In 1511, Martin Luther ascended the Scala Sancta in Rome. These are the most holy marble steps on which Pontius Pilate presented the scourged Jesus Christ at the praetorium, washed his hands, and sentenced him to die. They were moved to Rome in the 4th Century and have since been made available for the faithful to climb on his or her knees. An indulgence is granted to those who make this journey.
In 1511, Martin Luther paid for his right to this indulgence, a word which has become a center of great controversy over the centuries.
What is an indulgence? Take this definition step by step. An indulgence is a great act of charity and mercy administered by the Church to faithful Christians. It grants partial or full remission of his or her due time in purgatory upon completing a prayerful action as prescribed by the Church. Purgatory(which is not hell, and not limbo) is the place in which someone who has passed away will go to heaven but is not yet entirely free of his or her venial faults. These souls must be purified of his or her past sins before fully obtaining the beatific vision of heaven(living in the presence of God, seeing God’s face).
An indulgence is not a sacrament or a substitute for confession, nor is it permission to sin in the future. An indulgence is only given to the faithful who have already been reconciled with Christ for his or her sins but look to further unite themselves with Christ and be granted the most charitable gift of remission of time in purgatory.
An indulgence is intentional, in which the faithful prayerfully conducts the act in order to more fully unite him or herself with Christ. According to canon law:
Can. 996 §1 To be capable of gaining indulgences a person must be baptized, not excommunicated, and in the state of grace at least on the completion of the prescribed work.
§2 To gain them, however, the person who is capable must have at least the intention of gaining them, and must fulfil the prescribed works at the time and in the manner determined by the terms of the grant.
This goes back to the ministry of reconciliation that St. Paul tells us about. Christ gave the Church the authority to forgive sins immediately after giving Peter the keys to the Church. In Matthew 18:18, we read, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Martin Luther’s Protest Martin Luther rightfully protested the selling of invalid indulgences many centuries ago. The men of the Church, who in these actions made themselves distinct from the Divine faith of the Church, were greedy and took advantage of those wishing to buy a spot in heaven. Of course by those very merits the “indulgences” were not done prayerfully and were not acts of uniting one’s self with Christ. They defeated their own purpose.
A Charity Which Belongs to All An indulgence, when done prayerfully by one who is free of mortal sin, is valid. A gift of such great charity administered by the authority of the Church, whom derives its authority from Jesus Christ, is by nature something that belongs to anyone who rightfully asks for it. Therefore, it is impossible for it to be sold or given in advance. No parchment or certificate is needed. The Sacraments and ministry of redemption belong to all of the faithful.
Thankfully, the leaders of the Church today are those who more fully unite themselves with the charity of Christ. Remember that our very first Pope, the great St. Peter, was one who first denied knowing Christ three times. The men of the Church, as all Christians, are not perfect. Luckily, the faith is perfect as it was given to us by the Divine Jesus Christ.