By Daniel Malakowsky
"By virtue of contrition our sins are forgiven, by confession they are forgotten, but by satisfaction they are so cleanly done away with that no sign or token remains." ~ Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (Why God became a Man), 11th century
"As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs (So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt; die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt)" ~ Johann Tetzel, 16th century
The understanding and nature of forgiveness has been something that the church historically has wrestled with in nearly every age. The earliest symbol of fidelity within early Christianity became that of the martyr and with it arose the martyr cult, best exemplified in the second century writing the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This account tells of the heroic death of the bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), and while possibly guilty of hagiography, none the less reveals the significant role that the martyrs and the lives of those who had gone before would hold in the church.
History never unfolds itself in clean lines that are easy to follow, but occurs as life always has, in the complexity of world in which we live and the narrowness of our own experiences, understandings, and relationships. As the early emphasis on martyrdom arose, there were times when persecution came about so fervently that many in the faith would lapse and recant on their belonging to Christ. One such occurrence came about under Roman emperor Decius in the middle of the third century. The significance of this persecution being on its emphasis on the laity within Christianity recanting and offering their allegiances to the cult of the empire. Many in fear succumbed purchasing certificates called libelli, but would later recant when the threats subsided. These would be known as lapsis and the church was forced to wrestle with the nature and heart of repentance, confession, and restoration, opening the door for what would later develop more fully into a formal theology of penance.
By the time you reach the 4th century you find several church fathers and thinkers speaking openly about prayers for the dead. Cyril of Jerusalem defends the role of the inclusion of this practice in the liturgy by noting the efficacy of those prayers on behalf of the ones who are now 'asleep' and yet have sinned. John Crysostom, also known as Golden Mouth, saw in Job 1:5 justification of this as well in seeing how one's sacrifice could be imparted in the purification of another. In the 6th century, under the leadership of the influential pope, Gregory the Great, we find a more explicit understanding of forgiveness in the age to come and reference to purgatory when he speaks of the purifying fire (purgatorius ignis).
This wrestling with the nature of forgiveness, the afterlife, and reality that the idea of penance and purgatory came out of the tangible experiences of the church in persecution, repentance, and the formation of the Sacrum Imperium (Holy Roman Empire) gave way to a nuanced understanding in the medieval period. Penance was the practice of not just removing the guilt of the confessor, but also required some remittance of the temporal punishment (note here not eternal) that was owed in accordance to divine justice. In this understanding we find the role and practice of indulgences in the history of Christianity.
The indulgence was a way of transferring the merits of Christ and those who had gone before and were now known as saints to the penitent to relieve their temporal punishment in either in this life or in the confines of the purifying fire of purgatory. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan notes that the practice of indulgences "became an almost indispensable component of the church's disciplinary and pastoral program." Along with the indispensability of the role of indulgences in the life and practice of the church came its abuse as it became a tool to fund papal projects and to line the pockets of greedy bishops and commissaries.
Pope Innocent VIII was seated in an era during the latter part of the 15th century when unequaled greed, power and corruption entangled the sacred see of Rome. In this time he exploited the indulgences in what historian Justo Gonzalez calls, "a shameful business proposition." The first pope to openly acknowledge his illegitimate children, this practice was further developed by one of his sons.
Several decades later, under the leadership of Pope Leo X, the sales of indulgences were increased to bring in resources necessary for the construction of the basilica known as St. Peter's in Rome. It was during this time that the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, was dispensed as the grand commissioner of indulgences to Germany and the famous quote mentioned above was known. It was also during this period that Luther, wrestling with the nature of grace and forgiveness, offered his 95 theses, and was driven to challenge the penitential system and indulgences. His discovery of the Greek word metanioa, meaning repentance, which was translated paenitentia in Latin texts, meaning penance, gave rise to the theology of forgiveness that he and many other reformers championed.
Now in 2015 we found ourselves, seven of us together from A2J, with an international group of leaders taking part in the Wittenberg 2017 initiative meetings in Rome. During this time the emeritus auxiliary bishop of Mainz, the very diocese and bishopric to which Luther himself appealed to during the reformation, stood before us as a representative of Catholicism and its history. He, without compromising the Catholicity of his role and position, began to speak to the nature and understanding of forgiveness within the Catholic tradition. Affirming his belief in purgatory, venial and mortal sins, and the role of penance in the life and history of the church, he also acknowledged the abuses of indulgences and the sin upon which St. Peter's Basilica, now in Vatican City, was built.
Leading the way he invited this gathered community to join him in proceeding to this very basilica for a service of repentance and forgiveness. Asking for a private area to gather, we were afforded the opportunity to enter the sectioned off area of the altar where pilgrims and tourist are not permitted to enter. We were able to find a private space just off to the side of the altar and here, surrounded by the pomp, grandeur and history of the Western tradition, we stood as a community with solemn and saddened hearts. Every piece of marble and the incredible dome, which can seen from outside of Rome itself on a clear day, spoke not just to the height and pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, but to a history in which salvation and the souls of men and women were exploited in pride and greed.
So on bent knee the bishop bowed himself before God and those who were there and asked for forgiveness. Confessing the sins of his tradition, he lamented the fact that what was meant for a house of prayer had been built upon the abuses of indulgences to testify to the legacy of men. As he confessed, and as the other Catholics within the group joined him in their shared sorrow, it was as though the Spirit was showing each of us how this history was not just the history of Catholics, but was our shared history. This confession led to our united plea for healing and restoration.
The abuse of the indulgences belongs to the Western tradition, and it is out of this tradition that the Protestant movement arose out of and from, and is also indebted to. As a Protestant, and more so as an Evangelical and a Baptist, it became very evident that the sins of arrogance and greed were not isolated to the Catholic tradition and the indulgences. They have made themselves equally as present, though sometimes more subtly so, in the very tradition that I now stand as a minister and representative of.
The Lord used a reforming priest and monk by the name of Luther to challenge the errors and abuses of the Western church. In these meetings he used a Catholic bishop to pave the way once more by showing us the error of a divided church. The way to reconciliation will require difficult conversations and an embracing of the hard and difficult history and story that is still a living memory in the church. That way though, will only be paved through the path that was led before us as we grieved together in St. Peter's Basilica, on bent knees before God and one another.