October 31, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Though it is disputed as to the exact date when Mar-tin Luther nailed his theses to the door, Robert Morgan gives some helpful background to the events that led to that memorable day we call Reformation Day.
“In 1517 Pope Leo X, empty-pocketed and needing funds to re-build St. Peter’s basilica, issued a special ‘sale’ of indulgences. The very word ‘indulgence’ tends to convey dubious moral connota-tions, but these indulgences were particularly questionable. What was an ‘indulgence’? It was a special sort of forgiveness for sins is-sued by the pope in consideration of various acts of merit, in this case donations to Leo’s treasury. Indulgences could even be ‘purchased’ on behalf of loved ones in purgatory.
“Dominican friar Johann Tetzel became the pontiff’s peddler, a P. T. Barnum traveling around with a brass-bound chest, a bag of printed receipts, and an enormous cross draped with a papal ban-ner. Whenever Tetzel came to a town, church bells peeled, crowds gathered, and street performers kicked up their heels. Tetzel would set up shop in the nave of the local church, open his bags, and shout, ‘I have here the passports to lead the human soul to the ce-lestial joys of Paradise. As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly from purgatory and straight to heaven.’
“He usually exceeded his quota.
“But many were troubled, and when the hard eyes of Martin Luther fell on the indulgences purchased by fellow villagers in Wittenberg, he studied them carefully and pronounced them frauds. At high noon on October 31, 1517, Luther, a 33-year-old university pro-fessor, walked to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germa-ny, and tacked to it a document. The door served as the town bul-letin board, and Martin Luther had an announcement to post. He called for a ‘disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences.’ A few curious passersby drew near and scanned the words: ‘Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology.… ‘ There followed a list of 95 items.
“Luther did not yet know what mighty blows he had struck.”
Morgan, Robert. On This Day: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs and Heroes (Kindle Locations 6613-6631).