Summary: When pious Germans dropped money in Tetzel’s collection plate, they were doing so out of love, or maybe fear, but they were intending to do good.
Thursday of 30th Week in Course
All souls day
We shall all die, but what then? That is perhaps the key question of human existence. As Christians, we believe that the Father did not abandon us to the effects of original sin, and He does not leave us writhing in our personal sin. Instead, He, with incredible generosity, sent His only-begotten Son to live in our world and die at our hands so that through union with His Resurrection, we might regain our full imaging of God. We might live forever in the joy of the Trinity.
Moreover, from the earliest days we know that the Church prayed for the recently departed because we are all acutely aware of our weakness, our daily shortcomings, our attachment to the things of this world. We know that when we die, it is rare that we leave this world completely ready for the Beatific Vision. So we profess our faith in the hope–yes, hope–of a period of purification. The great Anglican writer C.S. Lewis called it “being cleaned up” before the celestial banquet. Thus we have the great prayers of the Requiem Mass, which through the mastery of many composers has inspired some of the greatest religious music of all time. And we have the Church’s practice of granting indulgences, which are her way of applying the infinite merits of Christ’s passion to reduce or even eliminate what is called the temporal punishment for sin.
Prayer is the sure way to apply indulgences to ourselves or others, especially deceased friends and relatives. And if they are already in heaven, the grace is applied to someone else. It’s an act of God’s mercy and one of the spiritual works of mercy.
In the Middle Ages, there were indulgences attached to all kinds of prayers, visitations to sacred places, veneration of relics. When we consider how war and the plague could take a healthy person from life to death in a matter of hours, it became imperative to use indulgences as a kind of spiritual insurance, especially since Christ was viewed more as judge than savior by many. Good deeds had indulgences attached to them, and, of course, donating money to support the mission of the Church is a good deed. Thus people began to think of an indulgence as something you could buy.
Now enter Pope Julius II, who became pope in 1503, the year Rodrigo Borgia–Alexander VI–died, and whose great dream was to employ the greatest Renaissance architects and artists to rebuild the basilica over St. Peter’s tomb. Ground was broken in 1506. Construction took 120 years. Of course, that required a great deal of money. “One method employed to finance the building of St. Peter's Basilica was the granting of indulgences in return for contributions. A major promoter of this method of fund-raising was Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, who had to clear debts owed to the Roman Curia by contributing to the rebuilding program. To facilitate this, he appointed the German Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel, whose salesmanship provoked a scandal.”
We need to understand that it is very true that the Church can apply the merits of Christ and the saints to mitigate the temporal punishment for sin. But, like every good instrument, indulgences can be and were abused to further political or artistic dreams. We are citizens of heaven, not of this earth. Everything we do should be focused on achieving that goal for ourselves, our family and friends, and even our enemies. When pious Germans dropped money in Tetzel’s collection plate, they were doing so out of love, or maybe fear, but they were intending to do good.
This led, of course, to the preaching and writing of Father Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, who questioned the practice, and ultimately denied the whole system of indulgences. As we shall see, his political and religious connections amplified his efforts and ultimately cracked open the whole structure of Catholicism from Ireland to Slovakia. Our response to his challenge must be done in charity and intellectual honesty. But mostly we just need to pray–for the souls of the departed and the reunion of the Church Jesus founded.