It’s a story that’s gotten some attention, much of it mocking. On June 24 the Vatican issued a decree on the upcoming World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. It made it official that those in attendance would receive a plenary indulgence for making the trip and attending seriously to the program of this once-every-three-years event. I’m not Roman Catholic and I have some serious doubts, as in I don’t believe it, about the reality of purgatory, but according to Roman teaching, a plenary indulgence cancels the “temporal punishment” due us for a particular sin. That is, whatever time might need to be spent in purgatory for some sin is canceled by an approved act of faithful discipleship in this world.
It turns out that going to the Youth Day in Rio is a good thing in terms of reduced time in purgatory. But the Vatican went a step further. For those unable to make the trip to Brazil they announced that faithful participation in the events of Youth Day as they are televised around the world would also merit an indulgence. And things being what they are, this year, for the first time, the faithful following of events via social media was included as a way to earn an indulgence. Follow things on Facebook or Twitter and it will do you some good.
Of course, a secular and cynical press loved the story and headlines started to appear like this one in the UK’s Guardian: Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets. When Jesuit James Martin took to CNN to defend the decree, he was right about the cynicism and the humor had at the Vatican’s expense, but his story confirms the news. Faithfully follow the events at World Youth Day via Facebook or Twitter and you’ll be relieved of some of the punishment your sin deserves.
This system of indulgences, greatly reformed but still around 500 years after Luther, baffles me, but 500 years later it’s going to take more than a blog post by a Presbyterian to resolve the differences between the theological descendents of Luther and Pope Leo X.
On lesser heights, I have been thinking about the spiritual efficacy of social media. Full disclosure: I indulge in a bit of the stuff and may be in need of an indulgence. I even encourage all of you to “like” the LPC Facebook page, so may be in even worse shape.
In fact, Oswald Chambers tweets me a link to a devotional message every morning and via Facebook I hear the prayers and hopes of friends and parishioners literally around the world. We often encourage you to use your cyber connectivity to catch up with the sermons you may have missed and events you could not attend.
I am not slamming social media; I would be a hypocrite to do so. There are real ways in which social media are at least useful tools in my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But, really, cyber discipleship?
I may not be able to make the trip to Rio, though I wouldn’t mind doing so at all – com certeza, eu adoro Brasil e meus amigos brasileiros. But Rio or not, discipleship requires being there: there being wherever I can be face to face, shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye in Lord’s Day worship with brother and sister Christians; at the Table tasting the goodness of the Lord’s presence there; in Bible study hearing the voice, seeing the expressions, feeling the joy of my fellow learners; at the food bank or homeless shelter, on the mission field serving and loving and sweating real sweat in Christ’s name. Incarnation is not just a theological concept; it is the way of Christ.
Yes, I find Twitter devotionals and Facebook prayers and praise helpful. But I organize my life around Sunday worship and Wednesday morning Bible study where I touch and see God’s people and join my voice in singing God’s praise and my mind in searching God’s word. Were the internet and cell connections to go down for a day or a week or even forever, I’d find it frustrating. But if I were not able or, worse, simply chose not to connect body and soul to God’s people – if you took away my Sundays and my Wednesdays – I’d find it debilitating, life-threatening.
Thanks for reading this week’s post, but I really do hope, need, to see you Sunday.