Sunday, August 31, 2014

Johann Tetzel: Sermons on Indulgences

I spent a little time recently on the Catholic Answers forums on the subject of Tetzel's role in the Reformation. I was surprised to find the defenders of Rome suporting Tetzel. Below are some pertinent excerpts from the literature that provoked the Reformation. The first section is an excerpt from a sermon of Tetzel's. The second extract is a pattern sermon produced by Tetzel for indulgence preachers to use. The third extract contains a portion Archbishop Albert's instructions to the sub-commissioners on indulgences (these were the instructions given to Tetzel).  See for yourself if Tetzel had a role in the Reformation, and a role that shouldn't be defended.

Extract of a sermon from Tetzel

So what is there to think about? Why do you hesitate to convert yourself? Why don’t you have fears about your sins? Why don’t you confess now to the vicars of our Most Holy Pope? Don’t you have the example of Lawrence, who, compelled by the love of God, gave away his inheritance and suffered his body to be burned? Why do you not take the example of Bartholomew, Stephen, and of other saints who gladly suffered the most gruesome deaths for the sake and salvation of their souls? You, however, do not give up great treasures; indeed you give not even a moderate alms. They gave their bodies to be martyred, but you delight in living well joyfully. You priest, nobleman, merchant, wife, virgin, you married people, young person, old man, enter into your church which is for you, as I have said, St Peter’s, and visit the most holy Cross. It has been placed there for you, and it always cries and calls for you. Are you perhaps ashamed to visit the Cross with a candle and yet not ashamed to visit a tavern? Are you ashamed to go to the apostolic confessors, but not ashamed to go to a dance? Behold, you are on the raging sea of this world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbor of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth? Let us then fight, as did Lawrence and the other saints, for the salvation of the soul, not the body which is today but not tomorrow. Today it is well, but ill tomorrow. Today alive and tomorrow dead.

You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins. If they visit, after confession and after the Jubilee, the Cross and the altar every day they will receive that indulgence which would be theirs upon visiting in St Peter’s the seven altars, where complete indulgence is offered. Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls! Be as careful and concerned for the salvation of your souls as you are for your temporal goods, which you seek both day and night. Seek the Lord while he may be found and while he is near. Work, as St John says, while it is yet day, for the night comes when no man can work.

Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.’ Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter, ‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.’ You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin. Oh, those of you with vows, you usurers, robbers, murderers, and criminals—Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourself then, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, to the Lord, thy God. Oh, you blasphemers, gossippers, who hinder this work openly or secretly, what about your affairs? You are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession help you. No field, vineyard, trees, or cattle bring fruit or wine for you. Even spiritual things vanish, as many an illustration could point out. Convert yourself with all your heart and use the medicine of which the Book of Wisdom says, ‘The Most High has made medicine out of the earth and a wise man will not reject it.’

Source: Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. New York, 1964, pp. 41-43.


Venerable Sir, I pray you that in your utterances you may be pleased to make use of such words as shall serve to open the eyes of the mind and cause your hearers to consider how great a grace and gift they have had and now have at their very doors. Blessed eyes indeed, which see what they see, because already they possess letters of safe conduct by which they are able to lead their souls through that valley of tears, through that sea of the mad world, where storms and tempests and dangers lie in wait, to the blessed land of Paradise. Know that the life of man upon earth is a constant struggle. We have to fight against the flesh, the world and the devil, who are always seeking to destroy the soul. In sin we are conceived, alas! what bonds of sin encompass us, and how difficult and almost impossible it is to attain to the gate of salvation without divine aid; since He causes us to be saved, not by virtue of the good works which we accomplish, but through His divine mercy ; it is necessary then to put on the armor of God.

You may obtain letters of safe conduct from the vicar of our Lord Jesus Christ, by means of which you are able to liberate your soul from the hands of the enemy, and convey it by means of contrition and confession, safe and secure from all pains of Purgatory, into the happy kingdom. For know that in these letters are stamped and engraven all the merits of Christ's passion there laid bare. Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in Purgatory.

How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in tfie whole course of life ! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of Purgatory,

But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you, in all cases except the four reserved to the Apostolic See. Therefore throughout your whole life, whenever you wish to make confession, you may receive the same remission, except in cases reserved to the Pope, and afterwards, at the hour of death, a full indulgence as to all penalties and sins, and your share of all spiritual blessings that exist in the church militant and all its members.

Do you not know that when it is necessary for anyone to go to Rome, or undertake any other dangerous journey, he takes his money to a broker and gives a certain per cent five or six or ten in order that at Rome or elsewhere he may receive again his funds intact, by means of the letter of this same broker? Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue of which you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul safe and sound into the land of Paradise?

Wherefore I counsel, order, and by virtue of my authority as shepherd, I command that they shall receive together with me and other priests, this precious treasure, especially those who were not confessed at the time of the holy Jubilee, that they may be able to obtain the same forever. For the time may come when you may desire, but yet be unable to obtain the least portion of the grace.

Also on the part of SS. D. N. the Pope and of the most holy apostolic See and of the most reverend sir, my legate, to each and every one who shall have profited by the sacred Jubilee and made confession, and to all who may profit by this present brief opportunity, and who shall have lent a helping hand to the construction of the aforesaid house of the Prince of the Apostles, they shall all be participants and sharers in all prayers, suffrages, alms, fasts, supplications, masses, canonical hours, disciplines, pilgrimages, papal stations, benedictions, and all other spiritual goods which now exist or may exist forever in the church militant, and in all of these, not only they themselves, but their relatives, kindred, and benefactors who have passed away; and as they were moved by charity, so God, and SS. Peter and Paul, and all the saints whose bodies rest in Rome, shall guard them in peace in this vale, and conduct them through it to the heavenly kingdom. Give everlasting thanks in the aforesaid names and in mine to the reverend secular priests and prelates, etc.

Copy of an inexpensive indulgence
sold by Tetzel
Translation: "In the authority of all the saints,
and in compassion towards thee,
I absolve thee from all sins and misdeeds,
and remit all punishment for ten days." (source)


"The Archbishop of Mainz arranged with the Pope in 1515 to conduct the sale of indulgences in his own vast archiepiscopal provinces, Mainz and Magdeburg, for one-half the proceeds. The plan was not carried out until 1517 when, we may infer, the undated Instructions to Subcommissioners were drawn up, a portion of which is given below. These instructions, Cardinal Hergenrother observes, "corresponding with the teaching of the church, cannot be a source of reproach to the Elector" (Contiliengeschichte, IX, ii). The sub-commissioners appealed in turn to the parochial priests, and there are extant portions of another set of instructions issued by John Tetzel to the priests of his territory, exhorting them to prepare the minds of their parishioners for indulgences; and with these instructions he sent pattern sermons..."

Here follow the four principal graces and privileges, which are granted by the apostolic bull, of which each may be obtained without the other. In the matter of these four privileges preachers shall take pains to commend each to believers with the greatest care, and, in-so-far as in their power lies, to explain the same.

The first grace is the complete remission of all sins; and nothing greater than this can be named, since man who lives in sin and forfeits the favor of God, obtains complete remission by these means and once more enjoys God's favor: moreover, through this remission of sins the punishment which one is obliged to undergo in Purgatory on account of the affront to the divine Majesty, is all remitted, and the pains of Purgatory completely blotted out. And although nothing is precious enough to be given in exchange for such a grace, since it is the free gift of God and a grace beyond price, yet in order that Christian believers may be the more easily induced to procure the same, we establish the following rules, to wit :

In the first place every one who is contrite in heart, and has made oral confession, or at all events has the intention of confessing at a suitable time, shall visit at least the seven churches indicated for this purpose, that is to say, those in which the papal arms are displayed, and in each church shall say devoutly five Paternosters and five Ave Marias in honor of the five wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby our salvation is won, or one Miserere, which Psalm is particularly well adapted for obtaining forgiveness of sins.

Sick or otherwise incapacitated persons shall visit with the same devotion and prayers the seven altars, which the commissioners and subcommissioners shall have erected in the church where the cross shall be raised, and on which they shall have affixed the papal arms.

Where, however, persons are found so weak that they cannot conveniently come to such a church, then shall their confessor or penitentiary cause an altar to be brought to a convenient place approved by him. And where such persons visit this place and offer up their prayers near the altar or before it, they shall deserve the indulgence as though they had visited the seven churches.

To those, however, who are upon beds of sickness the image of a saint may be sent, before or beside which they may offer up a certain number of prayers, according to the judgment of the confessor, in which case they shall be considered to have done as much as if they had visited the seven churches.

But where a certain one, particularly a woman, requests, on account of some especial cause, that the visitation of the churches and altars be remitted, the penitentiaries may grant the request on proper grounds; but the said visitation shall be replaced with an increased contribution.

Respecting, now, the contribution to the chest, for the building of the said church of the chief of the apostles, the penitentiaries and confessors, after they have explained to those making confession the full remission and privileges, shall ask of them, for how much money or other temporal goods they would conscientiously go without the said most complete remission and privileges; and this shall be done in order that hereafter they may be brought the more easily to contribute. And because the conditions and occupations of men are so manifold and diverse that we cannot consider them individually, and impose specific rates accordingly, we have therefore concluded that the rates should be determined according to the recognized classes of persons.

Kings and Queens and their offspring, archbishops and bishops, and other great rulers as well, provided they seek the places where the cross is raised, or otherwise present themselves, shall pay at least five and twenty Rhenish guilders in gold. Abbots and the great prelates of Cathedral churches, counts, barons, and others of the higher nobility, together with their consorts, shall pay for each letter of indulgence ten such guilders. Other lesser prelates and nobles, as also the rectors of celebrated places, and all others, who, either from permanent incomes or merchandise, or otherwise, enjoy a total yearly revenue of five hundred gold guilders, shall pay six guilders. Other citizens and tradespeople and artisans, who have individual incomes and families of their own, shall pay one such guilder; others of less means only a half. And where it is impossible to adhere rigidly to the schedule above indicated, then we declare that the said kings, bishops, dukes, abbots, prelates, counts, barons, members of the higher nobility and rectors, together with all others above mentioned, shall place or cause to be placed in the chest a sum in accordance with the dictates of sound reason, proportionate to their magnificence or generosity, after they have listened to the advice and council of the subcommissioners and penitentiaries and of their confessors, in order that they may fully obtain the grace and privileges. All other persons are confided to the discretion of the confessors and penitentiaries, who should have ever in view the advancement of this building, and should urge their penitents to a freer contribution, but should let no one go away without some portion of grace, because the happiness of Christian believers is here concerned not less than the interests of the building. And those that have no money, they shall supply their contribution with prayer and fasting; for the Kingdom of Heaven should be open to the poor not less than to the rich.

And although a married woman may not dispose of the husband's goods against his will, yet she shall be able to contribute in this instance against the will of her husband of her dowry or of her own private property, which has come to her in a regular manner. Where she has no such possessions, or is prevented by her husband, she shall then supply such contribution with prayer; and the same we wish to have understood concerning sons who still remain under parental control.

Where, however, the said poor wives and sons who still remain under parental control may obtain by entreaty or otherwise from other rich and pious persons the means needed for such payments and contributions, they shall place the sums so acquired in the chest. Where, however, they have absolutely no way of procuring such contributions, then they may obtain through prayer and supplication the said treasures of grace as well for themselves as for the dead.

In all the cases above indicated, however, some room shall be left for the exercise of discretion on the part of the subcommissioners and confessors, who shall have regard to God and their consciences, so that peace of conscience and the welfare of all the above said persons shall be happily secured.

The second signal grace is a confessional letter containing the most extraordinarily comforting and hitherto unheard of privileges, and which also retains its virtue even after our bull expires at the end of eight years, since the bull says: "they shall be participators now and for ever." The meaning of the same, preachers and confessors shall explain and bring unto all possible prominence ; for there will be granted in the confessional letter, to those who buy : first, the power to choose a qualified confessor, even a monk from the mendicant orders, who shall absolve them first and foremost, with the consent of the persons involved, from all censures by whomsoever imposed; in the second place, from each and every crime, even the greatest, and as well from those reserved to the apostolic see, once in a lifetime and in the hour of death; third, in those cases which are not reserved, as often as necessary; fourth, the chosen confessor may grant him complete forgiveness of all sins once in life, and at the hour of death, as often as it may seem at hand, although death ensue not; and, fifth, transform all kinds of vows, excepting alone those solemnly taken, into other works of piety (as when one has vowed to perform the journey to the Holy Land, or to visit the holy Apostles at Rome, to make a pilgrimage to St. James at Compostella, to become a monk, or to take a vow of chastity) ; sixth, the confessor may administer to him the sacrament of the altar at all seasons, except on Easter day, and in the hour of death.

We furthermore ordain that one of these confessional letters shall be given and imparted for the quarter of a Rhenish gold guilder, in order that the poor shall not thereby be shut out from the manifold graces therein contained; it may however happen that nobles and other wealthy persons may, out of devotion and liberality, be disposed to give more. Whatever is given over and above the ordinary fee shall be placed in the chest. In cases where such letters are demanded by colleges or cloisters, whether of men or women, the fee which they shall be obliged to pay must be computed by the subcommissioners according to their number and their property. The same subcommissioners must seal the confessional letters which shall be issued, and sign them with their own hand, setting forth the fee which has been paid for the letter.

It is also our desire that the name of only one person should be written in the confessional letter, except in case of man and wife, who are one in the flesh. To these may also be added the sons and daughters who are still under parental control, and have as yet nothing of their own. And in order that each and every one of the said persons, as well as the poor and those of moderate means, may be able to obtain such confessional letters, we hereby clothe our general subcommissioner with power to fix a certain sum to be paid collectively by the persons whose names are written in a confessional letter, as it may best subserve the interests of the aforesaid church building.

We desire also, that the names of each and every one who buys a letter, or obtains one for any cause without remuneration shall be written by him who issues the same in a special book. And he that issues shall endorse his name upon each letter, in order that an account of the sales may be given later, and that no mistakes may creep in.

We desire, moreover, that the said confessional letters be issued in all places covered by our commission for the sale of indulgences, even where the cross has not been raised, during the period of eight years, by those who hold authentic written commissions either from us or from our general subcommissioners.

The third most important grace is the participation in all the possessions of the church universal, which consists herein, that contributors toward the said building, together with their deceased relations, who have departed this world in a state of grace, shall from now and for eternity, be partakers in all petitions, intercessions, alms, fastings, prayers, in each and every pilgrimage, even those to the Holy Land; furthermore, in the stations at Rome, in the masses, canonical hours, flagellations, and all other spiritual goods which have been brought forth or which shall be brought forth by the universal, most holy church militant or by any of its members. Believers will become participants in all these things who purchase confessional letters. Preachers and confessors must insist with great perseverance upon these advantages, and persuade believers that they should not neglect to acquire these along with their confessional letter...

We also declare that in order to acquire these two most important graces, it is not necessary to make confession, or to visit the churches and altars, but merely to purchase the confessional letter.

The fourth distinctive grace is for those souls which are in purgatory, and is the complete remission of all sins, which remission the pope brings to pass through his intercession to the advantage of said souls, in this wise; that the same contribution shall be placed in the chest by a living person as one would make for himself. It is our wish, however, that our subcommissioners should modify the regulations regarding contributions of this kind which are given for the dead, and that they should use their judgment in all other cases, where in their opinion modifications are desirable. It is furthermore not necessary that the persons who place their contributions in the chest for the dead should be contrite in heart and have orally con- fessed, since this grace is based simply on the state of grace in which the dead departed, and on the contribution of the living, as is evident from the text of the bull. Moreover, preachers shall exert themselves to give this grace the widest publicity, since through the same, help will surely come to departed souls, and the construction of the Church of St. Peter will be abundantly promoted at the same time.


Joey Henry said...

Hi James,

How do we respond to some RC apologist who say that Tetzel got it wrong and since he is not the magisterium, they are not obliged to believe what he said was correct.


James Swan said...

I would say, that's a good start.

Recently I've been involved with discussions in which the defenders of Rome want to defend the actions of Tetzel. If an RC apologist wants to admit "Tetzel got it wrong" the next step would be to argue that the Papacy was involved in the actual scandal as well (there are RC scholars that will admit this). If both of these are granted, then I would suggest the following:

1) a historical discussion documenting the late arrival of the practice of indulgences

2) a Biblical discussion demonstrating that the concept of indulgences is read into the Bible rather than exegeted from the Bible.

Now, this discussion can work backwards as well, in fact it's probably a better approach.