Indulgences, the Roman Catholic spiritual practice that irked Martin Luther and provoked the Protestant Reformation, are back.
Technically, they never went away but they have been ignored by many Catholics for years.
As part of the church's Jubilee Year 2000 celebration, Pope John Paul II is offering an indulgence, which reduces the punishment for sin, to Catholics who journey to Rome or the Holy Land and fulfill requirements such as going to confession, saying prayers and doing charitable acts. Those who want to stay closer to home can go to designated local Jubilee churches.
Many are taking up the pope's offer. Tens of thousands of people are traveling to the Holy Land or to Rome, the traditional destinations for Christian pilgrims.
In other parts of the globe, Catholics are flocking to local holy places. In Spain, the focal point is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the indulgence is obtained by praying before the relics of St. James the Apostle. In Dublin, Ireland, the bishops have designated May 21 as a national day of pilgrimage. The association governing Gaelic football, the national sport, is cooperating by canceling all matches that day.
Catholics throughout the United States are being encouraged to seek indulgences. In California, an emphasis is being placed on the missions. The Archdiocese of Chicago has designated more than 40 parishes as Jubilee churches that will welcome pilgrims on 13 feast days, including Ash Wednesday this week.
"I would say 90 percent of the dioceses have identified pilgrimage sites and are inviting people to go to these churches," said Paul Henderson, Jubilee coordinator for the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference.
In Baltimore, Catholics are organizing bus trips to visit Jubilee churches. Parishioners from St. Michael's Catholic Church in Overlea plan to visit one of 11 such churches in the Baltimore archdiocese every month. They recently traveled to the St. Jude Shrine in downtown Baltimore.
"We're trying to make it as penitential and spiritual as possible, yet joyful," said Amelia Loveless, a parishioner who is organizing the pilgrimages.
Receiving the indulgence "helps me focus," said Joan Serio, another St. Michael's pilgrim. "It increases my spirituality. I feel closer to the Lord."
But not everyone is pleased, considering indulgences' sullied past.
Indulgences were first granted in the 11th century by bishops who relieved Christians of penances that could last for years. But they have their roots in the belief in the early church that the sufferings and good deeds of the saints were part of a treasury that could be shared by later generations of Christians, in this case to apply to their penances.
Indulgences were granted to soldiers in the Crusades and then to people who financed the cause. They were then offered to Christians who supported the building of cathedrals, churches and hospitals. From there, it was a short leap to the selling of, or trafficking in, indulgences.
The abuse gave rise to the saying, "When in the box a coin does ring, a soul from out the fire will spring." When Martin Luther, a German priest, protested the practice of selling indulgences under the direction of the Archbishop of Mainz to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome -- and to help the archbishop pay the pope for his appointment -- it helped spark the Protestant Reformation. The 95 Theses Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were an invitation to debate the legitimacy of indulgences.
The Catholic Church banned the selling of indulgences at the Council of Trent in 1562, though granting them was still permitted.
Some Catholics believe the concept of an indulgence is outdated, portraying God as punitive instead of compassionate. Indulgences conjure up an image of "the God of the wagging finger," said Francis W. Vanderwall, a theologian and author of several books on spirituality.
Protestants object because they believe indulgences smack of humans working for their salvation, which they believe God alone bestows, with no human assistance. The renewed interest in indulgences could threaten ecumenical relations. Weeks after Catholics and Lutherans signed a groundbreaking document saying they agreed on the essentials of how Christians attain salvation, several more conservative Lutheran leaders boycotted a ceremony in Rome with Pope John Paul.
Indulgences mostly went the way of Latin Masses and meatless Fridays in the mid-1960s, when the Second Vatican Council modernized the church's liturgy and theology. Before then, it was not uncommon to see some Catholics try to collect indulgences.
The Rev. Robert E. Albright, a Catholic chaplain at Towson University, recalls seeing people walk out of a church and come straight back in -- each time counted as another visit -- so they could collect multiple indulgences. "That's a little off the wall," he said. "That's playing games with grace."
Church officials say misconceptions about just what an indulgence is persist.