I was a passenger in a car one time driving down to Seattle from Bellingham, I can’t remember for what, and as we approached Northgate Mall the traffic came to a standstill. This is not uncommon especially in the afternoons as Seattle is perhaps one of the worst cities when it comes to traffic design, but that’s another story. Anyway, as we started to slow down to a stop I motioned over to the carpool lane saying that we had enough people in the car to utilize it. As we started to merge over towards the HOV lane an insight hit me about the catechetical value of the carpool lane.
One of the most frequently misunderstood teachings of the Church is that of Indulgences. It conjures up images of fat church men sitting on mountains of gold selling people tickets to Heaven, something we all know is impossible, not the fat church men on mountains of gold but the ticket to Heaven part. We all know that it is not possible to buy your way into Heaven, but this really isn’t what indulgences are.
When you commit sin it has a couple of effects. First, you sin against God because you choose something over Him and break His commandments. Secondly, you sin against yourself because you accept a lower form of life than what you were created for. Finally, you sin against others in that your actions affect them. When you sin it is also on a couple of levels and requires forgiveness on a couple levels. The first is in the eternal realm and the second is in the worldly time realm. The image of the car can help with this. If you smash up the bumper on your friend’s car you can go and tell them you’re sorry. This would clear up the eternal portion because in this case the car represents your soul and the friend is God. The car (your soul) still has a smashed bumper though and so as a good friend you should get it replaced.
When Jesus died He took care of the covering of the eternal portion of our sins because He was the only one who could help because He was without sin and the one sacrificed needed to be sinless. This leaves the smashed bumper to fix. He can cover that too, sort of like if you didn’t have the cash you asked your friend if he could pay for the repair. This is what relying on the total mercy of God is; it’s harder to do than you think though because it involves totally eliminating pride in your life, something which many of us may never do. This is very similar to St. Therese’s “little way”. For the rest of us though, God left room for participation. This involves participating in good works as a member of the Body of Christ.
This is where indulgences come in. As a member of the Body of Christ if you formally do certain things with the explicit intent of doing them as a member of His Body they are given the merits of Christ, which is so totally cool! If you don’t participate in actions this way but have confessed your sins you still get cleaned up in Purgatory, another common stumper of our faith, and go to Heaven in the end. This is where the carpool lane comes in. If the freeway is the road to Heaven, after confession you can stay in the standard lane and go through the Purgatory of traffic, or you can say “I do this in your name Jesus,” and jump in the carpool lane. This doesn’t cover the whole doctrine but may be enough to get you interested. You can find the whole scoop in your Catechism, which can be found over in the library.
Fr. Joseph Altenhofen