St. Peter’s is one of the most beautiful basilicas in the world, and the most famous. But it was built at a cost.

The church in the early 1500s was beset with sin. Priests by the thousands, finding it impossible to live in celibacy, broke their vows. Monks enjoyed filthy talk, gluttony, and promiscuity; one observer noted that many “convents differ little from public brothels.”

But forgiveness of sins, both by priests and laity, was easy to find. It could be purchased. The sale of indulgences—a kind of pardon for sins—was widespread. The chancellor of Oxford noted, “Sinners say nowadays: ‘I care not how many evils I do in God’s sight, for I can easily get remission of all guilt by the indulgence granted me by the pope.’ ”

On March 15, 1517 Pope Leo X, needing money to rebuild St. Peter’s, announced a special sale of indulgences. Johann Tetzel, a middle-aged Dominican friar, became the principal agent of the sale. He took to his new role like P. T. Barnum, traveling through central Europe with a brass-bound chest and a bag of printed receipts. Beside him, an assistant carried Leo’s edict on a velvet cushion. The men would enter a village to the ringing of church bells. Crowds gathered and jugglers performed. Tetzel would bark, “I have here the passports to lead the human soul to the celestial joys of Paradise.”

Any and every sin could be forgiven, he said. “The Holy Father has the power in heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and if he forgives it, God must do so also.” What’s more, he said, pardons could be purchased for deceased loved ones. “As soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly out of purgatory and straight to heaven.” Tetzel was a virtual money machine, exceeding his quota everywhere… until he entered the region of a young monk named Luther.

All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins. God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God. (Romans 3:23-25)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Mar.14

*Note: Picture in Header By Giacomo della Porta – Wolfgang Stuck (Own work), September 2004, Public Domain,

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