On Sin, Hell, and Indulgences: the pursuit of holiness

FEBRUARY 24, 2016

On Sin, Hell, and Indulgences: the pursuit of holiness


It has been a very long a time since I heard a priest mention or talk about hell during the homily. To put it more truthfully, I have never heard a priest speak about hell (though I’m sure that there are some who do).

Since Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is also never brought up, except during exhortations or announcements at Eastertide and Christmastide, homilies suggest that most if not all Catholics are in the state of grace and are destined for heaven and their spirituality only needs to be fine-tuned for perfection.

The great and holy saints of the Church who strived for holiness frequented the Sacrament of Confession on a regular basis. They were under none of the false illusions of easy salvation created by many priests today.

As a regular penitent who is working out his salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), I am appalled by the decline and virtual disappearance of priests’ availability for Confession on Saturday evenings and on occasions when the faithful could obtain partial and Plenary Indulgences.

To their credit, in my parish, the Our Lady of Guidance Church, the present parish priest and/or his assistant sit in the confessionals every day before the morning Holy Mass; however, I have never once seen any of the one hundred or so Mass-goers go for Confession.

This month on the First Friday, a priest in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas (Fr. A.A.) made himself available for confession in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at 7:00 AM only after Holy Mass was over. I didn’t see anyone (else) avail of the opportunity.

It’s a vicious circle this, Catholics not going for regular confession, and priests not speaking about the horror of the eternal consequences of unrepented sin which results in people not confessing.

Apparently, people just do not sin anymore, or at least they are under the illusion that they don’t, and why would they think otherwise if our priests never talk about sin even though every single Scripture reading at Holy Mass presents an opportunity for them to do so in their homilies?


Further, I have never till today once heard a priest in any parish church talk to the faithful about Indulgences, a grace that derives from of the power and authority given by Jesus Christ to His Church “to bind and to loose”, thus enabling the church militant and the church suffering to obtain very special graces for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin for themselves and for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

The opportunity for this arises (when the faithful make their confession, receive Holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the Pope, etc.) on All Souls’ Day and during the octave by visiting a cemetery, at funeral Masses, on the Sunday feast of the Divine Mercy, on each Friday of Lent and Passiontide, by making the Way of the Cross, on Holy Thursday, at the Good Friday veneration of the Holy Cross, during the celebration of the Paschal vigil, and on several other occasions during the liturgical year, and also at the hour of death.

Most Catholics are not aware that one may even obtain a Plenary Indulgence daily by:

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for at least a half-hour

Pious reading of Sacred Scripture for at least a half-hour

Praying the Marian Rosary in common
(in church, in the family, in a religious institute, in a pious group)

Making one’s confession presents one with an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence for oneself or for the Holy Souls, http://ephesians-511.net/docs/HOW_TO_ACQUIRE_PLENARY_INDULGENCES_AND_AVOID_PURGATORY.doc.

So, there are numerous good Catholics attending Holy Mass on all the above-mentioned liturgical occasions but losing the opportunity to gain indulgences for themselves and for the Holy Souls.

By a total avoidance of not keeping the faithful informed, countless individuals forfeit these indulgences.

By not providing regular and easy access to confession, countless faithful are deprived of these indulgences.

By not speaking prophetically of unrepented mortal sin and its consequence which is eternal damnation in hell, countless sinners are befooled into false security and do not prepare for judgement. This situation is compounded by the fact that our priests rarely if ever preach about the righteousness and justice of a holy God whose presence cannot tolerate sin, while stressing that He is compassionate and merciful.

If I were a priest, I would fear with trembling the hour of my personal judgement when I have to answer the Supreme Judge for the souls of others who He entrusted to my pastoral care.

If I were a bishop, I would fear with trembling the hour of my personal judgement for not having ensured that my priests failed the Head of the Church in the grave pastoral obligations which they were entrusted with by Him.


(I started writing this article a few days ago. I am sending a copy of it when completed to my Archbishop.)


I attended Holy Mass at 6:00 AM in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas on February 5 when the parish priest Fr. Louis Mathias said, “Let us acknowledge our shortcomings.”*

All three alternatives for the Penitential Rite include the words “Let us acknowledge our sins.”

By substituting “sins” with “shortcomings”, the priest has grossly violated the rubrics of the Mass which he has absolutely no right to do. He is the servant of the liturgy, not its master.
To elaborate further, I rarely, if ever, hear any priest use the word “sins” which is substituted by euphemisms like “failures”, “mistakes” … and of course “shortcomings”.

There are other priests who substitute the word “acknowledge” with “feel sorry” as in “let us feel sorry for our sins” and other scandalous combinations.

Failures, mistakes and shortcomings are not sins! And “feeling sorry” is not the same as acknowledgement or repentance (one can feel sorry for, let’s say, not writing to the Archbishop earlier about this travesty but it doesn’t have to be a sin that one needs to be sorry about!)

What occurred at Mass on February 5 is a prime example of what I stated on the previous page, that priests simply do not mention the word “sin” anymore, a word that appears more than 400 times in the Holy Bible.

Even when the use of the word is mandated by the rubrics, many priests deftly circumvent saying it.

Since Holy Mass is the unbloody Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus for the expiation/atonement of the sins of humankind, and seeing that most priests do not speak of sin (I wonder if they therefore do not believe in sin in the first place because a nun sister once told me that there is no such thing as sin; she calls it “un-love”; language was stil undeveloped when the Bible was written, she explained), I wonder what such priests’ perspectives are on the rituals they perform at the altar during Mass.


Since the faithful are presumed to have only “shortcomings” that need to be felt sorry for, where comes the need to talk about sin, indulgences for the temporal punishment due to sin, and Catholic eschatology (especially the two aspects of Judgement and Hell)?

The faithful are presumed to be spiritually secure if they attend Holy Mass, fulfil their obligations and practise certain pieties and devotions — although nothing could be further from the truth. So, it must be presumed that our priests are largely unaccustomed to directing Catholics in the pursuit of spiritual holiness.

In his sermon at a Mass on the First Sunday of Lent, while exhorting us to take Lent seriously and strive for personal holiness, an exceptional priest cautioned us that “nice people don’t go to heaven, good people don’t go to heaven, only saints go to heaven.”

Unfortunately this was a visiting priest from outside the city and cannot be consulted regularly by us.

Another priest whom I consult for spiritual direction is also serving in another city.

Aware that I am among the greatest of all sinners and do not have much time remaining before I stand before the Judgement Seat of God and receive His verdict for my soul’s future for all eternity, I have approached many priests in the archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore for spiritual guidance after a couple of my spiritual directors passed away.

My search has been on for many years, but I have yet to find one who has the inclination or interest, the time, and… the knowledge to direct me. Yes, the knowledge. I’ll come back to that on the following page.

Like-minded people in different cities sometimes ask me if I know a “good” priest who they can consult, a priest who has the inclination and time to listen and to understand, a burden for souls and the knowledge to competently guide well-informed lay Catholics who are in ministry.

It is obvious that they wouldn’t be asking me that question if they had access to even one such priest.

I regret to say that on an all-India basis, I might know two or three priests who satisfy all the requirements mentioned earlier by me. I’m not generalizing that all other priests are “bad”, or that there aren’t any who are “good”. I’m saying that my friends and I do not have knowledge of them.

There are good, holy and prophetic priests in some retreat centres, but then they are mostly not freely accessible to the laity in general except for a very limited time during retreats. And they are often surrounded by a coterie of misguided enthusiasts who have been given the authority to filter out those who would like to meet those priests who are much in demand. Most of these priests do not respond to emails or to telephone calls except from a privileged few. Others ensure that their team members circulate private numbers on which they can be contacted. I know all this first hand from my 33 years in Catholic ministry.

This mean that they can be reached only if their team permits it, and the priest agrees to talk with you.

It is a sad fact that priests in parishes already lack the time and/or the interest. They have a myriad of other “duties” to fulfil, often having little or nothing to do with the salvation of souls. That aspect becomes evident only when one approaches the priests of any parish as an anonymous person with no “connections”, to discuss matters of the soul, or to make one’s confession, especially if it’s not “confession time”, Saturday evening. At our Cathedral, I still have to check out four places (the room allotted for Confession, the Blessed Sacrament chapel, the sacristy and even the priests’ offices)… and still not find a priest who is free.

Rare is the occasion when I meet a priest for confession and I experience the Christ-like joy and welcoming smile that should greet a repentant sinner. He is usually business-like and stern and that’s a very sad thing.




Church history reveals that penitents and counselees flock to holy priests, even those who were not miracle-workers like St. Padre Pio. The Curé d’Ars, St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, is the best example of that. People lined up endlessly to confess to him, traveling to his parish even from distant places. When priests have complained to me about difficult parishes and lukewarm parishioners, I have reminded them that if they had that aura of holiness around them, they would instead complain of being overburdened with pastoral care. I guess the same applies to bishops too.


I now return to the “knowledge” part that I referred to above, on page 2.

I have called for a priest three times during the past three years to be administered the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (what was formerly known as Extreme Unction). I received it twice. The first time, the priest came to me in the hospital and gave me a simple blessing. I was to undergo surgery under general anesthesia but he said that he didn’t think that I required the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The other two times, the priests administered the Sacrament after a general confession was made by me prior to my hospitalisation. The prayers for the Anointing lasted only a few minutes whereas when I checked up the Rituale Parvum, I found that it should have lasted much longer. That has left me wondering whether the priests are doing their ministry thoroughly, completely and correctly, or if I am somehow wrong.

Along with the Sacrament, the priest is also expected to administer the Apostolic Blessing, please see


which grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the moment of death to the penitent so that all purgatory time may potentially be removed.

It is most unbelievable, but both priests were completely unaware of the Apostolic Blessing (although it’s there in the Rituale Parvum). Both before my surgeries and after, I have asked several priests about this Blessing and am horrified to report that all of them were hearing about it for the first time ever from me.

Neither were lay Catholics who I talked to aware of the same.

It is tragic that Catholics dying from terminal illnesses are possibly being administered only a perfunctory blessing by the priest in the name of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, never having been informed of Plenary Indulgences during their lives and being denied the Apostolic Blessing at the hour of death.

I know this to be a fact from my personal experience of the death of close relatives including my mother.

I must add that continuously trying to attain Plenary (or even partial) Indulgences during one’s lifetime, whether for oneself or the Holy Souls is a sure way to strive for and attain holiness for the simple reason that one of the conditions to obtain an indulgence is
that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.


It is difficult for sincere Catholics to receive worthwhile spiritual direction from priests who are worldly, who are disobedient to Church authority in the matter of liturgical rubrics, or who are “ignorant”.

Priests quite obviously do not like to be seen as lacking in knowledge of things Catholic. So laity like me who are fairly knowledgeable about the Faith are viewed by them as a kind of “threat”, if not an embarrassment.

The priest at the Cathedral who is apparently the notified counselor and confessor told me that I was too much worried about “small things” in the future. Do not worry about the past, or the future, or about small things like the “Apostolic Blessing”, he had counseled me during confession a couple of months ago when I enquired about it and he didn’t know. Concentrate on things of the present, he advised. So much for any chance of my seeking his help in any pursuit of holiness that I might want to contemplate.

He is the same priest who in May 2002 turned down my requests to give me time to discuss with him about a particularly serious issue that I wanted him to address when he was my parish priest. I vividly recall his criticism of me from the ambo during the 6:00 PM Sunday Mass in Tamil. The report with documentation is up at my web site, but I am not providing the link to it here so as not to identify him by name in this article.


I went to meet him in his glass-walled office cabin today at 10:00 AM and sat just outside it. He is supposed to be available for confession and counseling from 9:00 AM to 12 noon (and again for a couple of hours in the evening). He was with a fellow priest and requested me to wait, recognizing that I had had come to him a couple of times earlier. After the visiting priest left, he came out and passed within a couple of feet of me — six times to be exact. At 11:45 AM, I finally approached him a second time (he was reading the newspaper) and asked if he would see me now. He told me to sit down and I went straight to the point, asking him if he would spiritually direct me in my pursuit of holiness. He said that he simply didn’t have the time because he had duties in Mass centres in another parish. I finally interrupted his detailed apology and shared with him my above-reported experience with him on an earlier visit, finally revealing that he had also turned me away in May 2002 when he was my parish priest. I excused myself from the fruitless discussion at 12:15 PM.

While I was outside his room, the parish priest and his assistant passed immediately in front of me a couple of times, ignoring me; both of them know me as I have met with them on earlier occasions.

The assistant (whose name I withhold) was the assistant priest a couple of years ago in my parish and holds the record of being the only priest from my parish to visit and bless our home in Chennai since January 1993.



Even on that occasion, I had requested the parish priest to bless our home (apart from my now-expired spiritual directors, we regularly have good priests from overseas visiting us and ensure that our home has always been blessed by them) but he had deputed his assistant. As he had only recently been transferred here, we expected him to try to get to know us and so we were taken aback when, after completing the house blessing in under three minutes, he excused himself and tried to leave. After all, it was our first-ever experience of a priest’s visit from the parish house and we didn’t know what to expect.

We managed to get Father to sit down for a few minutes more over coffee during which time I showed him my vast library of religious books and familiarized him with certain aspects of my ministry.

Noticing that I had a copy of Fr. Richard McBrien’s 1300-page CATHOLICISM, he asked me my opinion of it.

I opined that it was a book with liberal and incorrect teachings. Father agreed with me and said that when he was at seminary, one of his professors had told him to use the tome academically but to reject its content. I expected that common ground to be the beginning of a relationship, but Father studiously avoided eye contact with me thereafter … and even today when I greeted him at the Cathedral where he now serves.

Incidentally, the seminary professor that he referred to is known to me, and he is one of the handful of good and theologically conservative priests that I know of.



*A priest recently answered my query concerning the substitution of the word “sin” with “shortcomings”:

Failures, mistakes and shortcomings need not be sins. 

Sins, whether they are serious or not, are acts that involve volition. 

Many priests nowadays seem to be allergic to the word sin. They must be thinking that sin does not exist, but that there are only failures, mistakes and shortcomings.

















(Unabridged version)









“The faithful, who devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular or medal) properly blessed by any priest, obtain a partial indulgence. But if the article of devotion has been blessed by the Sovereign Pontiff or by any Bishop, the faithful, using it devoutly, can also gain a plenary indulgence on the feast of the Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, provided they also make a profession of faith according to any legitimate formula.” [19, Norms on Indulgences 29 June 1968, Emended: October 1968]












From the local newsweekly, Mylapore Times, February 13-19, 2016:

Fr. Alan Madhan applies ash on the forehead of a baby at Our Lady of Visitation Church, St. Mary’s Road, R.A. Puram at the Wednesday morning Mass held at this Church.



This is a symbolic service on Ash Wednesday and it marks the start of the Lenten season for Christians – a time (of 40 days) when they are called to reflect on their lives, correct their shortcomings and seek forgiveness.

Lent ends with Holy Week, leading to the celebration of Easter.

The editor of the Mylapore Times, Vincent D’Souza, is a liberal Catholic.

Whether the explanation for the Ash Wednesday service was written or vetted by Vincent D’Souza or whether the words are representative of the priest’s explanation of the service to the Mylapore Times reporter who covered the event is irrelevant. Catholics during Lent according to the news story “reflect on their lives” not on the sin in their lives; they “correct their shortcomings” and not repent of their sins, and “seek forgiveness” (only God knows from whom they seek that forgiveness and from what!).

Without recognition and admission of the sin in one’s life, and repentance thereof, one cannot aspire to holiness without which one cannot enter God’s presence in heaven.

The above write-up fully justifies what I wrote at the top of page 2 about my concerns.

It is also representative of the state of the Church at least in this archdiocese. But I’m pretty certain that the same prevails elsewhere too.

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