Our Lady of the (Paraparaumu) highway

A reflection on indulgences and whether they have a place in today’s church.

Overlooking Paraparaumu is an enormous white statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Motorists heading south into the township can’t miss seeing the 12.5 metre prominent landmark.

Our Lady of the (Paraparaumu) highway Archdiocese of Wellington Pope Benedict has authorised a special plenary indulgence for those who visit the shrine (and similar ones) between 2-11 February 2008.

The statue was commissioned by Fr Jack Dunn in 1958 to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant in Lourdes, in southern France.

Archbishop McKeefry blessed the statue on October 19 before 6000 people, including 1000 who had travelled by train from Auckland.

While it was supposed to be there only for the commemorative year, it’s still standing as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearances.

Bernadette proclaimed that Mary appeared to her on 18 occasions, from February 11 to July 16 1858, as a young lady wearing a white veil, a blue girdle and with a golden rose on each foot.

She was also holding a string of rosary beads. It wasn’t until she appeared for the 17th time on March 25 that she identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.

(The dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been defined four years earlier.)

Dutch artist Martin Roestenberg made the two-metre head in his Taihape home while the body with its four-metre-wide shoulders was made on site. The massive hollow structure with its internal staircase is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Seventeen bulbs light up the halo at night. At the base of the statue are the words ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’.

There are several parishes, churches and schools in the Palmerston North and Wellington dioceses whose patronal feast is February 11. There is also the cloaked statue of Our Lady of Lourdes on the hillside at Pukekaraka, Hine Nui O Te Ao Katoa Mary Great Mother of the Whole World.

So will the Pope’s offer of a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who pray the Lord’s Prayer, the creed and the special jubilee prayer or a prayer to Mary be enough to attract 6000 Catholics to the Paraparaumu shrine between February 2 and 11? For what reward?

Reminders of our mess or Flybuys?

The concept of indulgences is difficult to understand particularly because of its somewhat abusive history. It is tempting to leave it in the ‘too hard’ basket and hope that no one will ask us to explain it. I spent considerable time in my childhood saying particular prayers in order to increase the numbers of days I wouldn’t have to spend in purgatory!

However, in 1967 Pope Paul VI reformed the church’s teaching about indulgences, removing all numerical references. Indulgences receded into the background while more attention was given to understanding and celebrating the sacraments.

Today the church teaches that an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due for sins committed and already forgiven and a plenary indulgence is the remission of all punishment to date.

Readers over 50 may recall that to gain a plenary indulgence there are certain requirements set by the church: confession within a reasonably short period of time, receiving the eucharist, praying for the intentions of the pope and rejecting all sin, even venial (small) sin.

The logic of indulgences seems to hinge on the fact that while our sins may be forgiven (especially through the sacrament of penance) there are still consequences involved which may extend beyond death.

For example, the taggers who defaced St Anne’s school recently may be forgiven by the school community but there is still a mess those responsible need to clean up. The clean-up is a chance for further healing.

Indulgences then are the clean-up (even though we have already been forgiven) ridding us of the mess we have made.

Now all of this explanation may seem like a calculating way to think about our relationship with God. Unlike a loyalty programme, we can’t save up indulgences and use them later. So if we sin on February 12, the indulgences we have gained during the period of devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes won’t cover us.

However, the reality is that we are human, we sin and we make a mess. We have only human ways of understanding and explaining the mysterious ways of our gracious God’s infinite love and mercy.

Although we believe that ultimately all is gift and that we cannot earn our salvation, perhaps the church’s teaching about plenary indulgences is one way to keep the reality of sin before us when we would rather not be reminded.

However, in commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lourdes we are, above all else, honouring Mary, the lady on the hilltop. Apart from churches and schools we don’t have many public reminders of our Catholic faith in NZ. As a sacramental people we need them. The statue overlooking Paraparumu is one such reminder.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for