The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it."
Today, throughout the world, Franciscans celebrate the Feast of the Little Portion; millions of Catholics will confess their sins, attend Mass and receive the indulgence of this day.
The very idea of indulgences sounds odd to many people. A plenary ("full") indulgence relieves a repentant sinner not of the guilt of his sin, which was relieved through the Sacrament of Penance, but of the atonement he should make for his sin.
When many Christians believe that Jesus has already atoned for all sins and none is required of the repentant sinner, the doctrine of indulgences sounds redundant. We might ask, "Who needs it?"
I heard a recovering alcoholic speak of the challenge he had presented to his long suffering wife during his drinking days. On one occasion, when he was cut off while driving, he ran the offender off the road and climbed up on the hood of the fellow's car, screaming, cursing and swearing at his supposed enemy. All the while, his terrified wife waited in the car for him to come to his senses.
Eventually he sobered up and began to practice the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, including, "We made direct amends... wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
My friend learned to apologize to his wife and to ask, "How can I make it up to you?" Clearly his not drinking was only the beginning of their healing. Their union needed more than words of apology. She might ask nothing; or she might require some time. She might even say, "Go away and leave me alone until I come to you!" Of course, as they repaired their marriage she too learned to apologize and "make amends."
Indulgences were originally a spiritual system of atoning to God and the Church for one's sins. How does a small town church allow an adulterer or murderer to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist with them? Would you want your children to see a known sinner march right up to the altar and receive the Most Precious Sacrament as if he had every right to it?
In Shakespeare's play, King Richard II, the newly crowned King Henry vows to go to Jerusalem to atone for the rivers of English blood that were shed on his way to coronation. He hoped God would forgive him; he also hoped the English would accept his claim to be king if they knew he had done penance.
Trips to Rome or Jerusalem were not unusual ways to atone for grave sins. But what would the poor man do? His sins might not be as notorious but his guilt and his soul were equal to that of any king. The Church granted easier ways to atone, known as "indulgences." The Portiuncula Indulgence was among the first of these famous shortcuts.
Clearly, the Lord Jesus has, by his agony and death, opened the Gates of Paradise to everyone willing to do penance. He has completed our atonement. But we dare not presume on his mercy. Having confessed our sins we should still ask, "How can I make it up to my loved ones, my neighbors, my fellow Christians, my enemies and my God?"
The kingdom of God is like a buried treasure. Just knowing it's there in the field is not enough. We still have to purchase that field and dig for it.