Halloween, Indulgences, and Luther

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels

This year we get an extra hour on Halloween night. If you go trick-or-treating, make sure you wear a mask. 🙂 Might be better to spend the extra hour praying.

On Halloween 1517, Martin Luther criticized the pope for selling indulgences. This led to a debate that clarified some Catholic teachings. Not everyone who dies goes straight to heaven or hell. If you’re going to hell, you go straight there. But if you’re going to heaven, you probably need some purification first. All the souls in purgatory will go to heaven eventually, once they have made up for all their sins.

Going to college costs a lot of money. But if the government or a foundation gives you a tuition grant, you pay less. The pope can authorize grants for the souls in purgatory, to shorten their time of purification. The grant comes from the goodness of Christ, our Lady, and all the saints. It’s like a huge bank of holiness, from which the pope can authorize withdrawals, to serve as “scholarships” for souls to get out of purgatory. The pope can award those grants because he holds the office of St. Peter, the visible head of the Church on earth.

A “plenary” indulgence is a full-ride scholarship to get a soul out of purgatory. Usually we have one day in November to obtain the full-ride scholarship for a deceased loved one, by going to pray in church. Which day? El Dia de Los Muertos, of course–All Souls Day, November 2. And we would normally have the following week to obtain a plenary indulgence by visiting a cemetery.

jackolanternThis year, though, things are a little different. People wear masks every day, not just on Halloween. It’s harder to go to church this year, because it’s harder to go anywhere. Plus, a lot of people are sick.

So His Holiness has extended the period of time when we can get full-ride scholarships for the dead. We have the entire month of November. Plus, we can do so from home.

When praying at home, it’s good to have an image of the Lord Jesus or the Blessed Mother. To obtain the indulgence, you can read the Beatitudes, or John 14, or any gospel passage that we use at funerals. Or you can say a Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. You need to say a prayer for the dead, like Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Then say an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the pope’s intentions.

The Holy Father also allows us to obtain a plenary indulgence this year by visiting a cemetery “mentally.” Again, this does not mean watching a movie like Pet Cemetery. It means thinking about the people in the graves in a real cemetery, and praying for them. Also, the pope says we can obtain a full-ride indulgence this year by offering to God all our difficulties and sufferings.

Five hundred years ago, the debate that Martin Luther started forced everyone to recognize something about indulgences. Namely: you have to renounce sin, with the intention of going to confession and Holy Communion, in order to obtain an indulgence. This year, that means planning to receive these sacraments as soon as you safely can, whenever that may be.

tombstone crossPope Leo X recognized that Martin Luther had done everyone a favor by initiating a debate that clarified Church teaching. Before Luther started the debate, Catholics were widely confused about whether or not you could obtain an indulgence in lieu of going to confession. In other words, some people thought you could buy your way out of purgatory, without repenting of all your sins.

Pope Leo sent his top theologian, Thomas Cajetan, to debate with Luther. When the Church found some of Luther’s teachings heretical, Luther appealed from one authority to another. He appealed to a panel of university professors, then to an ecumenical Council, then to the Holy Roman Emperor. Each time, they held an open debate. Luther had the chance to explain himself in full, and there were many opportunities for compromise.

The Catholic Church benefitted from the debates. Luther was a prolific writer who understood the power of a new invention, the printing press. Church officials did not question Luther’s right to publish his ideas. To the contrary, everyone took for granted that he did have that right, at least until a final judgment of heresy. Cajetan and other theologians argued with Luther, in order to convince him, using clear evidence, that he had published untrue doctrines.

My point is: We have gone backwards, when it comes to having this kind of open theological debate among Catholics. Pope Leo hoped to convince Luther by offering good answers to Luther’s objections. The pope never assumed that Luther should fall in line simply because the pope told him to. The questions at hand were serious, and a lot of faithful Catholics were genuinely confused. Insisting on blind obedience wasn’t going to work.

I’m almost done with my first book. I think my second might be about this, about the kind of arguments that occurred in the Church in the first part of the sixteenth century, and about how having debates like that could help us now.

Happy Samhain 🙂

God’s Compassion and Law


In our first reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, we will hear the Lord declare, “I am compassionate.” Almighty God’s compassion towards us moved Him to become one of us. The Word became flesh. [Spanish]

The Incarnation of the eternal Son revealed to us human beings the immeasurable depths of God’s compassion for us. He willed to share everything with us. In fact, it is the coming of Christ that teaches us what compassion really is. The love God has for the human race–that is compassion. Christ crucified–that is compassion.

To believe in this–that is Christianity. To share in the mystery of God’s compassion toward us, the mystery of Jesus’ life. That is the faith and the life of the Church–to believe in and share in God’s Incarnation as a human being.

We cannot do this as isolated individuals. The virus continues to isolate many of us physically. But it need not isolate anyone from the Christian faith. Someday, please God, we will all find ourselves together again, in person, celebrating the mystery of faith, the Mass. May that day come sooner, rather than later.

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

But in the meantime, we commune with Christ, and with each other, by believing. Wherever we find ourselves, right here, right now, let’s believe. God is compassionate. God did become one of us, to free us from sin and death and give us a share in His eternal life. We believe it. Let’s make sure we never let a Sunday go by without reciting the Creed and meditating on it.

In the gospel reading at Sunday’s Mass, we will read about how the Pharisees came to the Incarnate Word, and one of them addressed Him as “Teacher.” To use that title implied great respect. It acknowledged a rabbi’s learning, his wisdom, and his holiness. You called someone “teacher,” and then asked a question about God, because you wanted to learn something.

The Pharisee, however, addressed Jesus as “teacher” without really meaning it. That group of Pharisees only intended to set Jesus up. They did not have any real respect for Him as a teacher. To the contrary, they despised Him.

The scholar asked, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” But he had no real interest in Jesus’ answer to that question. In fact, these Pharisees had grown cynical about the Law of Moses.

The Lord had established a covenant with His people by giving the Law on Mount Sinai. The Law of Moses contained the ordinances that could bring peace to the people as a community, and interior peace for each individual. All you have to do is strive to follow the commandments.

But this group of Pharisees had turned the whole thing on its head. They had turned God’s straightforward Law into a complicated burden that subjugated people–subjugated people to the Pharisees themselves. The crooked Pharisees wanted to retain their wrongful authority over consciences. They could see that Jesus spoke to liberate us from precisely such a burden, by offering Divine Mercy.

Christ offers mercy, so we need not tie our consciences up in knots, trying to prove to God how righteous we are. Rather, we can live in the truth that we are the sinners for whom Jesus died. Interior peace comes from living in that truth–which gives us a fighting chance at actually following the commandments that Jesus said are the greatest.

Because we believe in the Christ, we can revere Him as our teacher, and we can seek instruction from Him with a real willingness to learn. We know that we don’t know what to do. We know that we don’t know the greatest commandment. We have failed to obey God over and over again. We deserve punishment, but we get a fresh start instead.

So we can listen. He teaches us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind.” Forget yourself. Forget having power over anyone else. Forget having prestige and the honor of men. Forget comfort and “the finer things.” The finest thing is God. The only one with any real power–God. The only truly honorable one. God.

Love Him. Love the unseen Answer to every question and every problem. Cling by faith to the greater, more-beautiful Good. Then love your neighbor as yourself, with the same compassion that God showed us when He died on the cross for us.

Sharing in Christ’s mystery means laying down our lives without a second thought. Why not? What do we need our lives on earth for, anyway–if not to give Him glory, by loving with His divine love?

Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law? He spoke the answer, then He showed it. The eternal Law is: the love in the Heart of Jesus Christ crucified.

The Existence of Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac Rumours

I knew that the music we were going to bring to the world was going to heal so many people’s hearts and make people so happy. And I thought: you know what? That’s really important. There’s not another band in the world that has two lead women singers, two lead women writers. That was my world’s mission.

–Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac, in a recent interview

An awful lot of people have experienced an awful lot of happiness, listening to Fleetwood Mac. We had the Rumours LP in our house. To this day, my mind knows every riff, every piano stroke, every lilting word of “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” “The Chain,” “You Make Loving Fun,” and “I Don’t Wanna Know.”

In fact, the record might very well have been on the turntable, filling my nine-year-old ears, and my brother’s seven-year-old ears, at the very moment when the baby died in 1979.

If I had not had that abortion, I’m pretty sure there would have been no Fleetwood Mac. There’s just no way that I could have had a child then, working as hard as we worked constantly. And there were a lot of drugs, I was doing a lot of drugs … I would have had to walk away.

In the interview, Ms. Nicks frets about the end of Roe v. Wade. “Abortion rights, that was really my generation’s fight.”

We talked here, over two years ago, about the end of Roe v. Wade. We considered the psychological toll it will take on a society long accustomed to abortion on demand. We recognized the path of love that we Catholics must follow, to help expectant mothers.

The moment remains close, we can reasonably hope–the moment when that unscientific–and horrifically destructive–Supreme Court decision will cease to govern this land.

After all, would there have been a Fleetwood Mac if Stevie Nick’s mother had had an abortion? Or her mother before her? Who would have written and sung “Gypsy,” if Barbara Nicks had an abortion in late 1947 or early 1948? Or if Barbara’s mother had had an abortion in 1927?

And of course there’s this even-more-painful question to contemplate: What could the child have done? The one that died in 1979. What songs could he or she have sung? With all due respect, Ms. Nicks, these are questions that we have to ponder. The cruel, premature death of an innocent person affects everyone.

That’s what abortion is. Cruel, premature death. We are all here right now because someone protected us from such violence, at that vulnerable stage of life.

There is always a better way than abortion. Always. When everyone does their duty to help provide it. May God give us the love we need to do our part.

Mission Anniversaries

This past Monday we marked the 528th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. He reached an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He named the island for the holy Savior, San Salvador. [Spanish]

Mother Carini statue NYC w sculptors
New statue of Mother Cabrini in Battery Park, NYC, with the sculptors

Up in New York City, they marked the anniversary by unveiling a new statue of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini—also Italian, like Columbus. The new statue of Mother Cabrini looks out over New York harbor, towards the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Mother Cabrini helped a lot of the immigrants who came into our country through that little island.

Sunday we mark the 374th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues. He came to the New World to evangelize, and he gave his life for the Gospel, along with the many other missionary martyrs of the Americas. Eight other Jesuits died as martyrs here in what is now Virginia.

No co-incidence then that this Sunday is “World Mission Sunday.” At Holy Mass, we will hear these words of Christ in the gospel reading: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God.”

Now, if our First Parents had never disobeyed God; if life on earth were just like eternal life in heaven, then the Lord would never have had to make that distinction, the distinction between the secular and the sacred. If we still lived in the Garden of Eden, God would be our Caesar. Politics and religion would not be different things. But the malice of the devil entered human history when Adam and Eve fell. This has had many terrible consequences, as we know. One of them is: We American voters have to cast our ballots in a presidential election in which Jesus Christ is not one of the candidates.

Some of us older folks remember the year 1992, when our Church celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Pope St. John Paul II visited the Caribbean to mark the occasion. We Catholics rejoiced together that the Gospel had reached the western hemisphere, and we Knights of Columbus took pride in our namesake. Our Christianity is the jewel of our lives; we should never take it for granted.

christopher_columbusWe weren’t born knowing about Jesus, after all. Someone had to teach us. Someone had to give us the sacraments of grace. Jesus gave the Apostles their mission; others have followed in their footsteps. Because of their sacrifices, we have become part of the history of salvation. To imagine what it would be like to face life—and to face our inevitable death—without knowing Jesus Christ? Too horrible to imagine fully.

But there are other horrors that we also must contemplate. This coming year, the nation of Mexico will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. The president of Mexico has written to the pope, asking for an official Church apology to the native tribes for this act of violence. One bishop in Mexico asked the president if he intended to make an official government apology for all the anti-Catholic violence done by the Mexican state in the 20th century. It all makes us Washingtonians losing the name of our football team seem like pretty small potatoes, by comparison.

How to deal with all these controversies that cut so deeply into our identity? Let’s stay focused on Jesus Himself. That’s what the martyrs did. We honor the martyred missionaries of our land not because they had success as political or military strategists, but because they lived as saints of God. We honor them because they walked in the footsteps of Christ crucified.

Plenty of the Lord Jesus’ followers tried to give to Him what belonged to Caesar. They wanted to march, with swords drawn, behind Him. But He would not take for Himself what belonged to Caesar.

The Christ conquered Jerusalem, to be sure, but not in the same way that Cortes conquered Mexico City. Christ made His conquest without committing any atrocities. Rather, He conquered the world for God by suffering a monumental atrocity. He suffered it fearlessly and with love.

Our Christian mission comes from Him, the gentle king. All the anger and acrimony of this world; all the lust for power; all the injustice and dishonesty—it all came crashing down upon His bloody brow. He absorbed it all. He did not return the blow. He had the armies of terrifying angels at His disposal. He could have torn the universe in two. Instead, He bowed His head humbly and died, with blessings on His lips. ‘Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.’

Here’s our apology. We are sorry we did it to you, Lord. We are sorry. Forgive us, and make us Yours.

Guest Post: Book Review

Death of an Altar Boy E.J. Fleming Croteau

Death of an Altar Boy: The Unsolved Murder of Danny Croteau and the Culture of Abuse in the Catholic Church by E.J. Fleming, 2018.

momReviewed by Ann White

In 1972, thirteen year-old Danny Croteau was found dead in the Chicopee River near Springfield, Massachusetts. Danny’s head was gashed, his jaw broken, his clothes stained with blood. This book about Danny’s death reads like a murder mystery novel; in fact, it tells a shockingly true story.

Danny Croteau was a Catholic altar boy and the victim of priestly sexual abuse. Author E.J. Fleming’s understanding of Danny’s murder comes from 10,000 documents and interviews and from the fact that Fleming’s background was similar to Danny’s. Fleming, too, was a Catholic altar boy in Springfield, MA–but not in Danny Croteau’s parish and not with an abusing priest. Continue reading “Guest Post: Book Review”

The Catholic Banquet

Zubaran agnus dei

At Holy Mass on Sunday we will hear a parable from the gospel, about a king giving a wedding feast for his son. The marriage in question involves the Lord Jesus Christ and all our souls, each individual soul. [Spanish]

God made me, and He exercises ultimate control over the entire course of my life. Every day—every moment—involves an invitation. The loving, almighty hand of God lavishly arrays everything that I experience. All for one reason: to communicate love. To give life. To open up the infinite horizon of friendship with Him.

When did Jesus weep? He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. But that wasn’t the only time. Once, as He approached Jerusalem as a pilgrim, He paused on the hill overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Temple Mount beyond, and He wept. “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those whom the Lord sends to you. How many times have I longed to gather your children together, like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

God demands my attention, more urgently than anything else. Who has more of a claim on me than He does? My Creator has a right to expect my devoted love.

But… He’s invisible. And so confoundedly silent. He seems aloof. Intentionally mysterious. Is He really, you know—there?

Let’s not forget about the banquet in the parable, the “calves and fattened cattle” that the king prepared for his guests. We do not seek friendship with God in an arid wasteland. We don’t have to invent our own religion, based on our own clever insights. We seek friendship with God at a fully stocked banquet table that He has prepared.

He became man. He gave Himself for us on the cross, and then rose again to minister in heaven as our High Priest. He founded a Church and endowed Her with holy writings and sacraments. He has given us a religion, which allows our friendship with Him to grow through the whole course of our humble lives on earth.

God prepared this banquet of grace, this great, undefinable “thing” that is Christianity, Catholicism. He made it; I didn’t. It’s not for me to understand it all, just like it’s not for wedding guests to know all the recipes for every item on all the banquet tables. My job—our job—is to partake. If I make my own understanding of God the measure of my friendship with Him, forget it. After all, the closer we get to God, the more we realize how little we understand.

What I do or don’t do, what I understand or don’t understand—none of that makes or breaks my religion. Most of us hardly know what we are doing most of the time, anyway. What really matters is that God has intervened in history. He founded a Church.

Now, to be sure, our Church clearly has some serious problems. Also, no one has an obligation to go to Mass right now, because of the virus. But my point is this: the Catholic Church’s fundamental institutions deserve my trust and devotion, because they are the means by which I receive God’s grace. When I trust in the mystery of divine love revealed by Christ, I can partake of the banquet of heaven at the altar. I just need to take my place among all the sinners who need that grace.

The king of the parable really just wants everyone to be happy, but he is utterly demanding in one way. He invites us to the wedding banquet of His only Son, and we must accept. If we fail to accept the invitation, we lose our one chance at finding meaning in life. We accept the invitation by believing—believing in Christ and in the sacraments He instituted, and frequenting the sacraments at the right time, and under the right circumstances, of course, considering the public-health situation we face.

No matter what our particular individual circumstances right now, having to do with the virus, or being suspended from ministry, or whatever might get in the way–the main thing is faith. And hope: looking forward to better days, when we can live the life of the Church together, in peace.

Those days will come. In the meantime, we share in the banquet by believing, hoping, praying, and receiving the sacraments insofar as that is possible.

PS. Happy Feast of Saint Dennis 🙂

St Denis
Statue of St. Denis in Virginia Museum of Fine Art