Published on February 21, 2014
An Historical and Contemporary Analysis
BA, MA, MA, Ed. S.
The term Purgatory comes from the infinitive form of the Latin “purgare”, to purify. The belief in Purgatory is rooted in Roman Catholic tradition. It is this author‟s purpose to examine the teaching of the Church from its earliest beginnings, tracing its historical and theological development by the early Church Fathers, and the political influences which led to its codification as dogma in Church councils.
The concept of a place of purgation for souls whose lives have been morally mediocre should make sense philosophically for Christians. The reasoning is simple: A person, who, in his or her life has knowledge of Christ‟s call to perfection (Matthew 5:48) and chooses not to heed that call wholeheartedly, enters into the next life hampered by a spiritual uncleanness. This state of the soul who has not rejected God totally demands cleansing.
Protestantism has dismissed the concept of Purgatory, due to its belief that Christ‟s redemptive act on the Cross assures salvation for those who accept Christ as their savior. Protestantism generally rejects the effectiveness of good works as a necessary condition for salvation, focusing instead on faith in Christ and His love for those who accept Him.
Luther, in his famous 95 theses, questioned the abuses of indulgence-selling. On October 31, 1517 nailed 95 statements he wished theologians to debate to the castle door, which served as the “black-board” of the University of Wittenberg on which all notices and university functions were displayed. The same day he sent a copy of the Theses with an explanatory letter to Archbishop Albert (Albrecht) of Magdeburg and Mainz.
This is a picture I took of the door when I was in Luther-Stadt Wittenburg in 2005.
Later in his life, Luther espoused the doctrine of the sleep of the soul upon one‟s death, using this idea as a refutation of Purgatory and the veneration of saints. While Luther is not always consistent, the predominant note running all through his writings is that the souls of the just sleep in peace, without consciousness or pain. Luther initially accepted the belief in Purgatory. In 1519 he even said that its existence was undeniable. By 1530 he had changed his mind; he said that Purgatory could not be proven to exist from biblical passages. Later that year he rejected the concept of Purgatory entirely.
Catholicism, while considering the existence of Purgatory to be dogma, has, at least in its liturgy, moved away from earlier concepts of Purgatory as a temporary Hell to one of lesser concern for the ordinary member of the faithful. Purgatory is rarely, if ever, mentioned at wakes or funerals. In the official liturgical prayers, while implied, the term is never used.
The focus in the New Testament is the “Good News” of Jesus‟ redemption found in the four gospels, as well as the Gospel of Resurrection found in the writings of St. Paul. The early Christian preachers, especially St. Paul, simply were not concerned with Purgatory.
In the Old Testament, prayer and sacrifice of expiation for the dead appear only in the last two centuries before Christ. Before this time no acts of worship directed toward the dead seem to have existed. The only OT passage that can be cited in support of the doctrine of Purgatory is 2 Mc 12.39-45. According to the text, when Judas Machabee and his men made arrangements for the fitting burial of the soldiers of his army who had died near Adullam, it was discovered that they had worn pagan amulets, contrary to the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law.
According to the traditional interpretation of this passage, the inspired author believed that those who had otherwise led good lives were purified by prayer and sacrifice from their sins. This essentially is the Catholic doctrine on Purgatory. If, however, as many modern exegetes hold, the author regarded these sacrifices as necessary for the eschatological resurrection of the dead soldiers, then these passages do not directly refer to the doctrine of Purgatory.
It would be St. Augustine (354-430) who would, among the Church Fathers, be especially influential in promoting the idea of Purgatory . Tertullian, Origen, Cyril, Basil, Cyprian, Ephram, Ambrose, John Crysostom, Caesarius of Arles, and Gregory the Great…all gave witness to the early belief in Purgatory.
St. Gregory (540-604) gives a concise argument in his “Dialogues” for the existence of Purgatory: “Each one will be presented to the Judge exactly as he was when he departed this life. Yet, there must be a cleansing fire before judgment, because of some minor faults that remain to be purged away….”
The period from Augustine and Gregory to the appearance of Dante‟s “Divine Comedy” in the 14th century was a time of stagnation in the development of the eventual existence of Purgatory as dogma with the Councils of Lyon II, Florence, and Trent. Stagnant as the development of the dogma of Purgatory was, it was also an age of imagination and creative thought, with ideas ranging from two hells to two heavens, to cleansing fire (not that of Hell) even after the Day of Judgment. A museum was even opened to house objects brought back from a cleansing place by visionaries during this period. (How these objects survived the cleansing fire is not clear…!)
For a particularly thorough and impressive scholarly work on the growth of the concept of Purgatory, from the time of the early Church writers to the end of the 12th century, I recommend “The Birth of Purgatory” written in French by Jacques Le Goff, and translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1986.
Catholicism split into two parts in a major development in 1054. Although there had always been an uneasy relationship between Christians in the Eastern Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey), and the Western Empire, with its capital in Rome, an issue of how the Holy Spirit “proceeded” from the other persons in the Trinity (the filioque controvesy) plus a confrontation as to who held primal authority in the Christian church brought the Catholic church to its first major split since the Oriental Orthodox broke from the Church following the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Patriarch Michael I Celarius of Constantinople had a letter written to a Eastern bishop which found its way to Pope Leo IX wherein the patriarch claimed the title “ecumenical patriarch” and referred to Pope Leo as a “brother” rather than “father.” The major issue Michael wrote about concerned the use of unleavened bread at the Eucharist, which practice had been approved by the pope. Legates from the pope were to meet with the dallying Michael, but Pope Leo died on April 19, 1054. Although the legates‟ authority legally ceased at the pope‟s death, on July 16, the three legates entered the church of the Hagia Sophia during the liturgy on a Saturday afternoon and placed a Bull of Excommunication on the altar. The legates left for Rome two days later, leaving behind a city in a frenzy. The papal bull was burned and the Great Schism began.
The filioque controversy preceded the excommunication. Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and the Son” which was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Church of Rome in the 11th century. This inclusion in the creed regarding the Holy Spirit thus states that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Its inclusion in the Creed would seem to have been a violation of the canons of the Council at Ephesus in 431, which forbade and anathematized any additions to the Creed of the Council of Nicea, a prohibition which was reiterated at Constantinople IV in 879880. This word was not included by the Council of Nicea nor of Constantinople, and most in the Orthodox Church consider this inclusion to be heresy. However, a regional council in Persia in 410 introduced one of the earliest forms of the filioque in the Creed; the council specified the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son.” Coming from the rich theology of early East Syrian Christianity, this expression in this context is authentically Eastern. Therefore, the filioque cannot be attacked as a solely Western innovation, nor as something created by the pope.
Before his death, Leo IX sent a letter to Michael, in 1054, wherein he cites the "Donatio" to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood."Leo IX assured the Patriarch that the donation was completely genuine, not a fable, so only the apostolic successor to Peter possessed that primacy and was the rightful head of all the Church.
(Donatio Constantini) is a forged decree by which the emperor Constantine supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the Western part of the empire to the Pope. Composed probably in the 8th century, it was used, especially in the 13th century, in support of claims of political authority by the papacy. However, an Italian priest, Lorenzo Valla and Renaissance humanist, is credited with first exposing the forgery with solid arguments in 1439–1440.
As a general rule, all Eastern Christians do not use the word “Purgatory.” This includes both Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The word “Purgatory” is specific to the Latin tradition. In the Medieval West, many popular theologians defined Purgatory as a specific place of suffering. It was popular to tally periods of time that people spent in Purgatory for various offences, which led to the practice, prior to the 95 theses of Luther, of granting years, if not centuries, of exemption from time spent in Purgatory through the purchase and granting of indulgences.
In the Catholic understanding, two points are necessary dogma concerning “Purgatory”. 1) There is a place of transition/transformation for those en-route to Heaven. 2) Prayer and good works (including almsgiving) are efficacious for the dead who are in that state. That the second point was abused in the Catholic Church, there is no doubt. This gave rise to Luther‟s wish to debate these practices. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches agree with the Latin Church fully on both of these points (with the exception of the Western abuses.) In practice, liturgies for the dead are celebrated and prayers are offered on their behalf.
It is an understatement to say that St. Augustine was the most influential theologian in the Western Church until the arrival of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). It was Augustine, however, who embraced the concept of limbo, a state where unbaptized infants went after death. For a long time it was held that an infant without baptism would go to hell, but would suffer a mitigated pain. Augustine even persuaded the Council of Carthage (418) to condemn the idea that children who pass out of this life unbaptized live in happiness. In contrast, in our time, Pope John Paul II wished to do away with Limbo. A theological commission with this purpose in view was instituted by him before his death. Although the commission has not given the final verdict, as Cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI had already voiced his opinion on the dissolution of Limbo. Cardinal Ratzinger, now retired Benedict XVI, presided over the commission‟s first sessions and said that Limbo has no place in modern Catholicism. Augustine‟s position on Limbo has been dismissed in paragraph 1261 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God,, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of god who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus‟ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come too me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism…
This statement of the Catholic Church today, in addition to the intentions of two modern papal figures, would seem to indicate that Limbo will disappear from any further discussion within eschatological theology. This is particularly important considering the hundreds of millions of abortions world-wide….and a comfort to those Christian parents who lose their children through miscarriages or still-born births.
Western theologians continued to develop the concept of Purgatory, constructing a more consistent synthesis. There was general agreement on the presence of fire as a purging agent. However, since the body was removed from the soul at death, it is difficult to understand how a physical fire could affect a spiritual being without some theological hypothesizing, none of which offered a definitive solution. Eastern theologians rejected the idea of fire. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) explained the fire as a binding and hampering of the soul, but not as physical fire. He also held that the least pain in Purgatory was greater than the worst in this life. St. Bonaventure (1221-1274 ) said the worst suffering after death was greater than the worst on earth, but the same could not be said regarding the least purgatorial suffering. St. Robert Bellarmine (1524-1561) said that in some way the pains of Purgatory are greater than those on earth. At least objectively the loss of the beatific vision after death, is worse than its non-possession now. There was, and still is, no certainty concerning the intensity of the pain of Purgatory. However, St. Catherine of Genoa‟s (1447-1510) description of Purgatory is compelling reading; however, it falls into the category of mystical private revelation and Catholics are free to withhold belief in it, or any other private revelation, if they so choose. What is significant about Catherine‟s Treatise on Purgatory is her emphasis on the joy of those in Purgatory. This joy seems to overshadow the pain of deprivation from the fullness of God‟s presence.
One of the greatest works of literature is the Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri (1265-1361). Born in Florence, Italy, Dante was educated in Italian and Latin poetry; however, because of Florentine law, in order to participate in public life, one had to be enrolled in a sort of workers‟ union. He chose to enroll in the apothecaries‟ guild. He did not intend to actually be a pharmacist, but at that time books were sold from apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little, but he held various offices over a number of years in a city undergoing political unrest. In his twenties, Dante turned his attention to philosophy and took part in the disputes that the Franciscans and Dominicans held in Florence, where he learned of the theological teachings of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas concerning Purgatory. Beginning in 1308, when he was in his early forties, Dante began work on the Divine Comedy. The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead. The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory. Having survived the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil ascend to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world. The mountain is on an island, created with earth taken from the excavation of hell. At the shores of the mountain, they meet Cato, a pagan who has been placed by God as the general guardian of the approach to the mountain.
Dante and Virgil start the ascent of Mount Purgatory. On the lower slopes Dante meets first a group of those excommunicated from the Church. Ascending higher, he encounters those too lazy to repent until shortly before death. These souls will be admitted to Purgatory thanks to their genuine repentance, but must wait outside for an amount of time equal to their lives on earth. Finally, Dante is shown a beautiful valley where he sees the kings of the great nations of Europe, and a number of other persons whose attention to public and private duties hampered their faith. From this valley Dante is transported asleep to the gates of Purgatory itself. From there, Virgil guides Dante through the seven levels of Purgatory. These correspond to the seven deadly sins, in which souls are purged of that particular sin in an appropriate manner. Souls can leave their level whenever they like, but essentially there is an honor system where no one leaves until they have corrected the nature within themselves that caused them to commit that sin. Souls can ascend upwards but never backwards, since Purgatory‟s purpose is for souls to ascend towards God in Heaven. The visual imagery Dante uses is memorable. For example, on the first level, the proud are purged by carrying giant stones on their backs, unable to stand up straight. On the second, those who were envious are purged by having their eyes sewn shut. On the third, those who were angry are blinded by smoke. On the fourth, the lazy must continually run. On the fifth, the greedy are forced to lie with their faces in the dirt. On the sixth, those who committed the sin of gluttony are unable to secure food or drink. On the seventh, the lustful must burn in a wall of flames.
The effect of such imagery upon the medieval mind must have been significant. Dante‟s poem inspired artists to visually represent these levels and, thus, form an artistic tradition of Purgatory similar to the image of Adam and Eve eating an apple in Eden. (The use of the apple in early Christian art probably can be traced back to the Latin word malum, which medieval monks translated both as “apple” and as “evil.” What a pun! However, carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and Germany beginning around the 12th century. In his Areopagitica (1644), John Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game.) However, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and Dante‟s images of Purgatory no doubt influenced the uneducated and educated alike.
The first Church council to address the issue of Purgatory was not an ecumenical council. The Council of Carthage, 394, was the first council to uphold doctrines of prayers for the dead and Purgatory. The first ecumenical council (#14) to address the issue of Purgatory was Lyons II, held in 1274.
The Council of Lyons II was truly ecumenical and extremely well-attended. A Pope, Gregory X, five hundred bishops, sixty abbots, more than a thousand prelates, the ambassadors of the Kings of France and England, the ambassadors of the Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the Greek clergy, and the ambassadors of the Khan of the Tatars were in attendance. Gregory called the council for two purposes: The conquest of the Holy Land and the union of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
Lyons II encouraged crusaders to win back the Holy Land with the following declaration: We therefore, trusting in the mercy of almighty God and in the authority of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, do grant, by the power of binding and loosing that God has conferred upon us, albeit unworthy, unto all those who undertake this work of crossing the sea to aid the holy Land, in person and at their own expense, full pardon for their sins about which they are truly and heartily contrite and have spoken in confession, and we promise them an increase of eternal life at the recompensing of the just. To those who do not go there in person but send suitable men at their own expense, according to their means and status, and likewise to those who go in person but at others' expense, we grant full pardon for their sins. We wish to grant to share in this remission, according to the nature of their help and the intensity of their devotion, all who shall contribute suitably from their goods to the aid of the said Land, or who give useful advice and help regarding the above, and all who make available their own ships for the help of the holy Land or who undertake to build ships for this purpose.
Lyons II, interestingly, was also first council to enact rules speeding up papal elections, calling for the removal of food and even the roof of the room they met in if the election process went on too long. However, the above quote from Constitution I raises the issue of plenary indulgences (or full remission of temporal punishment due to forgiven sin) for those who went to liberate the Holy Land at their own expense. Not only that, but plenary indulgences are granted to those princes who, at their own expense, send suitable soldiers. Finally, plenary indulgences are granted to those who provide or build ships for the crusade‟s purpose. The definition of a plenary indulgence, even today in Catholic parlance, is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory.
Catholic theology teaches that there are two punishments for sin; one is called eternal and is inflicted in hell, and the other is called temporal and is inflicted in this world or in Purgatory. According to Catholic theology, the sacrament of penance remits the eternal punishment and only part of the temporal. Doing penance (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy and patient suffering) remits temporal punishment. The purpose for temporal punishment is a satisfaction for sin, and to teach the penitent the great evil of sin and to prevent him or her from falling again. But the plot thickens. If one could gain a plenary indulgence for almsgiving to the crusade effort, outlined in Lyons II, then it was not a big leap for Luther to want debated the entire practice of indulgence-granting when money was involved.
The story is still promulgated to this day of the Dominican Friar from Germany, Johann Tetzel (14651519), who apocryphally spoke the couplet "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the rescued soul from Purgatory springs." Apparently, though, Tetzel even went as far as creating a chart that listed a price for each type of sin. However, remission of “temporal punishment” due to forgiven sin is different than what Tetzel was accused of ... namely forgiveness of past or future sins for a price. The charge that the forgiveness of sins was sold for money regardless of contrition or that absolution for sins to be committed in the future could be purchased is baseless. A careful reading of the above quote from Lyons II makes that clear.
As was just noted, Johann Tetzel became the focus of what might be called “Indulgencegate” today. Tetzel was the Vatican's "Apostolic Commissary for all Germany and Inquisitor of Heretical Pravity" during the reign of Pope Leo X (1513-1521). Tetzel‟s indulgence-brokering activities, which soon aroused Luther's righteous indignation, were part of an ambitious plan of Leo‟s to provide funds for the reconstruction of St. Peter's in Rome. St. Peter‟s Basilica would take 111 years to build, and would consume huge amounts of money. Leo was advised by Cardinal Pucci to publish a sale of indulgences throughout Europe for the purpose of replenishing pontifical funds and finishing the work on St. Peter's begun by Julius II (1503-1513). Never mind that Leo himself was given to providing lavish parties for his friends... The practice of doling out severe physical penances for apostasy, murder, or adultery in the early Church, which might involve several years of dressing in sackcloth at the church door or other humiliating practices, led to eventual mitigation of these penances. From the seventh century on, beginning in Ireland and England, redemptio, a sort of commutation of penance to less demanding works, such as prayers, alms, fasts and even the payment of fixed sums of money depending on the various kinds of offences (tariff penances) became fashionable. However, this practice was considered a mitigation of the penance imposed on the penitent in the Sacrament of Penance (today called Sacrament of Reconciliation.)
However, reducing a physical penance within the Sacrament was not an indulgence. Beginning in the 11th century, the possibility of providing for the multiple works of piety through the imposition of a donation as a condition for the remission of punishment, even outside the sacrament, led the way to indulgences in the strict sense of the term, i.e., apart from sacramental Penance. As seen from Constitution I of Lyons II, plenary indulgences, outside of the sacrament of Penance, were granted. However, indulgences had taken up a portion of the four ecumenical councils: Lateran I (1123), II (1139), III (1179), and IV(1215). In 1095, Pope Urban II had called for a crusade to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims. Thirty years later, Lateran I pardoned the sins of crusaders. In the 1100s, the custom of seeking an absolution in every circumstance and on every occasion, and before any work, became widespread in medieval society. In other words, the faithful were administered a prayer formula, so that God would forgive their sins. Absolutions entered the liturgy of the Mass and the Office (this is the meaning of the Confiteor), and were used on various other occasions not only for the living but also for the dead as a prayer on their behalf.
According to Fr. Enrico dal Covolo, writing in L'Osservatore Romano, 1999: In any case, by the end of the 11th century indulgences in the strict sense of the word are found with all their essential elements. It remains difficult, however, to identify the precise point of transition from the reduction or commutation of sacramental penance to the extrasacramental remission of temporal punishment due to sins committed: with the 11th and 12th centuries it is still hard in many cases to determine whether we are dealing with one or the other practice. The granting of indulgences, outside of the sacrament of Penance, came to become common-place, inviting abuses, many of which have been recorded. Fr. Enrico dal Covolo continues: Indulgences were attached to many works that were not only good but also served the common good, both religious and civil. Many churches were built or restored — at least in part — with the revenue from indulgences; this also explains the impressive architectural and artistic activity of the Middle Ages. Moreover, hospitals, leprosariums, charitable institutions and schools were built with support from the receipts of special indulgences. Along the same lines is the wellknown construction of roads and bridges. Sometimes an indulgence was also granted for certain reclamation projects...
Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on the occasion of Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences. Later on, similar permission was frequently granted for many other projects, and princes were not always too scrupulous. The door had been opened for the abuse of indulgences. Almsgiving is, and always, has been a good work. However, when money became the trading currency for delivery from God‟s justice, the stage was set for a whole series of consequences. Ecclesiastical powers, comfortable with income from the uneducated faithful for good works done, did not want to see this source of wealth dry up...and so it continued. Meanwhile the idea of Purgatory was about to get more official recognition in the Council of Florence.
Often quoted as an authoritative declaration on the dogma of Purgatory is the Council of Florence. The declaration on Purgatory was almost an after-thought considering the mess the papacy had gone through, and was still going through. Actually the Council of Florence was part of a quad-council endeavor known as Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (14311445), which came on the heels of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417 ). The Great Western Schism does not refer to the split between the eastern (Greek) and western (Latin) churches, but to a period of almost forty years in the western church when two, and then three, popes claimed to be the true successor to Peter and the real bishop of Rome. Driven by politics rather than any real theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414-1418). What emerged from Constance was a view held by some conciliarists who believed the highest authority in the church was ultimately a general council, and that a church council could supercede the authority of the Pope, whether he attended or not.
The view was still around during Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome, and this partly accounts for Pope Eugene IV‟s movement from Basel, where conciliarists continued to meet, to Ferrara and then to Florence which the Orthodox representatives favored. Although the Pope had convened the council in Basel, once he decided to move the council to Ferrara, he declared that those remaining in Basel had no authority and were a group of agitators. He then excommunicated the hold-outs at Basel, but they continued to meet until 1449. The Orthodox were promised all-expenses-paid travel to Florence. Several issues were brought up in Florence beside the filioque issue and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. One issue of interest was discussion on whether souls in Purgatory were burned by fire. Matters were settled by compromises, which, in the long run, did not last. For example, the Orthodox and pope agreed that some souls burned in Purgatory, while others did not. The use of leavened bread was approved for the East, and unleavened for the West. The Orthodox looked at the filioque issue with the same arguments that had preceded, namely that the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon had already forbidden any additions to the Nicene Creed. However, finally the addition to the Nicene Creed of filioque was accepted by both sides because of examination of the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers, and, after arduous discussion, papal primacy was accepted by the Greek Orthodox. In any case, the Pope had other things than Purgatory on his mind, especially rapprochement with the Orthodox ... and all this with conciliarism still holding significant influence in the “rump council” which continued in Basil.
In Session 6, on July 6, 1439, the following statement was accepted in the Council of Florence: If truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains; and the suffrages of the living faithful avail them in giving relief from such pains, that is, sacrifices of masses, prayers, almsgiving and other acts of devotion which have been customarily performed by some of the faithful for others of the faithful in accordance with the church's ordinances. Also, the souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have been cleansed whether in their bodies or outside their bodies, as was stated above, are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits.
Detailed disciplinary statements were also issued in the conglomerate Council of Basel-FerraraFlorence-Rome. Some interesting samples from Basel in 1435, while the Pope was still in attendance: Noisy comings and goings in the church should not be allowed to impede or disturb the divine service. There are abuses in some churches (where) ...secular songs are sung in the church, or masses are said without a server, or the secret prayers are said in so low a voice that they cannot be heard by the people nearby. These abuses are to stop and we decree that any transgressors shall be duly punished by their superiors. In some churches, during certain celebrations of the year, there are carried on various scandalous practices. Some people with mitre, crozier and pontifical vestments give blessings after the manner of bishops. Others are robed like kings and dukes; in some regions this is called the feast of fools or innocents, or of children. Some put on masked and theatrical comedies, others organize dances for men and women, attracting people to amusement and buffoonery. Others prepare meals and banquets there. This holy synod detests these abuses. On a more innocent and wholesome note, many Catholic youngsters are encouraged today in the celebration of All Saints‟ day Masses to dress up as saints, complete with nun‟s garb, priestly vestments, and even bishops‟ attire of mitre and crozier. In any case, an ecumenical council had pronounced, not only on the existence of Purgatory, but on the belief that Sacrifices of Masses, prayers, almsgiving, and other acts of devotion remedied the souls in Purgatory ... a belief and practice still held today in the Catholic Church.
Who could imagine today the kind of papacy the dawn of the sixteenth century would see? Giuliano Della Rovere was born in 1443. He was the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, becoming a Franciscan as his uncle had before. On December 15, 1471, the same year his uncle became pope, he was created a cardinalpriest and was given several benefices. Giuliano was a patron of the arts, and spent much of his wealth in the erection of magnificent palaces and fortresses. Still his early private life was far from exemplary, in that before he became Pope Julius II in 1503 he fathered three daughters. He had his enemies, having led papal armies into battle and having a distaste for the influential Borgia family. His opportunity to follow in his uncle‟s footsteps came in 1503, but his bid was rejected by his fellow cardinals who chose a sickly and aged Francesco Piccolomini as Pius III. The new pope died twenty-six days later, and the ambitious cardinal made inviting promises and bribed his fellow cardinals which paid off in his election as Julius II at the end of the year. However, some dissatisfied cardinals, with political support from the French royalty, called their own council at Pisa in 1511, suspending Julius II. He was not intimidated, however, and called his own council which came to be known as Lateran V, calling the Pisa attendees “schismatics and heretics.”
The agenda for Lateran V concerned the issue of conciliarism again, with the papal assertion that general councils must meet and act only under papal approval. Other items discussed were reforms involving simony, concubinage, and lay control of church money and property. An interesting innovation concerned the forbidding of the publishing of pamphlets and books without the permission of diocesan bishop ... this involved excommunication. The appeal for another Crusade against the Turks met with no enthusiasm, and the situation in Europe relegated such a venture to oblivion. Julius II was undeniably involved in simony in his election, and the council issued this statement in Session 5, 1513 in the form of a papal bull. Notice the reform was to take place in future elections of popes!
During the Council, Julius II died in 1513, and his successor, 38-year old Leo X, continued Lateran V. Leo was a Medici, and is reported to have said after his election: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.” And enjoy it he did. He loved music, dance, the theater, games, and spending money. It is not surprising that the large amount of money left by Julius was entirely spent in two years. In the spring of 1515 Leo was broke. He created new offices and dignities, and sold Church property. Indulgences became almost entirely financial transactions, yet without avail, as the treasury was ruined.
In all, Leo spent about four and a half million ducats during his pontificate and left a debt amounting to 400,000 ducats. (A ducat, in today‟s US dollars would be worth about $800.) Leo spent about 3.6 billion dollars… On his unexpected death in 1521 his creditors faced financial ruin. A lampoon proclaimed that "Leo X had consumed three pontificates; the treasure of Julius, the revenues of his own reign, and those of his successor."
Leo was basically oblivious to the fomenting dissatisfaction of a certain German theologian, Martin Luther, once calling him “that drunken German.” However, the “drunken German” was about to shake the Western church to its core. Lateran V could have addressed the abuses of indulgence selling; however, considering the turmoil the Catholic church had been through involving conciliarism and the papal primacy, indulgences were at the bottom of the list of concerns. What came to be high on the list, despite Leo X‟s squandering of the money Julius II had accumulated for the purpose of its rebuilding, was the completion of the largest Catholic church in the world, St. Peter‟s Basilica in Rome. Who would have known that northern Europe was about to break away from the Church in the Protestant Reformation, due in part to the way in which funds were gathered for the project.
One of the items on Lateran V‟s agenda had gotten it right...the power of the printed word. The Catholic Church feared that its teachings would be compromised by unheard of access to controversial doctrinal pamphlets and books which could be disseminated in Europe with relative ease. Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and inventor best known for the Gutenberg press, an innovative printing machine that used movable type. Gutenberg was born between 1394 and 1400 and died in 1468. The Gutenberg printing press developed from the technology of the screw-type wine presses of the Rhine Valley. It was there in 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg created his printing press, a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters held within a wooden form and the form was then pressed against a sheet of paper.
The motivation for Luther‟s posting of his 95 theses sprang from a host of reasons. Luther was well-educated, having earned his doctorate in theology at Wittenberg in 1512. He had been ordained a priest in 1507, suffering from a severe case of moral scrupulosity, which today might better be classified as “obsessive-compulsive-disorder,” or OCD. His morbid fear of mortal sin in saying Mass correctly, led to his starting the Mass over on occasion, if he felt he had not said the Mass prayers with due attention. His frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, sometimes lasting six hours, gave him no peace. This psychological hell Luther endured with increasing frustration. He would lay out in the snow as a form of penitential satisfaction for his imagined sins. The turning point to his interior hell came on a trip to Rome in 1510, in climbing the Scala Santa, on his knees, near St. John Lateran. Half-way up, he came to the conclusion that the penitential works he had been doing were not getting him closer to God, but that, since Christ had died for his sins, all he had to do was trust in God‟s mercy and love. While in Rome he met priests who were ill-trained in theology, which contributed to his negative attitude of anything coming from Rome. Knowledge of Leo X‟s partying habits and abuse of money raised by buying and selling of indulgences, coupled with the still-unsettled influence of conciliarism, made the pilgrimage to Rome an eye-opener for him.
Back at the University of Wittenberg, Luther taught courses on St. Paul‟s epistles. In 1515, while teaching a course on St. Paul‟s Letter to the Romans, his sense of interior peace was reinforced by chapter 1, verse 17: Justitia enim Dei in eo revelatur ex fide in fidem sicut scriptum est iustus autem ex fide vivit. The key words were: “The just shall live by faith.” Luther, having found his peace with God, focused on what he saw were abuses in the sale of indulgences. As mentioned above, this issue came to a head with the financial operations of Archbishop Albert. Albert of Brandenburg (1490 -1545) became bishop of Magdeburg in 1513 and Archbishop of Mainz in 1514. At the time he was only 24 years of age, below the prescribed age for a bishop. A papal dispensation was required, along with a large payment, to acquire the high ecclesiastical offices. Needing over 20,000 ducats to pay Pope Leo X in exchange for the title of Archbishop of Mainz, Albert borrowed the money from a south German banking house, the Fuggers, and then set about to pay back the loan, with an agent of the Fuggers virtually at his side, cashbox in hand.
To raise the necessary funds, Archbishop Albert promoted the sale of indulgences for the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome. Half the collected funds went to Rome for the building of St. Peter's and half went into Albert's pocket. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican monk employed by Albert, sold these indulgences in Germany with the official permission of the young Cardinal-Archbishop.
Archbishop Albert, after Luther sent him his 95 theses, submitted the copy of them to his councilors at Aschaffenburg and to the professors of the University of Mainz. The councilors were of the unanimous opinion that they were of an heretical nature, and that proceedings against the Luther should be taken. This report, with a copy of the Theses, was then transmitted to Leo X. Leo was reluctant to push the issue. In what was to become of the most serious of all the crises which threatened the Roman Church, he failed to be the proper guide for her. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt. True reform might have helped preserve Catholicism in Europe, but Leo was entangled in political affairs and partying. However, on June 15th, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the bull, Exsurge Domine,that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the ninety-five theses, within 60 days. Rather than recanting, Luther publicly set fire to the bull at Wittenberg on December 10th, 1520. As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by the pope on January 3rd, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.
For the remainder of the personal history of Martin Luther and his increasing hostility toward the papacy, this author refers the reader to his own work: Table Talk With Martin Luther, Authorhouse Press, 2005, available on Amazon.com. For the final development of Luther‟s views on Purgatory, one can turn to Luther‟s Small Catechism: Question 201 of Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation answers the question "For whom should we pray?" as follows: "We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead." Hebrews 9:27 is cited in this connection: Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them. Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no need of our prayers.”
On several occasions, Martin Luther and his friend Phillip Melanchthon appealed for a general council to discuss dogmatic and disciplinary issues which divided Europe. Pope Paul III, yielding at last to the request of the German Emperor, Charles V, and the pressure of public opinion, convoked a general Council, to be opened May 23, 1537, at Mantua. It did not convene there, the reasons for which will be explored later. In 1530, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, called together the princes and cities of his German territories in a Diet at Augsburg. He sought unity among them to fend of the attacks of Turkish armies in Eastern Austria. He called upon the Lutheran nobility to explain their religious convictions, with the hope that the controversy swirling around the challenge of the Reformation might be resolved. To this end, Philip Melanchthon, a close friend of Martin Luther and a Professor of New Testament at Wittenberg University, was called upon to draft a common confession for the Lutheran Lords and Free Territories. The resulting document, the Augsburg Confession was presented to the emperor on June 25, 1530.
Article VI of the Augsburg Confession contains the following reference to Purgatory, temporal punishment, and satisfaction for sin by good works: These customs have long since grown obsolete. Neither is it necessary to restore them, because they are not necessary for the remission of sins before God. 17] Neither did the Fathers hold this, namely, that men merit the remission of sins through such customs or such works, although these spectacles (such outward ceremonies] usually lead astray the ignorant to think that by these works they merit the remission of sins before God. But if any one thus holds, he holds to the faith of a Jew and heathen. For also the heathen had certain expiations for offenses through which they imagined 18] to be reconciled to God. Now, however, although the custom has become obsolete, the name satisfaction still remains, and a trace of the custom also remains of prescribing in confession certain satisfactions, which they define as works that are not due. We call them canonical satisfactions. 19] Of these we hold, just as of the enumeration, that canonical satisfactions (these public ceremonies] are not necessary by divine Law for the remission of sins; just as those ancient exhibitions of satisfactions in public repentance were not necessary by divine Law for the remission of sins. For the belief concerning faith must be retained, that by faith we obtain remission of sins for Christ's sake, and not for the sake of our works that precede or follow [when we are converted or born anew in Christ]. And for this reason we have discussed especially the question of satisfactions, that by submitting to them the righteousness of faith be not obscured, or men think that for the sake of these works they obtain remission of sins. 20] And many sayings that are current in the schools aid the error, such as that which they give in the definition of satisfaction, namely, that it is wrought for the purpose of appeasing the divine displeasure. 21] But, nevertheless, the adversaries acknowledge that satisfactions are of no profit for the remission of guilt. Yet they imagine that satisfactions are of profit in redeeming from the punishments, whether of Purgatory or other punishments. For thus they teach that in the remission of sins, God [without means, alone] remits the guilt, and yet, because it belongs to divine justice to punish sin, that He commutes eternal into temporal punishment. They add further that a part of this temporal punishment is remitted by the power of the keys, but that the rest is redeemed by means of satisfactions. Neither can it be understood of what punishments a part is remitted by the power of the keys, unless they say that a part of the punishments of Purgatory is remitted, from which it would follow that satisfactions are only punishments redeeming from Purgatory. And these satisfactions, they say, avail even though they are rendered by those who have relapsed into mortal sin, as though indeed the divine displeasure could be appeased by those who are in mortal sin. 22] This entire matter is fictitious, and recently fabricated without the authority of Scripture and the old writers of the Church.
In effect, the Augsburg Confession threw out the need for the sacrament of Penance, sacramental penances, temporal punishment due to forgiven sins, indulgences, and Purgatory. In 1537, Luther published a significant work, the Smalcald Articles, requesting a “Christian” council to discuss the beliefs of himself and other reformers, although by this time Luther had become increasingly hostile toward any action of any pope, and considered the papacy the “Antichrist.” Philip Melanchthon, who had authored the Augsburg Confession, signed the Articles with the almost conciliatory qualification: “I, Philip Melanchthon, approve the foregoing Articles as pious and Christian. But in regard to the Pope, I hold that, if he would admit the Gospel, we might also permit him, for the sake of peace and the common concord of Christendom, to exercise, by human right, his present jurisdiction over the bishops, who are now or may hereafter be under his authority.” Despite the fact the Melanchthon and Luther took different directions later in life, with Melanchthon hoping for reunion with the Catholic church, the beginning of the Protestant rejection of Purgatory had been doctrinalized.
The Catholic Church‟s response was indeed a general council as Luther had requested, but on its terms, not those of Luther. Pope Paul III (14681549) who reigned from 1534-1549 attempted to convene a general council, planning it first to begin in Mantua in May, 1537, but because of opposition of the Lutheran princes and the refusal of the Duke of Mantua to assume the responsibility of maintaining order Paul convoked, for a second time, a council at Vicenza, scheduled to begin May 1, 1538. Political frustrations again delayed the Vicenza council‟s opening, since the Lutherans would have no part in a council presided over by the pope, Emperor Charles V was resolved to reduce the princes to obedience by force of arms. To this Paul did not object, and promised to aid him with three hundred thousand ducats and twenty thousand infantry. Interestingly, in 1520, Charles, who began as Charles I of Spain, left Spain to take possession of the German Empire to which he had been elected. The French king, Francis I, had been his rival for the dignity; Leo had thought that his interests in Italy were endangered by Charles' election. In spite of the opposition of Rome and France, Charles was elected (June, 1519), and everywhere received the title of "Emperor Elect.”
The death of Leo X in 1521, brought Adrian VI to the papacy. He inherited the debts of Leo, as well as the corruption of the Roman Curia, which he openly acknowledged, to the delight of the Protestant movement. He truly stood alone, ignored in his appeals to prevent the eventual fall of Rhodes to the Muslims. His energies depleted, Adrian died after only two years in the papacy. His successor was Clement VII (1478-1534), who reigned as pope from 1523 to his death in 1534. If there was a weaker pope in a time of multiple crises within the Church, it would be difficult to name one. Clement was a vacillating political leader for one thing. His on-again, off-again alliance with Charles led to the famous Sack of Rome in 1527. When Clement assumed the papacy, Francis I and Charles were at war.
It is difficult to imagine the distractions that being head of the Papal States led to Clement‟s ineffectiveness in dealing with the Protestant revolt. The Pope's wavering politics also caused the rise of military factions inside his own Curia: Pompeo Cardinal Colonna‟s soldiers pillaged the Vatican and gained control of the whole of Rome in his name. Totally humiliated by his own cardinal, Clement promised therefore to bring the Papal States to the military cardinal‟s side. But soon after, Colonna left the siege and went to Naples, leaving Clement alone in Italy to face the horde of Landsknechts. It seems probable that the Landsknechte, a very large proportion of whom were followers of Luther, had really got completely out of hand, and that they practically forced the Constable Bourbon, now in supreme command, to lead them against Rome. On May 5, 1527, they reached the walls, which, owing to Clement‟s confidence in the truce he had concluded, were defended by only 5000 soldiers. Clement had barely time to take refuge in the Castle of Sant‟ Angelo, and for eight days the "Sack of Rome" continued. After the execution of some 1,000 defenders, the pillage began. Churches and monasteries, but also palaces of prelates and cardinals, were destroyed and robbed. Nuns and other women were raped; surviving men were tortured and killed. Even cardinals had to pay to save their riches from the invading mercenaries.
It is possible that Charles was really not aware of the horrors which took place, but he should have had an idea of what mostly Protestant mercenaries under his authority might do. Still he had no objection against Clement bearing the full consequences of his shifty diplomacy, and he allowed him to remain a virtual prisoner in the Castle of Sant‟ Angelo for more than seven months. After having bribed some soldiers, Clement escaped disguised as a peddler, and took shelter in Orvieto, and then in Viterbo. He came back to a depopulated and devastated Rome in October, 1528. However, before the end of July, 1529, terms favorable to the pope were arranged with Charles. Clement solemnly crowned Charles as Emperor on February 24, 1530, and, by whatever motives the pontiff was swayed, this settlement certainly had the effect of restoring to Italy a much-needed peace.
Meanwhile in England in 1527, Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, whom he had married in 1509 with a dispensation from Julius II, following the Catherine‟s short-lived marriage to Henry‟s older brother Arthur who died. Henry‟s representative went to Rome to seek an annulment of Julius II‟s dispensation, but since Clement was imprisoned and Henry‟s wife Catherine strongly objected to the idea, claiming that her brief marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, not much was accomplished. However, Clement met at Orvieto with the king„s envoy. Clement was anxious to gratify Henry, and he opted for a preliminary decision by the English episcopate. However, the Emperor Charles, whose origins lay in Spain, home to Catherine, put Clement between a rock and a hard place. How far the pope was influenced by Charles in his resistance, it is difficult to say; but it is clear that his own sense of justice tipped his vacillation toward the pleas of Queen Catherine. Clement ultimately decided not to withdraw the dispensation granted by Julius, and so Henry followed Thomas Cromwell‟s suggestion to throw off papal supremacy, and make himself the supreme head of his own religion. This was in fact the course which from the latter part of 1529 Henry undeviatingly followed. Thus began the Anglican Church.
Obviously, because of the chaotic state of Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, little thought was given by popes to the issue of Purgatory or to its rejection by Lutherans in the Augsburg Confessions. This turmoil is well to remember as one looks to the eventual general council, the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed both Lyons and Florence in the matter of Purgatory. In other words, Purgatory was not on top of the list of Protestant heresies which would be evaluated and judged. After the death of Pope Clement VII in 1534, Emperor Charles informed the newly-elected Pope Paul that only the immediate summoning of a general council could bring about peace. He had always desired this; henceforth it became one of his principal aims, of which he never lost sight. Throughout Charles‟ reign, he had to deal with much political and religious unrest in Europe as well as an attack of the Turks, which came in 1532, on land. Charles was successful in forcing them back, and in recovering a large part of Hungary. Finally, the Council of Trent opened on December 13, 1545.
After the most historic general council ever to convene in such extremely difficult circumstances, and after eighteen years of deliberations on a wide scope of dogmatic and disciplinary issues, the doctrine of Purgatory was clearly defined December 4, 1563 in Session 25: Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavor that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labor under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savor of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).
The Council of Trent is often cited as offering the final definitive magisterial teaching on Purgatory. With regard to indulgences, Trent offered this statement in the same Session: Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary, and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them. In granting them, however, It desires that, in accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church, moderation be observed; lest, by excessive facility, ecclesiastical discipline be enervated. And being desirous that the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected, It ordains generally by this decree, that all evil gains for the obtaining thereof,--whence a most prolific cause of abuses among the Christian people has been derived,--be wholly abolished. But as regards the other abuses which have proceeded from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or from whatsoever other source, since, by reason of the manifold corruptions in the places and provinces where the said abuses are committed, they cannot conveniently be specially prohibited; It commands all bishops, diligently to collect, each in his own church, all abuses of this nature, and to report them in the first provincial Synod; that, after having been reviewed by the opinions of the other bishops also, they may forthwith be referred to the Sovereign Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence that which may be expedient for the universal Church will be ordained; that this the gift of holy Indulgences may be dispensed to all the faithful, piously, holily, and incorruptly.
From official Catholic Church teaching, therefore, the doctrine of Purgatory is to be accepted by Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics, as is the efficacy of indulgences. How many souls there are in Purgatory, no one knows ... nor is there any definitive teaching about the manner of purgation. The Second Vatican Council recognized a certain ordering of church dogma in its teaching on the “hierarchy of truths.” In Chapter II, section 11, of Unitatis Redintegratio (the Decree on Ecumenism), the council offered the following guidelines to theologians in their discussion with other non-Catholic Christians: “The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. At the same time, the Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand.” “Moreover, in ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
The buying and selling of indulgences came to a long overdue halt following Trent. However, the belief in indulgences continued in Catholic practice. So did the belief in the remission of temporal punishment to be satisfied in Purgatory, or expiated by indulgences gained in this life for oneself or by the living for those in Purgatory. Books were printed with prayer formulas, listing the number of days or years of purgatorial time removed. And so did plenary indulgences continue to be granted, the most famous of which were the “Toties Quoties” plenary indulgences to be gained for those in Purgatory on All Souls‟ Day. The book, though no longer officially recognized by the Church after 1967 as in force, contains indulgenced prayers and is still reprinted today. Called The Raccolta, the book is available from Amazon.com. The latest edition of The Raccolta or A Manual of Indulgences is published by Athanasius Press, with a copyright date of 2003.
More recently, Pope John Paul II, on September 29, 1999, gave an address which gave his explanation of the continued use of indulgences, noting that indulgences are still “a sensitive subject.”: 1. In close connection with the sacrament of Penance, our reflection today turns to a theme particularly related to the celebration of the Jubilee: I am referring to the gift of indulgences, which are offered in particular abundance during the Jubilee Year, as indicated in the Bull Incarnationis mysterium and the attached decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary. It is a sensitive subject, which has suffered historical misunderstandings that have had a negative impact on communion between Christians. In the present ecumenical context, the Church is aware of the need for this ancient practice to be properly understood and accepted as a significant expression of God's mercy. Experience shows, in fact, that indulgences are sometimes received with superficial attitudes that ultimately frustrate God's gift and cast a shadow on the very truths and values taught by the Church. 2. The starting-point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God's mercy revealed in the Cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great "indulgence" that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (cf. Jn 1:12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf. Cal 4:6; Rom 5:5; 8:15-16). However, in the logic of the covenant, which is the heart of the whole economy of salvation, this gift does not reach us without our acceptance and response. In the light of this principle, it is not difficult to understand how reconciliation with God, although based on a free and abundant offer of mercy, at the same time implies an arduous process which involves the individual's personal effort and the Church's sacramental work. For the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism, this process is centered on the sacrament of Penance, but it continues after the sacramental celebration. The person must be gradually "healed" of the negative effects which sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the "pun
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