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 🙂

Days of Death

jackolanternWe have three holidays to deal with, October 31-November 2. Halloween. All Saints. The Day of the Dead. All these days have to do with… Death. And with our relationship with people who have died. [Spanish]

Celebrating Halloween as a pagan involves dark and evil things. But celebrating Halloween as a Christian means costumes, candy, and fun. Because we Christians do not fear death. Our Lord Jesus Christ has conquered the darkness of winter. He has conquered the darkness of night. He has conquered the darkness of the grave. The Holy Name of Jesus makes the demons tremble.

And the names of His saints make the demons tremble, too. Because the saints also have conquered death. They reign in the eternal splendor of God.

So on Halloween and on November 1: we rejoice at the altar. Because the saints conquered death by being poor in spirit, like Jesus. By being meek and merciful. Like Jesus. The saints hungered and thirsted for righteousness. They mourned the sin of the world. They endured persecution. They sought always to make peace. Like Jesus.

United with Jesus in His divine holiness, the saints share in Jesus’ conquest of human death. And we ourselves have an intimate relationship with these heroes who have gone before us. We know that they can help us. Like good friends with supernatural resources.

Among all the dead people, many are saints. We know for a fact that some of them are: namely, the canonized ones. Like the holy Apostles, St. Joseph, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese. That said, most of the dead people aren’t saints yet, because… They’re in purgatory. God is purifying them of their sins.

That’s the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. On All Saints Day, we rejoice with delight over the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters in faith have made it to heaven. We do not pray for the saints; we pray to them. They don’t need our prayers. We need theirs.

On All Souls Day, on the other hand, we celebrate an extra, annual funeral for all our beloved dead. We take an extra chance to pray for them and commend them to God. Our relatives and friends who have died; our ancestors. And we pray out of the kindness of our hearts for all the souls in purgatory who don’t have any living relatives left to pray for them.

The nights get longer, and that makes us remember that this pilgrim life will end. But we have nothing to fear. Rather, we keep these holy days, staying close to Jesus at the altar.

All-Souls Day Homily


What is the Mass, fundamentally?  It is the mystery of the death and resurrection of the Christ, the God-man.

How does the celebration of Holy Mass affect our minds?  Hopefully, it focuses them on this essential fact:  The God-man died, and He rose.  This is the fact.  This is the central fact of them all, the fact according to which we understand and interpret all other facts.

In Adam all died.  In Christ all rise.

The niggling little critics might ask us questions like:  You believe all people descend from Adam and Eve?  Then where did Cain and Abel’s wives come from?  Or:  Did Original Sin occur before or after the dinosaurs?

We just say:  Look, critics, niggle all you want.  We start with the new Adam.  The divine Christ, Jesus.  The poor wanderer Who is the High Priest of all creation.  He died on the Cross and rose on the third day.

That’s the central fact.  We cannot understand anything, really; we can’t study dinosaur bones, or the night sky, or the cave paintings of Lascaux—and understand any of it—without first considering the fact at the heart of the Mass.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, dear carping critics, then let’s chat some more about things like the Big Bang theory.

This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life.

So:  When we Christians pray for our dead, and talk to them, and look forward to our reunion with them; when we Christians greet every day as an opportunity to gather up moments of divine love for eternal life; when we try to live as mystics of the Mass, we engage in no maudlin sentimentality.  We engage in no fancy mythopoesis.  No.  We deal in pure facts.

Where does reality begin?  The only reasonable answer is:  God.  And God became a man, and died, and rose again.  Reality begins with the inner mystery of Holy Mass.  Reality as a whole makes sense, when we take the immortal Mass as Fact #1.

The Point of Christian Funerals

I think most Christians have forgotten the controversies that gave rise to Protestantism, when it first started. One of the problems had to do with prayers for the dead. The Protestant thinking went like this: since sometimes Church authority has encouraged people to pray and make sacrifices for the dead in a way that seems un-Christian–like asking for money for indulgences–therefore it’s best not to pray for the dead at all.

That controversy has passed into the mists of history. Prohibiting prayers for the dead clearly runs contrary to one of the deepest inclinations of the Christian spirit. But a deeper question, which lay underneath the controversy, still has to be faced, now more than ever: What exactly is the point of a Christian funeral?

Garofalo Ascension of Christ#1. Reason numero uno: We believe in the resurrection of the body. The Lord Jesus rose on the third day, in the body with which He had made His earthly pilgrimage, formed originally in the womb of the Virgin. Christ ascended into heaven bodily, flesh of our flesh. And He promised to come again, at which time all the dead will rise from their graves, just like He rose from His.

This is the Christian faith.

During the 20the century, some Christians decided to get fashionable and try to interpret the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our ancient Creed, in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ sense. But, as St. Paul put it: that would make us the most pitiable of men. We believe in the promises of Christ more than we believe our own eyes—at least we should believe Christ’s promises more. The dead will rise. We rest in the earth after our bodily death, but not forever.

We have no choice, then, but to treat the bodies of our deceased loved ones with the most loving reverence. This flesh will course with life again. Arbitrarily to destroy the remains of our beloved dead—which is what pagans do—Christians do not do that. Certain things distinguish Christians from pagans—like loving the poor more than money, like having joy in the midst of suffering—and this one: We lavish love upon the bodies of our dead.

Continue reading “The Point of Christian Funerals”

Yorick and Praying for the Dead

Can we get a grip on death? Can we calmly face it?

Our invisible souls animate our visible bodies. Then they don’t.

The bodies that seemed so full of life, so vigorous, so truly beautiful—these bodies become lumpen deadweights.

My father had a large frame. During the last ten years of his life, he had a hard time moving that frame around.

Helping my dad the stroke victim get into or out of a car was a workout. But he was still alive then.

Such tasks seemed like nothing, compared to hefting the dead weight of his 260-pound corpse into the church.

Now his body has been in the ground for 6 ½ years. Hamlet’s dear old friend Yorick had lain buried just about that length of time when the prince came upon the grave-digger who happened to be moving Yorick’s remains. Hamlet took his old friend’s skull in his hand and spoke to him, like I might speak to my father’s skull now:

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Death makes us nervous, so nervous that we say and do strange, nonsensical things. What purpose does it serve to release doves at someone’s grave-side? Or, if the dead man loved Snickers bars, what good will it do him to line his casket with them?

In his encyclical on Christian hope, our Holy Father recalls the custom of the ancient people to whom St. Paul wrote Ephesians. The ancients entombed their dead with the inscription, In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus. “How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing.”

Alas, poor Kirk
In a word, our bodies are doomed. And, as for the fate of our spiritual souls, how can we know? Without definitive information, given to us by a higher power, we have no way whatsoever to know what becomes of our souls after death. Hence the human propensity to make stuff up. Like that Michael Landon might have something to do with it. Or that you could come back in the next life as a cow. If we look death squarely in the face, we have to dismiss all such silly fables.

Praised be God, we have, in fact, received definitive information from a higher power about what happens. Although God allows our bodies to die as a just punishment for our sins, in His mercy He will not leave them in the dust forever. In the same way in which He formed them in the beginning, He will raise them up anew, and we will be able to share in the perfect justice and glory of the risen Christ.

Not only that. God has given us clear and decisive information about what to do for our departed loved ones in the meantime. Pray and offer sacrifice for the expiation of their sins.

All the dead will rise again. We will see them at a grand re-union. Only God knows the day and the hour. Only God knows what kind of decorations will adorn the moment, what kind of birds will be singing in the trees, what kind of foods and drinks will be on offer. That’s His business.

Our business is to pray and offer sacrifice while we can, so that, when that great day comes, we will be able to greet the ones who died before us with the peace of knowing that we loved them and did our best for them.

Death, our Friend

Very few people relish the prospect of death. Yet the time will come for us all.

As we know from the beginning of the Bible, death comes for us because we descend from Adam and Eve, the original sinners. The Creator made us to live; the Devil tricked us into choosing to die.

Death, then, naturally does not appeal to us. It attacks us like an enemy, thwarting our greatest good, which is to live.

But: This is a case where it pays for us to listen to the Lord when He says: “Love your enemies.”

Death looms like an enemy. But we can learn to love this enemy. We can make this enemy a friend.

Christ did not want to die. The prospect repelled Him utterly. But He took up the cross with serene hands, because His death opened the way to paradise for all the sinful children of Adam. Christ made death His friend, so that He could use death to conquer the real enemy, Satan.

We can do the same.

Our dead loved ones lie not in the hands of an enemy, but in the embrace of this friend. By praying for those we love, we stay closer to them than any other means of communication could possibly allow us to be.

It would be great if we could meet our dead loved ones this month, give them a hug, and then relax and enjoy some Thanksgiving football. But when we pray for them at the altar, we come even closer, because we lift their souls up to toward heaven with our prayers.

There will plenty of time for relaxing when, please God, we make it to heaven by way of our friend, death. In the meantime, our job is to pray.

[BONUS: Click HERE if you would like to read a catechesis on the Four Last Things.]

The Four Last Things

The Resurrection by Signorelli, in the Brizio Chapel in the Duomo in Orvieto
The Resurrection by Signorelli, in the Brizio Chapel in the Duomo in Orvieto
“This is the will of my father, that everyone who sees the Son of Man and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)

In the month of November, nature’s life cycle comes to an end. The leaves wither and fall from the trees, and birds fly south for the winter. The night grows longer and longer. The time has come for us to meditate on the Last Things.

There are four Last Things, plus one very important next-to-last thing, namely Purgatory.

The first of the four Last Things is death. Sooner or later, death comes for everyone. Only a fool would refuse to prepare himself for it.

We can thank the good Lord that he has given us our Catholic faith to help us face death with courage and a calm mind. Others are not so fortunate. The inevitability of death hangs over unbelievers like a dark cloud.

We can penetrate the cloud, because the Lord Jesus has taught us what lies beyond death. After death comes the second of the Last Things: Judgment. Jesus Christ, the all-knowing, all-seeing God will judge every human being. He will take everything into account. His judgment will be perfectly just.

When we are judged by Christ at the most supreme of all courts, there are only two possible sentences. The two sentences are the third and fourth Last Things.

If my sins are counted against me and are not remitted by the Precious Blood shed for us on the Cross, then I will be condemned to hell. I will suffer for all eternity. My conscience will accuse me forever, and I will endure the permanent agony of being separated from the only true happiness. At the end of time, my body will rise again from the grave with all the other bodies, and then my torments will only increase.

May it please the Lord, our Lady, the angels and the saints to deliver us all from this!

On the other hand, if we meet death shining with the brightness of Christ, clothed with the grace of His sacraments, outfitted with the virtues that He has lived in us, and provided-for by the merits of His saints, then we will not be condemned for our sins. Our sins will be pardoned.

This means that the sweetest sound we can hear in this life are the words by which our souls are washed clean after a good Confession: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” May we all go to God in a state of grace.

Facade of the Duomo
Facade of the Duomo
If we do go to Him in grace, then everlasting happiness awaits us. We will rest in the infinite truth of God forever, contemplating His beauty with bottomless awe, united with all the saints. Heaven is the fourth Last Thing.

Obviously, heaven is the place of perfect justice, purity, and goodness. Most of us, then, will have to be purified in order to enter heaven.

We do not know the details about the purification of purgatory. We do not know how long it takes or exactly how it happens. What we do know is that 1) it is necessary, and 2) we can help each other get through it.

This is why the month for meditating on the Last Things is also the month for praying for our dead. The least we can do is to try to help those who have gone before us to get to heaven as soon as possible. When we die, and—please God—begin our purification, we will want others to help us get through it.

What can we do to help the souls in Purgatory? Here are four ways to shorten Purgatory for our beloved dead:

1) Have Masses said for them. Every Mass can be offered for a particular intention, including the repose of a particular soul.

Interior of the Orvieto Duomo
Interior of the Orvieto Duomo
2) We shorten purgatory for people by obtaining indulgences. The Church, being a very solid spiritual institution, possesses an enormous spiritual bank account. It is the treasury of the merits of Christ and His saints. This bank has the most precious deposits in the universe, and they are also the most secure.

An indulgence is a withdrawal from this bank, which we can make on behalf of a deceased loved one. It is like a bailout for the afterlife. All we need to do is to renounce all sin and then do one of the pious acts which the Church recommends. One of those acts is to come to church on All Souls Day to pray for the dead.

The third thing we can do to help the souls in Purgatory is to pray for them at any time in any place. Every prayer helps.

Lastly, we can help the poor souls in Purgatory by making sacrifices for them, offering something up for them.

May it please God that we will all be together in heaven someday, with all the people we love!