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 🙂

Indulgences

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.]

 

St. Francis Portiuncula Indulgence

portiuncula

The medieval town of Assisi sits on the top of a hill in Umbria, Italy. In the town square, young St. Francis removed his rich garments and embraced his life of Christ-like poverty.

On the plain at the bottom of the hill sits an ancient chapel. It honors Our Lady of the Angels. Was originally dedicated on August 2, shortly before Assumption Day. It was eight hundred years old at the time of St. Francis, eight hundred years ago.

The chapel languished in disrepair then. The Lord inspired St. Francis: “Repair My house!” So Francis and his companions renovated the little chapel and made it their home.

stfrancisAnyone been there? My dear mom, my late aunt, and I visited on November 16, 2008, along with a group of pilgrims. That was my third visit.

The Portiuncula now sits inside a large basilica. And they built replica portiunculas at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, and in downtown San Francisco, CA.

The Lord promised St. Francis that anyone who wants to honor Our Lady of the Angels and visits the Portiuncula—or visits any parish church, on the anniversary of the dedication of the Portiuncula—can gain a plenary indulgence.

You just have to recite the Creed, pray the Our Father, pray for the pope’s intentions, renounce all attachment to sin, and confess and receive Holy Communion sometime within the same fortnight.

A plenary indulgence helps a soul get to heaven. Either my own soul, or a soul in purgatory.

As Luther pointed out, selling indulgences involves the grave sin of simony. But obtaining an indulgence by praying and renouncing sin? Good to do.

Pope Francis Holy-Year Indulgence

Pope Francis at Holy Door St Peters


Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
(Luke 5:34)

We know that the heavenly Bridegroom is always with us. Problem is that we are not always with Him.

He always loves–loves us with an earnest, peaceful, all-encompassing zeal. His constant, unflinching love is, after all, the only thing that can really make us happy. We, for our part, pay attention to Jesus loving us approximately 3% of the time.

On the one hand: time passing—weeks passing; months, years—on the one hand, all this time passing can very much work to our advantage. Because good things grow with time, even when we don’t realize it. If we keep some kind of wholesome routine and stay on the right track, the power of God can foster our growth in virtue and intimacy with Him. He accomplishes great things in us when we aren’t even paying attention.

But, on the other hand: the passage of time can lead us to sink into a rut, and our spiritual lives corrode gradually. We can find ourselves all but completely enveloped in the tedious monotony of the world–it’s short horizons and petty agitations. Over time, human beings can grow accustomed to a life that is all but spiritually dead.

cuaSo we need opportunities to break out of the small, uninspiring confines that our routines can lead us into. That’s called a jubilee: when the normal rut, which everyone got used to, without realizing it, and forgot that there is more to life—a jubilee is when that rut gets broken to bits by the hugeness of God.

The coming of a year of jubilee reminds us that everything is God’s. His mercy trumps all our antagonisms and lists of grievances. We remember that there was a beautiful beginning to this world, and it can be beautiful like that again.

In less than three weeks, our Holy Father will arrive here for a visit with us in the US. Can’t wait to concelebrate Mass with Him, at my alma mater and the site of my ordination, for the canonization of one of my most-beloved saints, using the Pope’s, and the saint’s, mother tongue.

In three months, we will begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The other day, as we discussed, the media focused on one passage of a letter the Holy Father recently wrote about the Jubilee Year. I think we should focus on a different passage:

It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead. (Misericordiae Vultus 15)

Popes designate jubilee years for one main reason: to grant indulgences. When we repent of our sins, God forgives us and liberates us from the eternal punishment that we have deserved for offending Him. Nonetheless, our debt to justice remains, and purifying ourselves completely takes time.

We do not, however, face the prospect of this painful purification all by ourselves. We face it as members of the one Church. And the Church has had many saints. So the supreme authority of the Church, moved to imitate the indulgent heavenly Father, indulgently grants us a share in the goodness of the saints, thereby reducing our own personal debt to justice. That’s an indulgence.

In his letter of Tuesday, Holy Father expressed something very profound, I think, when he focused on our obtaining the Holy-Year indulgence by practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Practicing the works of mercy obtains for us the grace of total forgiveness from the Father. The Pope writes that this would be the Jubilee-Year Indulgence in full—to experience living a year of jubilee in total harmony with the merciful Father.

Year-of-Faith Baptistery Visit

Today in Rome, our Holy Father inaugurates the Year of Faith at St. Peter’s Basilica—fifty years to the day after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and twenty years to the day after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

One of the pious activities which the Pope recommends for us: to visit the place of our baptism and renew our baptismal promises there.

The 42nd anniversary of my own baptism is one week from today. Three years ago, I stopped in the church and made a visit.

I thanked the Lord for baptizing me in such a nice, historic Presbyterian church. I also thanked Him that I got to become Catholic, 22 years later.

We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead, ascended into heaven. We believe that He guides all things in favor of our salvation and our triumph in glory in heaven. We walk by faith in the One into Whose death we have been baptized. The whole purpose of life is that our baptism might come to full flower.

Perhaps it seems incongruous to baptize a nursing baby into the crucifixion of a Palestinian carpenter from 2,000 years ago. Incongruous to take the pride and joy of the preening parents in hand, and ritually unite the child with the obscure death of an apparently obscure man.

But it makes perfect sense, because:

1. Everyone dies. Even the cutest baby. Someday: a corpse.

2. The obscure man into Whose death we are baptized is Almighty God.

3. He rose from the dead. We are baptized into His resurrection and His eternal glory, too.

Where your unworthy servant was baptized

When we were baptized, someone made the promise of faith. Speaking for myself, I was too young to make such a promise at the time. My interests then focused almost exclusively on sleeping and breast milk.

But someone made the promise for me: I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Church, the sacraments. I believe in heaven.

It certainly will do us all a lot of good, insofar as we are able, to visit the place where the promise of faith was first made for me, and to make it again, as if for the first time.

Meditation on the Call of the King

St. Ignatius Loyola discovered that a person can grow closer to Christ by using the power of the imagination.

As one of his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius proposes that we first envision the most captivating leader imaginable.

We imagine someone with a clear sense of purpose, a beautiful and noble plan. Someone embarking on an adventure requiring great self-sacrifice. This leader personally invites us to join the enterprise. He promises us an equal share in the labor and in the fruits of its success.

Maybe we could take the fields of business or science as an example. Let’s each imagine our favorite entrepreneur coming to us personally to invite us to join his or her company, right as it was just starting up. It could be Henry Ford, or Walt Disney, or Steve Jobs, or any other great market visionary. “Work with me, share my life, and you will share in the rewards.”

Continue reading “Meditation on the Call of the King”

Matsui Rocks + Suffrages for the Dead

ALDS Game 1 - New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins

speed bump reaperThe World Series has never lasted until the Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo before…

…If ever there were a month for meditating on the Four Last Things, November is it…

…During the Year of the Priest, any Catholic may obtain a Plenary Indulgence by going to Mass on the first Thursday of the month.

Applying such an indulgence to the soul of a deceased priest would be a kind deed.

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!