from profound reasoning: "Christ is at work in each of the sacraments. He personally addresses every sinner: My son, your sins are forgiven (Mk 2: 5). He is the physician tending each one of the sick who need Him to cure them" (ibid.).

Let ourselves be healed by Christ

The first essential act of the person having recourse to the Sacrament of Penance is contrition. The second is the confiding of one's sins to the priest: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue" (CCC, 1456). The Church provides for certain "cases of grave necessity," in which, according to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, recourse may be had to a communal celebration of the Sacrament of Penance with general absolution. But in order to receive valid absolution in such circumstances, the faithful must have the firm intention of confessing individually their grave sins in the time required (cf. CCC, 1483).

In order for a sin to be mortal, three conditions are simultaneously required: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother (Mk 10: 19)" (CCC, 1857-1858). Also grave in themselves are the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism, but also fornication, concubinage before marriage, adultery, contraception, abortion, etc.

If one of the three necessary conditions is missing, the sin is venial; it does not break the Divine Friendship, but it does wound it. Without being strictly required, "confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father's mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful" (CCC, 1458).

Finally, the Sacrament of Penance includes "satisfaction." Unburdened of sin, the sinner must make amends: "he must `make satisfaction for' or `expiate' his sins. This satisfaction is also called `penance'" (CCC, 1459). It is imposed by the priest according to the personal situation and the spiritual needs of the penitent.

The doctrine and practice of indulgences are closely linked to the effects of the Sacrament of Penance. In the Bull Incarnationis mysterium, Pope John Paul II explains it this way: "Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the `temporal punishment' of sin, and this expiation removes whatever impedes full communion with God and with one's brothers and sisters" (IM, 10).

So, "Reconciliation with God does not mean that there are no enduring consequences of sin from which we must be purified  With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven as regards the fault" (Ibid., 9). Thus, he who has gained a plenary indulgence is prepared to immediately enter into Heaven without having to pass through Purgatory. If this indulgence is applied to a soul in Purgatory, that soul is immediately freed from its suffering.

A surplus of love

"An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins" (CCC, 1478). The satisfactions and rewards of the Redemption are found in abundance in Christ. But the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints also have tremendous worth in the eyes of God. Thus, "This establishes among the faithful a marvelous exchange of spiritual gifts (called the "communion of saints"), in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others" (IM, 10).

For the Jubilee of the year 2000, the Church is opening its spiritual treasures to the faithful by bestowing a particular indulgence: "The high point of the Jubilee is the encounter with God the Father, through Christ the Saviour present in His Church and in a special way in the sacraments. For this reason, the whole Jubilee journey, prepared for by pilgrimage, has as its starting point and its conclusion the celebration of the sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist 

"After worthily celebrating sacramental confession, which ordinarily, must be individual and complete, each member of the faithful, having fulfilled the required conditions, can receive or apply the gift of the plenary indulgence during a suitable period of time, even daily, without needing to go to confession again  Participation in the Eucharist, which is required for all indulgences, should properly take place on the same day as the prescribed works are performed" (Apostolic Penitentiary: Conditions for gaining the jubilee indulgence, November 29, 1998).

Several conditions are required in order to gain any plenary indulgence: to have confessed, to have received Eucharistic Communion, to be free from all attachment to sin (even venial sin), to fulfill the work to which the indulgence is attached and to pray for the intentions of the Pope. For the year 2000, the work to be fulfilled normally consists in a pilgrimage: a pilgrimage to Rome, or to the Holy Land, or to the Cathedral church of one's diocese (or even to a place designated by the bishop of the diocese), or also a visit during a suitable time to people in difficulty (the sick, prisoners, old and isolated individuals, the disabled, etc.), as if making a pilgrimage to Christ present in them.

There is only one door

The Great Jubilee of the year 2000 will begin by the opening of the Holy Door. Each of the four great Roman patriarchal basilicas (Saint Peter's, Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, Saint Paul Outside the Walls) possesses at its façade a special door, called the "Holy Door," which is only opened on the occasion of a Jubilee. During the night of December 24-25, 1999, the Pope will open the Holy Door of Saint Peter's Basilica and will solemnly pass through it while showing the Holy Gospel to the Church and the world.

This symbolic gesture "evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish. Jesus said: I am the door (Jn 10: 7), in order to make it clear that no one can come to the Father except through Him. This designation which Jesus applies to Himself testifies to the fact that He alone is the Saviour sent by the Father. There is only one way that opens wide the entrance into the life of communion with God: this is Jesus, the one and absolute way to salvation" (IM, 8). Indeed, the Apostle Saint Peter said: Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4: 12). The Pope continues, "To focus upon the door is to recall the responsibility of every believer to cross its threshold. To pass through that door means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (IM, 8).

The solemn rite by which the Holy Door is opened also signifies "that the spiritual treasures of the Church are opened in a wider fashion to all those who, driven by the desire to expiate their faults, wish to benefit from the privileges of the Grand Jubilee" (Pius XII, December 12, 1949).

The Jubilee will also be a time for Christians to draw closer to the unity desired by Christ; a time for asking pardon and for reconciliation among men; it should be marked by an enduring practice of charity, above all with respect to those who live in poverty and on the fringes of society. It will also be a time for remembering the testimony of the martyrs (cf. IM, 4, 11, 12, 13).

The joy of the Jubilee will be completed by turning our gaze to the Blessed Virgin Mary. "Woman of silence, given to listening, docile in the hands of the Father, the Virgin Mary is invoked as `blessed' by all generations, for she recognized the marvels accomplished in her by the Holy Spirit. The nations will never grow weary of invoking the Mother of Mercy and will always find refuge under her protection. May she who with Jesus her Son and Joseph her spouse went on pilgrimage to the holy Temple of God, guard the steps of all those who will be pilgrims in this Jubilee year!" (IM, 14).

We remember you and all your loved ones, especially your dearly departed, in our prayers.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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