Last June, to honor the two thousandth anniversary of the Apostle Paul’s birth, Pope Benedict XVI granted all Catholic dioceses around the world the authority to grant plenary indulgences—code for forgiveness of previous sins (until you slip up again). But there’s a catch: like a late-night infomercial, this is a limited-time offer. You’ve got just till the end of the month to claim a ticket for the express train to Heaven.
The premise—participate in certain religious functions or pious exercises in the next thirty days and your sins will be washed away—might sound flimsy. But here in Oregon, where a 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that over half of residents never or rarely attend church and that less than 15 percent are Catholic, some see the "get outta purgatory free" card as a good way to kick-start idling faith. "Catholics in their fifties and sixties might use this as an opportunity [to return to the fold]," says Deacon Tom Gornick, the director of evangelization at Portland’s Archdiocese.
Not everyone is excited, though. The Archdiocese of New York, which oversees a community of 2.5 million Catholics, offers these indulgences in only one of its four hundred parishes. "In some ways, indulgences make [spiritual benefits] quantitative," says Father Jim Kolb, pastor at St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary and chaplain at Oregon Health & Science University.
Meanwhile, Portland’s archbishop, John G. Vlazny, continues to advertise those benefits on the Archdiocese website, where a list of ways to attain the plenary indulgence is the main story on the news page. "It’s just one of the tools one can use to reestablish relationships with God‚" says Deacon Gornick, who points to a 4,853-person bump in membership in the Portland Archdiocese since last year. Certainly not a halo-bending number, but in this town, known for its homebrewed versions of the devil’s nectar and a glut of packed strip clubs, it’s a start.