Chapter 55: Indulgences

Indulgences. The word itself for some Italian Americans means cioccolato perugino, an excellent gelato, torta alla nonna.

But, it’s none of the three. As a participant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church, indulgences mean something else entirely. For those not familiar with indulgences, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia states that they permit “release from captivity or punishment . . . the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.”

For an 8-year-old, indulgences sounded like Monopoly’s equivalent of a “getting-out-of-jail” card. “Jail” for a Catholic kid like me was purgatory.

Purgatory was the main weapon nuns used to keep us in control when corporal punishment didn’t work on us. Purgatory was described to us as a temporary punishment chamber. Every time we did something wrong, the nuns told us we were going to suffer in purgatory for years and years. Not for a few minutes standing in the corner but “years and years!” Even though death was far off, I wanted to join dead family members in heaven–immediately. So, I put a plan in action–the Sacco purgatory insurance program.

In military school, every morning began with Mass at 7am in our chapel. Mass was said in Latin; the priest faced the altar, altar boys wore special Mass uniforms.

Sitting in the far back of the chapel, I could hear nothing clearly–the priest mumbling all his prayers in Latin, his altar boys interrupting him every once in a while with their own mumbling. With nothing really to do, I pulled out the indulgence prayer cards from my St. Joseph prayer missal.

Each indulgence prayer card promised the supplicant–me–X number of years of immunity from purgatory. Some indulgences were worth 100 years, some as many as 500 years! That’s what I called insurance protection! Given that I was a naughty cadet at school and a naught Sacco kid at home, the Sacco insurance protection program was a wise business move on my part. My goal was then to accumulate centuries of purgatory protection. That meant protection from past sins–but more importantly protection from future sins!

After a while, it got tough keeping track of my thousands of years of immunity. So, I brought a small notebook to Mass to bank my “numbers.” The notebook, my libretto was almost full when a nun passed by one morning during Mass and saw me banking my indulgences.

In the middle of Mass, she grabbed me by the ear, lifted me out of the pew, and screamed at me–accusing me, an eight-year-old boy, of heresy in front of everyone! Worse than the public pilloring was her destruction of my notebook, cancelling all of my years of immunity from burning in purgatory.

The Sacco purgatory insurance program had failed. I was in deep shit!

But, the story isn’t over. As I got older, I learned that “grown-ups” back in the Middle Ages abused indulgences worse than I did! And no nun punished them because the Pope allowed them to do it! These “grown-ups” didn’t pray like I did, they actually paid money to the Pope to reduce or even expunge purgatory time. The Catholic Church used indulgences to raise money, the Pope lining his pockets like a Chicago alderman. And the nuns hid this information from us!

In the final analysis, I have no idea if these “grown-up” indulgence abusers got their money’s worth when they died. If they did, then maybe the Sacco purgatory insurance program worked after all and will take full effect when I die.

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About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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