from the Council of Trent file…

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels
Luther and his famous theses on indulgences

In 1967, Pope St. Paul VI wrote:

The practice of indulgences has at times been improperly used either through untimely and superfluous indulgences, by which the power of the keys was humiliated and penitential satisfaction weakened, or through the collection of illicit profits by which indulgences were blasphemously defamed. (para. 8 of Indulgentiarum Doctrina)

In the 16th century: Lutheranism, Protestantism–the whole mighty conflict–began. And it began with: Indulgences.

During my Protestant youth, my good instructors in religion, including my dear mother and aunt, often repeated the story of the indulgence-preacher Johann Tetzel, who declared, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther explicitly condemned that sentiment in his 95 theses.

Let’s try to sort this out.

God wills to befriend us for eternal life with Him. But that requires reconciliation with Him, with His pure goodness and holiness. Because we do not possess pure goodness and holiness.

Our reconciliation with God involves two dimensions:

1. Becoming God’s friend through Christ. Simple forgiveness of the eternal punishment we all deserve. The eternal punishment we all deserve = not being God’s friend forever. But, even though we don’t deserve His friendship, He offers it to us anyway.

2. Making up for all the bad effects of sin. Reparation. Doing penance. Serving a punishment that isn’t eternal. (Therefore, temporal.)

Trent Duomo nave rose window
Trent duomo rose window

If we die lacking the first dimension of reconciliation with God, we wind up in… correct: Hell.

If we die having the first, but lacking the full term of the second aspect of reconciliation, we wind up in… you got it. Purgatory.

Now, only I, myself, me–responding freely and courageously in faith to the promptings of my conscience, by the grace of Christ–can avoid hell. I myself have to love God and regret my sins, in order to be a friend of God in Christ.

God forgives the penitent soul through the ministry of His Son’s Church. But the individual penitent soul must undergo that ministry. No one can go to confession on someone else’s behalf. No one can decide for someone else to love God and regret sin.

And no one will make a successful appeal on judgment day to someone else’s contrition for his sins. “My mom was sorry that I stopped writing her. She went to church a lot and prayed for me to get paroled. Isn’t that good, Big Guy?” Ah. No.

Hell awaits all unrepentant sinners who die.

But: When it comes to the second dimension of reconciliation with the perfect holiness of God–that is, a friend of God serving a just sentence for the bad effects of his or her sins–in that business, we can help each other.

In fact, in that business, the friends of God are all in it together. Christ our Head, and all His members, including our Lady and all the saints, share resources in order to overcome the effects of sin and achieve total honesty, total purity, total readiness to meet God face-to-face.

Obtaining an indulgence involves sharing in those resources, the “treasury” of the Holy Church, the holiness of Christ and His saints. Only a friend of God can receive an indulgence. And all of us friends of God need the help.

[Click HERE to read the full official Vatican handbook of indulgences. If offers very consoling reading.]


The Disputed Point

San Vigilio en Pinzolo
Church of Saint Vigilius, in Pinzolo, on the Sentiero di San Vili, a 100-km pilgrimage hike

Since I will descend via train to the Adriatic seaport of Venice tomorrow, dear, patient reader, I offer you this (perhaps off-base) reflection…

Antonio signed the bond for one pound of his own flesh. If he defaulted on the two thousand ducats he borrowed from Shylock, after two months.

As The Merchant of Venice mounts to its climax, no one disputes that Antonio signed the bond. Venice’s reputation as the capital of commerce hangs in the balance. If the doge will not enforce a legitimate contract, then justice does not, in fact, rule Venice. And all the trade of the enterprising merchants of the world ought to go elsewhere. To some place where the government enforces legitimate commercial agreements.

Shakespeare ties the knot exquisitely tight. The whole city begs for Shylock to act with mercy, and accept late repayment, three-fold, in lieu of his bond. Portia, disguised as a Paduan lawyer, gives her famous speech:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mightiest,
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An attribute to awe and majesty.
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost then show likest God’s,
Where mercy seasons justice.

But the canticle does not move Shylock. Give me justice, Venice! he demands. Give me my bond! Apparent existential checkmate. Justice demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

venice cargo ship
Venetian cargo ship

These days no one can perform, or even mention, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice–without tripping over him- or herself, on the subject of anti-Semitism.

On the one hand, Shakespeare portrays Shylock in a thoroughly unflattering manner. Other characters repeatedly refer to him as “the Jew” and address him as “Jew.” At the end of the drama, he comes to utter grief. Only accepting baptism saves him from execution.

On the other hand, your heart breaks for Shylock. Everyone treats him unsympathetically, even inhumanely–including his own daughter. When she elopes with a Christian and leaves her father alone, a desperately solitary widow, Shylock weeps not just for his lost jewels (which she thoughtlessly steals from him), but for her lost love, and the lost love of his dead wife.

When Shylock gives his famous speech, we sympathize with him:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.

Once again, apparent checkmate. You cannot hate this Shakespearian ‘villain.’ If the play has a hero, it’s Shylock. When Shylock insists on having his bond, Shakespeare checkmates not only Venetian commercial justice, and not only medieval anti-Semitism. He checkmates human nature herself. She is unjust; she must lay down her king. There’s no solution, except…

Without entering into the interior, religious realm, the Merchant of Venice is just a shell. To answer the question, Is the play anti-Semitic? you have to engage the entire dispute between the Pharisees and the Christ (and His apostle, Paul)–all Jews.

Cima Tosa
Cima Tosa, highest peak of the Trentino Alto Adige region, as seen from the Via San Vili

What does mankind deserve from God? Without facing this question, the Merchant of Venice remains an unsolvable puzzle, neither anti-Semitic nor philo-Semitic. Shakespeare takes us, in his play, to the places where St. Paul went, in his New-Testament letters. That’s where you have to go, to really get the play: you have to meditate on the mystery of the Redemption.

Same with the Council of Trent. It makes no sense, without a willingness to engage the fundamental religious reality. Where do we stand, in our relationship with God? How can we live in a state of genuine peace and friendship with Him?

One line of criticism of the Council holds that the fathers said too much, that they hardened the divisions between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Another holds that they conceded too much to Luther and betrayed Renaissance humanism.

But the alternative would have meant: failing to engage the reality that not only makes The Merchant of Venice a compelling play, but that also makes Christianity a coherent vision of reality. The Council preserved that coherent vision for subsequent generations.

Made in God’s image, we fell. Christ redeemed us and made us just. We receive that grace in His apostolic Church.

Trent Duomo nave rose window
west rose window of the Trent Duomo

More Relics of the Council

Trent painted bldg2

In the streets of Trent, they painted the buildings to welcome the bishops to the Council.

painted Trent bldg1

They burned incense at Mass in this thurible.

Trent thurible

The used this sarcophagus of St. Vigilius as the altar. (Doesn’t hold his relics anymore.)

sarcophagus Trent altar

They hung up these tapestries on the walls of the chancel of the Duomo, to mediate on the mysteries of Christ’s suffering and Passion.

tapestry Trent temptation
the Temptation of Christ

Trent tapestry crucifixion.jpg

tapestry Trent deposition.jpg

They hung the Resurrection tapestry over the altar.

tapestry Trent resurrection

The bishops and priests read their prayers in little breviaries like this…

Trent breviary

The wealthy ones kept themselves warm during the winter nights with ceramic stoves in their lodgings, like this one.

Trent ceramic stove.jpg
(fed with wood from the passageway outside)

When they finally finished their work, Pope Pius IV published the decrees in this first edition…

first edition Trent decrees

And His Holiness sent his ring to Trent as a gift.

Pope Pius IV ring Trent

At Trent Like the Fathers of Old

Trent painting.jpg
this painting depicts third-session meetings in Santa Maria Maggiore

Your unworthy servant has traveled up the valley of the River Adige, to the region where the second language (after Italian) is no longer English, but German.

The Fathers of the Council of Trent did not have Trenitalia to transport them. The mendicant friars who advised the bishops likely came on foot, from their homes further south in Italy.

Upon arrival at Trent, all the participants of the Council would have had to gain access to the city through a gate in the walls:

trent wall

They visited the relics of the martyr-patron of Trent, St. Vigilius.

st vigilius relics
this altar and reliquary didn’t exist during the Council, but the bones inside were here

…in the medieval Duomo…

Piazza Duomo

During the first sessions of the Council, they met in the choir area of the cathedral.

meeting area duomo.jpg
the current high altar, baldachin, and statue of St. Vigilius would not have sat here during the Council; it would have been a wide-open area, suitable for the erection of wooden stalls
back of the trent duomo.jpg
the outside of this part of the Duomo

…I have spent the past six months reading as widely as possible about the Council of Trent. I have thought almost endlessly about it. And I hardly know where to begin.

I was feeling utterly inadequate to the task of trying to understand this subject. Which made me feel pretty bad about myself. Then I read these words of a thoroughly respectable historian, regarding the Council of Trent:

It lasted eighteen years; and never, probably, in the annals of mankind has there been enacted a drama demanding so large an erudition, so subtle a power of analysis, and so patient a development of exposition in the historian who would satisfactorily relate all the details of its progress, elucidate all the motives and policy of the numerous personages who took part in it or influenced its decisions; paint in their proper colors the diverse passions and aims which, checking, clashing, and thwarting each other, contributed to the general result; and draw out the clear stream of an intelligible narrative from the mass of documents, immense and yet imperfect, in which all this is to be found. The difficulty and extent of the subject is so great, that the labors of the historians who have treated of it have still left a sufficiently arduous task to such readers of their works as would attain to a full comprehension of the story.

Made me feel a little better about my own inadequacies. So, for now, just a few more pictures….

Some of the Fathers would have had this rose window to look at during the speeches…

rose window duomo trent.jpg

Other would have looked down one of the side aisles…

duomo trent side aisle

As you can see, they are renovating the Duomo.

The Council met under a crucifix. The church of Trent has kept the crucifix; they built a chapel for it in the Duomo; it now serves as the ‘relic’ of the Council.

Trent council crucifix

Later on during the Council, they moved the meetings to another local church, Santa Maria Maggiore.

santa maria maggiore trent

…Honestly, I can hardly believe that I actually find myself at the very place where the Council of Trent occurred. The Council has, in more ways than I can recognize, defined my life.

More to come, dear reader, as the Lord moves me. I miss you, my beloved friends back home.

Saint Zeno and Co.

basilica san zeno
Basilica di San Zeno

One thousand, four hundred twenty-nine years ago today, Pope St. Gregory the Great was elected to the chair of St. Peter.

In his Dialogues, Gregory recounted a miracle worked in Verona by the city’s patron saint, Saint Zeno.

The River Adige flooded the city. The water level rose twenty or thirty feet. The flood rose almost to the clerestory windows of the church housing Saint Zeno’s remains.

san zeno crypt

But no water entered the church.

The flood waters inundated the city for some days; the people praying in the church got thirsty. So they opened the doors and reached into the flood to get some water to drink, then closed the doors, and returned to their prayers.

Six years ago, the bishop here decided to have scientists authenticate the relics of Saint Zeno. They analyzed the bones, and everything checked-out. They even used computer imaging to try to simulate how he might have looked.

san zeno skull

…Across town, at the Basilica di Santa Anastasia, a painting of the Council of Trent hangs on the back wall, above the main entrance.

san anastasia council of trent

Just to the left, a little chapel of Our Lady has this magnificently evocative painting:

blessed mother of the church

…Italians from all over the country come here to kiss their boyfriend or girlfriend at the “Casa di Guilietta,” a clever invention of the local tourist industry, which is booming.

This evening I chatted with someone who lives just outside the real-life city of Mantua (the town to which Shakespeare had the Prince of Verona banish Romeo).

Romeo speaks of “Verona walls” in the play. They no longer stand, except a few of the ancient gates.

…I learned today that twentieth-century Catholic theologian Romano Guardini was born here in Verona. Pope Francis wrote his doctoral dissertation about Guardini…

…In my humble opinion, the premier beverage they offer here is a bracing distillation of grape skins, seeds, and, stems (the leftovers from wine making), called grappa. It’s Italian moonshine, and it’s wonderful.

…Tomorrow I will visit St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo in Milan, good Lord willing. A dopo.

Still Sailing with the Trent Fathers

At Mass today we hear: Then the door was locked. Sound familiar? From this past Sunday? Someday the Lord will lock the door to heaven, for good. Could be today.

St. Paul consoles us: This is the will of God, your holiness. Holiness gets us inside; God wills us inside. He will lock the door. But He wills us inside first.


Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels

The question of our holiness very much preoccupied the fathers gathered in the lovely town of Trent five centuries ago. They had gathered to try to deal with Martin Luther’s teachings. I am hoping for some grace and insight from a visit there myself, next week.

We can look back at the work of the Council of Trent in two ways.

1. The fathers clarified essential points and saved us from potentially catastrophic confusion about Christianity.

We attain holiness by: believing that salvation comes through our faith in Jesus Christ, Who is the mercy of God. Salvation and holiness come as gifts from on high.

But we still must do stuff. We have to co-operate with the grace of Christ. We have to obey the divine commandments. When we don’t, we have to confess our sins to a priest.

The Church founded by Christ has a life that She must live on earth. That life always falls prey to corruption, which requires a constant struggle for purification. But the baby can’t go out with the bath water. The baby includes: the Mass, the priesthood and apostolic hierarchy, the papacy of Rome, seven sacraments, and venerating saints, especially our Lady.

On the other hand… Here comes Point-of-View-on-Trent #2. The Council defined too much, too precisely. It hardened Catholic-Protestant divisions. And it failed actually to reform the Church. The papacy and the episcopate remained hopelessly overweening and worldly.

Now, we agree with Point-of-View #1. At the same time, I don’t think it makes us Protestants to acknowledge that Point-of-View #2 also has some truth to it.

PA Grand Jury victims
sex-abuse survivors at Penn. grand-jury press conference last August

A year ago, McCarrick, Viganò, and the Pennsylvania grand jury confronted us with a stunning, but hardly deniable, fact. We Catholic Christians sail on a ship that currently lacks competent senior officers. They’re playing Parcheesi on the bridge, while we look out at the sea and realize: We lost sight of land a long time ago.

But this realization has not meant despair for us. Because of the same fundamental insight that the council fathers, gathered at Trent, had.

The Church has Her life. We read and believe the Scriptures. We celebrate the ceremonies Jesus ordered us to celebrate. We strive, by God’s grace, to obey God.

And He is still God, the same God of our ancestors–the God of Abraham, Moses, Our Lady, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Therese. His Son is still His Son, reigning from heaven–and present with us in the Host and chalice. His Holy Spirit still makes us holy.

St. Augustine on Grace and the Mass

At Holy Mass today, we hear St. Paul give thanks that “on receiving the Word of God,” we Christians, “received it not as the word of man, but as it truly is, the Word of God.”

Almighty God has spoken His Word by sending His Son. The Scriptures bear witness to it. And I think we can safely say: Of all the sentences recorded in the Holy Bible, two of them loom uniquely large: “This is My Body, given up for you.” And “This is My Blood, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

st-augustineNow, speaking of shepherds, St. Augustine of Hippo died 1,589 years ago today.

We mediocre people can’t exactly speak of St. Augustine’s “life’s work,” since he did more good work on any given day of his life than most of us manage in a whole lifetime. But one big part of St. Augustine’s work involved: clarifying the truth about the Redemption.

Mankind has both great freedom and dignity and great moral and physical weakness. The coming of Christ enables us to understand this mystery of human greatness and human weakness–at least to some extent.

The fundamentally important fact that St. Augustine clarified is: Holiness, goodness, virtue begins with God. God gives a fresh start to fallen man. Life as a Christian is, first and foremost, grace from God. He gives; He saves; He consecrates. Then, we undertake to co-operate.

Speaking of the Council of Trent… One thing they all had in common—that is, all the bishops and theologians gathered at Trent and Martin Luther and John Calvin: they all revered St. Augustine as an absolutely trustworthy teacher. They all sought to follow the teaching of St. Augustine.

Luther and Calvin had hostility towards the work of ordained Catholic priests. Not without good reason, since they saw around them an enormous amount of clerical corruption and ignorance, extending all the way up the hierarchy to the pope.

This led the Protestants to condemn the priesthood and the Mass, as precisely the kind of false, un-Christian religious work that Christ had come to free us from. They saw the Mass as a pagan-like ceremony, which interfered with our understanding of salvation as a pure gift. We don’t have to do these ceremonies as a sacrifice to God, they argued; we don’t need priests separated from the rest of the flock. Because Christ has already redeemed us, without us doing anything, making us a priestly people.

Ok. But in condemning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Luther and Calvin parted ways with their teacher, St. Augustine. Augustine taught the newly baptized, who had just attended Mass for the first time: the Holy Eucharist is a sacrifice in which Christ makes Himself present, in order to be recognized by faith and then received.

Luther and Calvin were right to insist that there is only one sacrifice. But the Mass isn’t another sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of the Redemption, which frees us from sin, sanctifies us, and unites us.



Christ Good Shepherd

Lord Jesus, the eternal Word of God, shepherds us towards the goal of life. He appoints shepherds from among the sheep of His flock. He Himself shepherds His sheep through the ministry of the sheep He has appointed shepherds.

So, as we hear at Holy Mass today, He vents His most-terrifying wrath against shepherds who fail in their appointed task. Not those who fail through normal human foibles, like we all have, but those who betray their mission through hypocrisy. Through deep inner dishonesty.

Lord Jesus vents His wrath against shepherds who claim religious authority, and who manipulate others by using their authority, but who themselves do not, in fact, love. Who do not love their flock with God’s true love.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

As you know, I’m getting ready to leave on a little pilgrimage/vacation, to follow the path of the Catholic bishops and theologians who converged on the northern-Italian mountain town of Trent, five centuries ago. They met in order to try to understand better what shepherding the flock required of them.

They converged at the tomb of St. Vigilius, an ancient martyr-bishop who had given his life to evangelize the pagans. Trent served as a mid-point between Rome and Protestant lands.

The assembled shepherds proceeded to clarify certain truths of Christianity. God’s revelation comes to us through the Scriptures and the sacred, apostolic Tradition of the Church. The Lord Jesus has given us seven sacraments, by which He communicates His grace to us. His grace can truly make us holy. The Mass makes His sacrifice on the cross present to us now, and receiving Holy Communion means receiving His body, blood, soul, and divinity. We should venerate the saints, pray for the souls in purgatory, and esteem the consecrated religious life.

The fathers of Trent also tried to reform their own lives, to focus more on their true mission, to shepherd people’s souls.

Much more to come on this.

Charity and “Saved”

The evangelical law of charity. Love God above all things, with everything you have. And love your neighbor as yourself, for God’s sake.

council_of_trentAt the Ecumenical Council of Trent, they discussed the relationship between faith and charity.

We believe in God. We believe in God’s Christ. We believe in the Redemption of the human race. We believe in divine love and mercy.

The Christian faith comes to us as a pure gift from above. Salvation comes as a pure gift from heaven. Our response to that gift: Belief. And grateful love.

But that doesn’t mean that we are, right now, “saved.” We have a pilgrimage to make as Christians in this fallen world, to get to the heavenly kingdom. A difficult pilgrimage. Harder than walking from London to Venice, like St. Rose of Lima’s contemporary, and William Shakespeare’s friend, Thomas Coryat did, in 1608. (In 1612, he walked from Turkey to India.) We know we cannot rely on our own strength to persevere to the end of the Christian pilgrimage. So we rely on God’s grace. We hope in God.

By hoping in God, we can live in His love. We can love with His love, and thereby fulfill the evangelical law—a task which human nature, left to itself, cannot accomplish. We neither presume on God’s mercy, nor despair of it. We persevere in faith and divine love by hoping in God’s mercy.

Faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love, to be sure. In heaven, faith and love will be no more; it will be all love. But here below: all three, inextricably intertwined. The human soul in the state of grace believes in God, hopes in God’s grace, and loves God and neighbor by God’s grace.

Thomas Coryat
inveterate pilgrim, Thomas Coryat

Gaudium Magnum Out the Window

Something greater than Solomon here. Something greater than Jonah here. The Christ.

We come to Him to find salvation, to find God. Jesus saves the human race; we know no other way. The human race comes to Jesus, gathers around Him, follows Him, unites herself with Him—and thereby finds peace, true religion, and eternal happiness.

That’s the Church. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the Christ of God.


Six years ago today, the white smoke floated on the Roman evening air, the bells rang out, the eyes of the world gazed at the loggia. Our local tv station came here to St. Joseph’s in Martinsville for comment. Bob Humkey happily talked to the camera.

The joy of the election of a new pope. Six years ago today, it filled the Catholic world. The sense of promise. The comforting continuity. Holy Church renewing Herself again. Habemus papam. Gaudium magnum. Great joy.

I don’t think any of us could have imagined how profoundly compromised that joy would become, six years later. The innocent exhuberance—I remember feeling it even when I was a boy, in October 1978. Then again, as a new priest, in April 2005. Then again six years ago today. Simple, happy confidence in this institution.

Not naivete; we know popes aren’t perfect. We know they are flawed men, like everyone else. The institution isn’t perfect. But when we heard ‘habemus papam’—the vitality, the capacity to start fresh, the fundamental soundness and permanence of the Church: we rightly reveled in it, as our new father in God stepped out to greet us and bless us.

Now? All that seems a million miles away, like a sweet dream that we had. And we have woken up to attorneys general, Royal Commissions of inquiry, and Saturday Night Live legitimately suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church is a crime syndicate.

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels

The familiar loggia on the front of St. Peter’s Basilica: four centuries old. In the century before it was built, many earnest Christians lost confidence altogether in the papacy. They had their reasons. The beginning of… Protestantism.

We have our reasons, too. Martin Luther’s nemesis Pope Leo X reveled in processions with elephants through the streets of Rome. And the doctrine of indulgences was an utter mess. But, as far as we know, Pope Leo did not have two Cardinals publicly convicted of sexually abusing minors.

In other words, we Christians of the early 21st century hardly have less reason to lose faith in the Roman Catholic hierarchy than the Christians of the early sixteenth century did. We would seem to have a great deal more reason.

But it also seems to me that we have to dig deeper. There is something greater here, something greater than the current incumbents of the episcopal thrones. This is the Church of Jesus Christ.

I have a little plan to steal away for a few days in September and make a personal pilgrimage to the cathedral in Trent, Italy–to pray for myself, and all of you, and Pope Francis, and the whole Church.

Everyone know what happened there, five centuries ago? A miracle of doctrinal precision and clarity, to answer Protestant objections. And a miracle of new resolve and spiritual discipline in the Catholic clergy.

The Council of Trent

On our pope’s sixth anniversary, the gaudium magnum of the St. Peter’s loggia eludes us altogether. But the Lord will not fail us. He will not fail His Church, built on Peter.