“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
This is the quote which was attributed to the German Dominican friar and preacher, Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). Tetzel was an “Inquisitor” and later the “Grand Commissioner” for indulgences in Germany. It was Tetzel’s preaching on indulgences that got Martin Luther excited (not in a good way). Many of Luther’s “95 Theses” were related to indulgences. Luther’s grievances eventually led to the Protestant Reformation and you know the rest of the story. A divided western Christian community remains with us to this day.
Despite the progress made on gaining a better understanding between some Protestants and Catholics on “justification” (see the ”Joint Declaration on Justification” that was signed off by Lutherans and Methodists) , purgatory and indulgences remain wedges between the faith communities . This is true despite the fact the very few Protestants and Catholics really understand the Catholic teachings related to purgatory and indulgences. When I gave a presentation on indulgences to our Catholic men’s group a year or so ago, several said they didn’t know it was still part of Church teaching and practice. None of the men had ever attempted to gain an indulgence. These men were lifelong Catholics that attended Catholic schools. I can understand why because I’ve never heard a homily on “indulgences” despite attending weekly mass for over 30 years. I would like to provide some clarity by responding to some frequently asked questions related to purgatory and indulgences.
Q: What are Indulgences?
“An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins.” The Church does this not just to aid Christians, “but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity” (CCC 1478)
There is a lot to unpack in this single paragraph. I would like to provide a scriptural and historical framework around these teachings and hopefully clear up some confusion. Indulgences don’t make any sense until you first gain clarity on the doctrine of purgatory.
Q: What is Purgatory?
Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven. CCC 1030-1031 Compendium to the Catechism #210
Q: Where are the seeds of Purgatory found in Scripture?
The first reference is in 2nd Maccabees. This reference is one of the reasons Luther took 1st and 2nd Maccabees out of his Bible. 2 Maccabees 12:42 “and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out.”
Another important scriptural concept is that all of us must be completely holy before we can enter into the beatific vision. Consider Hebrews 12:14 “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Also consider Revelation 21:27 “But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life”.
It is reasonable there must be some kind of process when we die where the process of sanctification (or purgation) is completed before we enter heaven. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:15 “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Q: How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?
Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance. Compendium #211
Q: Where does the Church get the authority to grant indulgences?
Jesus gave it to the Church built on Peter. “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Mt 16:18-19
Q: How does the Church’s understanding of the mystical body of Christ relate to indulgences?
We are all part of the one mystical body of Christ including those on earth, those in heaven and those in transition. On the road to Damascus Paul was challenged by Christ, “Why do you persecute me?” Consider Eph 5:23 Paul calls Christ the head of his mystical body, the Church. Also in Rom 12:5 “…so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Consider Heb 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Death does not separate us from Christ, the head of the body. Consider Rom 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Intercessory prayers can go both directions. I enjoyed the book “Heaven is for Real” written by a Protestant minister where he talks about his 3 ½ year old son’s near death experience and his experience in heaven. His son said that the saints in heaven were aware of what was going on here and that they were praying for us. Consider Rev 5:8 “…the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and Rev 8:4 “and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”
We have a 2000 year tradition of offering masses for the dead. Just as Jews have always prayed for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:42) Christians continued that tradition from the beginning of the Church. “Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another.” St. Cyprian of Carthage 3rd century. Why offer masses or pray for someone who is already in heaven or hell?
Q & A to be continued….
About Tim Cooper
Tim is Senior Manager of Tax Technology for DMA. Tim’s conversion story was published in Journeys Home 2 by Marcus Grodi’s Coming Home Network. Tim is married to Sandy and has one daughter, Katie. He is a volunteer for the Coming Home Network and at their parish, St. Charles Borromeo, Fort Wayne, Indiana.