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Holy shades of Chaucer! Pope Francis is offering indulgences to anyone who follows Catholic World Youth Day on social media. Indulgences, for those who don’t know (or who thought such rusty concepts were confined to the Middle Ages), grant certain amounts of “time off” in Purgatory to their holders — sort of a “get out of jail free” card for the afterlife. In “The Canterbury Tales,” the Pardoner doles out such indulgences — for a fee — and Chaucer does not mince words in condemning him.

I’d like to think that God controls our destiny, not the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter). I can’t imagine it will matter much to God if we end up at the Pearly Gates with souls full of sin and ignorance, but clutching a few magic beans in our sweaty palms. “Oh,” imagine God saying, “You have indulgences. Well, that changes everything.” Fat chance.

I like Pope Francis. I like his commitment to the poor, his humility. I think he will do great things for the Church. And, Lord, do we need them! For every Francis, there’s a Cardinal Dolan, glad-handing his way right over the needs of the people, or a bishop looking the other way at abuse of children by priests. But I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed at Francis’ resorting to the old chestnut of indulgences in order to build interest in a Church event. It reeks of desperation. (Perhaps he is desperate?) But more importantly, it reeks of supposition.

Why any human being — even the Pope — might feel capable of giving people time off from the punishments of the afterlife poses a conundrum for me. For one, who’s to say the afterlife contains the kind of punishments we human beings can conceive of? I always viewed the moment of death as a reckoning: You see your life laid out before you in all its beauty and ugliness, and have to relive every bad-hearted, unloving thing you ever did. For me, this would be excruciating, even if it passed in a moment. My friend Alice doesn’t believe there will be punishment of any kind in the afterlife. Only a welcoming heaven provided by a God whose forgiveness exceeds our wildest imaginings.

We do ourselves — and God — a disservice when we try to analyze God’s plans for us beyond the world we live in. Only God knows what lies ahead. Only God will give us what we truly deserve. Will following an event by Twitter give God pause in God’s judgment? It seems unlikely.

Please, do follow (or attend) Catholic World Youth Day. Just don’t count your chickens — or your indulgences — before they hatch.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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