Purgatory, indulgences, twitter and asylum... it's a world

For the first time ever, this year Catholics have been offered an “indulgence” for following the new Pope on Twitter.

Indulgences, which the Church decrees can reduce time spent in purgatory being punished for sins, have long been given out for specific pious acts, like doing a pilgrimage or certain prayers, but until now they haven’t been offered for online activity.

Perhaps it’s an attempt to lift the Pope’s social media profile. Not that he’s doing badly. He’s tweeted fewer than 100 times and only follows eight others (all of whom are Himself in non-English languages), but Pope Francis already has 2.7 million followers in English alone. I guess world religious leaders set the bar at a different level from the rest of us. Maybe he looks over at Mr Cool in Sneakers, the Dalai Lama, who follows no one (of course) and has 7 million followers. Buddhism’s probably a tough brand to go up against, but an offer of reduced time in purgatory might be a game changer because I remember purgatory from Mother de Montfort’s year 5 religion class and it’s not somewhere you want to spend more time than you have to.

As a Catholic, if you die in mortal sin, without forgiveness, you’re going to hell, no question. But most of us won’t die in mortal sin, and so we’ll go to purgatory, which is like a transit station, a sort of detention centre for ordinary sinners, where you can be held indefinitely while you’re waiting to be processed for heaven. Purgatory involves suffering, Mother de Montfort was at pains to have us understand, because it’s a place where you’re getting punished for sins. So while going to purgatory means you’re not going to hell, which is good news, it’s unpleasant.

People who aren’t Catholic but lead good lives go to limbo, Mother de Montfort told us, where they stay forever. Limbo is supposed to be a lesser option but frankly it sounded nicer than purgatory. For a start there’s no suffering. But souls in limbo never get to see the beautiful face of our Lord, Jesus, Mother de Montfort said, which I think she expected would turn us off the idea. Not me. I figured my father was going to limbo – he wasn’t Catholic but he wasn’t bad – and anyway, I was just a little bit frightened of seeing the beautiful face of our Lord, Jesus.

While indulgences reduce your time in purgatory, there are a couple of caveats. Indulgences are not the same as forgiving sin, and the Pope is not offering online forgiveness at this stage, although some have mistakenly reported that he is. You have to have your sins forgiven through confession beforehand. Not only that. Indulgences don’t work on mortal sins and sadly, you can’t use them on future sins.

So far, online indulgences have been limited to social media attendance at International Youth Day where you scored a plenary indulgence, which sets the venial sin-slate clean, if you followed the Pope on Twitter and other social media. But before you start rushing off to follow @Pontifex right now, there’s one more problem. To gain the indulgence that was offered, there had to be “genuine spiritual fruit in the heart of a person,” Pontifical Council for Social Communication President Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli said. There’s the rub. How do you get genuine spiritual fruit on Twitter?

This kind of marriage of an old tradition with new media by a Church struggling to deal with grave internal problems in so many countries is hard to fathom. But perhaps the new Pope will do some good in spite of his Church. From what we’ve seen so far, he plans to live humbly, drives in a Ford Focus, and spends time praying. And his Tweets aren’t bad. “A Christian is never bored or sad,” he tells us. And “Christians are always full of hope.” One of his most recent is particularly apt for Australia right now. “We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants,” he says, adding, “God will judge us on how we have treated the most needy.” Given the way we treat people seeking asylum among us, those of us who’ve kept their faith better get on Twitter quick smart and see about an indulgence.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 3 August 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!