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 🙂

Greetings + Mom on Hymns

divine-mercyHello from Father Trying-to-Survive-Today-without-Losing-It.

The sun shines, the Lord rose from the dead. I’m heading back home from the mountains soon (to Martinsville-Rocky Mount). I look forward to celebrating Mass, with the facebook livestream, for the feast of Divine Mercy, at St. Francis and St. Joseph.

A lot of people have slightly different ideas about what is going on with your unworthy servant. My plan is to continue to do my pastoral duties, as I embrace any canon-law process regarding my assignment. I will do everything I can to keep everyone informed, as things unfold.

I appreciate the phone calls, texts, messages, and e-mails. I really need all the prayers and support.

…My dear Lutheran mom has written an essay for us, about hymns.

momAbout Hymns and Hymn Singing

On this year’s Good Friday, no one heard the Passion Chorale sung as part of a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. No one heard the Passion Chorale in a Bach organ prelude. Most important, on Good Friday 2020, no congregation sang the hymn, “O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down” — the Passion Chorale.

The Passion Chorale tune comes from the 16th century, the words from the 17th century. In the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach gave the tune a four-part harmony and it became a Lutheran Good Friday hymn. For 250 years, Protestants have sung “O sacred head” on Good Friday.

Martin Luther, a musician who played the lute and sang tenor, started the use of hymns in worship. In the earliest days of Lutheranism, you could tell the difference between a Lutheran worship service and a Catholic service not only by the prominence of the sermon in Lutheran worship but also by the great amount of congregational singing. Singing was a passion with Luther. He wrote at least forty hymns and taught his congregation how to sing them. Luther knew that music strengthened individuals and comforted them; he also knew that when individuals sing their faith together, they express the voice of the Christian community.

JS BachBach deepened the Protestant hymn singing tradition. He gave congregations the hymns that he harmonized, known as chorales, and he connected the chorales to the Gospel lesson for the day. For every Sunday of the church year, Bach wrote a cantata, a work for voices and instruments performed in the Lutheran liturgy after the reading of the Gospel. He would often insert a chorale with words that directly connected to the Gospel lesson.

In his cantata chorale, “Sleepers wake,” for example, a watchman sings, “The bridegroom comes, awake, your lamps with gladness take.” What is the Gospel for that Sunday? It’s Jesus’ story about the bridesmaids who weren’t prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The congregation would have recognized the chorale when they heard it – it was a hymn they loved. Through it they would have heard the Gospel lesson a second time.

Thanks to Luther and Bach, we Protestants see ourselves as hymn singers in worship. We understand that the hymns connect to the Gospel and the sermon, and we know that hymns express the faith in a way that spoken words do not.

After my sister’s memorial service, a friend told me that the most moving part of the service was the congregation’s passionate singing of the hymns, one of which was “Now thank we all our God.” This, too, is a chorale, its words and tune dating to the 17th century, its four-part harmonization written by Bach around 1735. I’m not the only Lutheran to know the hymn’s words by heart, including the last verse: “All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven . . .

cindy and mom
The sisters. Cindy on the right. She died in 2012.

Why do we know the words of hymns by heart? We know them because they repeat Christian truths. You can show this with any hymn; I’ll show it here with the hymn, “The Church’s one foundation.” About the Christian church this hymn tells us 1) that it is the creation of Jesus Christ; 2) that it is united everywhere throughout the world by “one Lord, one faith, one birth; 3) that it is united with God and with those who have died before us. The hymn doesn’t replace sermons and discussions about the nature of the church; it illuminates those sermons and discussions in a memorable way.

For any hymn to be worth singing in worship, its words must be poetic. Look for poetic images direct from scripture, as in “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,” from Revelation 4:1-11, in “Holy, holy, holy,” a hymn about the Trinity. Poet and hymn-writer Isaac Watts recast Psalm 90’s picture of the mystery of time. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” These are the words of verse five of Watts’ most famous hymn, “O God, our help in ages past.”

Unfortunately, recent Protestant hymnals contain quite a few hymns without poetry. These hymns have old, beautiful tunes with new, clunky words. This is a sad development in the Protestant hymn-writing tradition.

In the poetic hymns, words are set to music that is both beautiful and expressive. Jesus’ crucifixion calls for the somber notes of “O sacred head.” In the hymn “Sleepers, wake,” the watchman’s words are sung on three ascending notes that suggest the sound of a town watchman’s voice. For Easter, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain proclaims the day’s extraordinary joy with three crisp, identical major-key chords. The music is by the nineteenth century British composer Arthur Sullivan, who wrote hymns in addition to the music for the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The hymn’s words are by the eighth century St. John of Damascus. The first stanza begins and the last stanza ends with the same words: “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness; God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness.”

For me it’s been a continuing joy to sing beautiful hymns, Sunday after Sunday, with a worshiping congregation. I’m grateful to have spent my life in the Protestant hymn singing tradition.

Are the hymns mentioned in this post in your Catholic hymnal? If you find them, sing them soon!

Ann White


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. 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.


Guest Post: Dr. Ann White

mom(My dear mom has a Ph.D. in history and has done extensive research on the Reformation.)

Is the present-day Catholic crisis more dangerous than the indulgence crisis, which led to the Protestant Reformation?

In Catholic teaching, obtaining an indulgence means substituting for penance following genuine confession. This is no problem and caused no crisis.

Problems came when the selling of indulgences became big business. The market opened up after the pope in 1476 declared that an indulgence could be purchased on behalf of another, for example, on behalf of a dead relative suffering in purgatory. In the following decades, cardinals and archbishops led great indulgence-selling campaigns to support the building and rebuilding of churches, the performance of pilgrimages, crusades against the Turks.

A tipping point came when Pope Leo X in 1515 proclaimed the sale of an indulgence for building St. Peter’s in Rome. Martin Luther, a devout priest and monk, posted his 95 Theses because he feared that parishioners – the sheep of his flock and the victims in this crisis – were being taught that their money could buy God’s forgiveness when they purchased an indulgence.

Which is more dangerous to the church – a crisis based on money or a crisis based on the damaged lives of human persons?  The money did some worthwhile good, but absolutely no good comes from Christians damaging lives and covering up the damage.

Will today’s Catholic church escape the church’s 16th century punishment: tens of thousands of church members following the excommunicated Luther out of the church?

Don’t count on escaping similar losses to the church. In 16th century Europe, people were interested in religion; they wanted to go to church. We all know that in our culture there is little interest in religion and quite a bit of scorn for it. Think about the people who will leave the church as this crisis grinds on, and then think about how God’s children who should come into the church in the future will not do so because the image of its leadership is morally repellent.

Dear Catholic brothers and sisters, I’m a Lutheran but I know that this crisis in your church affects all of us Christians. Please fight for your church. By excommunicating Luther, 16th century church leaders dealt with a symptom of their problem, but not with the problem itself, which they themselves had caused.  Today’s church leaders do the same thing. They plan meetings to pretend to cope with the crisis, thus avoiding the crisis itself, which they themselves have caused. They spurn and condemn the very journalists and activists who have given the sex-abuse victims a platform to speak.

Please fight this church leadership. Call your own meetings and ask bishops to testify under oath. Plan mass protests. Attend meetings you’re forbidden to attend and risk arrest. Write letter after letter, blog post after blog post. Fight for the return of truth and morality to your church.

Remember: the 16th century crisis led to the break up of the Catholic Church. The present day crisis is even more dangerous.

The Scripture Tradition

Do you seen this woman? She has shown great love. (Luke 7:44,42)

Okay. Anybody remember the question we left hanging last week?

How exactly is it that we have come to know so much about these ancient Palestinians named Jesus, Mary, and Pontius Pilate? We know enough to stand up, week in and week out, and belt out a brief discourse about them in the middle of Mass. How do we know anything about them?

old-booksGood question. But you are probably thinking: “Father, this is going to be real short. Because the answer to this question is obvious. Obvious. After all, we also say, in the Creed: ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Bible.’”


Some people enjoy testifying to their unswerving devotion to God’s Word. Preachers love to have big old Bibles draped in stoles and garlands, with bright phosphorescent lights shining.

But, let’s consider: What actually proves that a person loves the Bible? Having a big Bible in the house? Or having Bible bumper-stickers? Or coffee mugs with your favorite verse? Or cross-stitching “Blessed 24:7” on a sofa cushion?

No. The way to prove that you love the Bible is to do one simple solitary thing:

Continue reading “The Scripture Tradition”

The Pope and Martin Luther

“How do I receive the grace of God?”

Last week our Holy Father Pope Benedict visited the monastery where Martin Luther studied for the priesthood and was ordained.

The Pope spoke with admiration about the depth of Luther’s desire for God:

‘How do I receive the grace of God?’ The fact that this question was the driving force behind Luther’s whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me.

The Holy Father went on to outline how different we are now. The contemporary attitude effectively declares: ‘God doesn’t care about my foibles. If He actually does judge me, He magnanimously overlooks all my small failings.’

But, the Pope asked, are our failings really so small? “Is not the world laid waste by the corruption of great and small alike? No, evil is no small matter.”

The Pope went on to say:

We need God; we were created to have a relationship with Him. The more the world withdraws from God, the clearer it becomes that man, in the hubris of his power, in his emptiness of heart and his longing for satisfaction and happiness, increasingly loses his life.

Luther asked himself, “Where do I stand before God?” We must ask ourselves the same question. And when we do, Scripture provides us with the perfect prayer to make:

Justice is with the Lord, our God, and we are filled with shame…
We have been only too ready to disregard the Lord’s voice…
and each of us went after the desires of his own wicked heart.

Luther found himself paralyzed by his own inadequacy before the glory of God. But we need not so find ourselves. We believe in the forgiveness of sins ministered by the Church. God has plans for us involving happiness and not woe. A perfectly fresh start is never more than a good Confession away.

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away

jobJob 1:21

First: All the members of Preacher’s family would like to thank you for praying and supporting us with divine love. Please keep praying and supporting. God provides. He is good. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Everyone is still alive, thanks be to God.

We all have to take the good with the bad, however.

You would think that the Big Daddy of Big Daddies would give some relief to His unworthy servant and blogger. After all, your scribe has been launched into A.D. 2009 in a rough and tumble manner. (A sick relative and the victim of petty larceny, among other troubles.)

Everything looked so promising on Monday, December 29…

Continue reading “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away”