Roman Catholics believed, and still do believe, that even when a person has turned from his or her sin, they must suffer punishment for it. It is taught that some people go to a place called purgatory after death where they will complete their cleansing from sin through suffering punishment.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church used people’s fear of suffering in purgatory to get money for church projects. They did this by selling certificates called indulgences. Indulgences promised to free the owner from punishment in purgatory. People bought indulgences for themselves or for loved ones who had died because they were afraid of purgatory.
John Tetzel was a 63-year-old monk who arrived in a town near Wittenberg to sell indulgences. He traveled in a horse-drawn carriage with three horsemen besides. There was a great show when he came to a new town to sell indulgences. Bells rang, music was played, singers sang, and Tetzel carried a large red cross while a parade of people marched behind him.
But John Tetzel had a bad reputation. He had been convicted of crimes. The emperor said he should be put into a sack and thrown into the river. And he was not honest about the indulgences. Some church leaders didn’t like the fact that he lied so that he could sell more indulgences. For instance, Tetzel promised that a person could be pardoned for sins he was only just planning to commit, that his indulgences would cover the very worst of sins, and that a person didn’t even have to feel sorry for their sin to be freed from punishment for it. All a person had to do was buy an indulgence and they would be free.
Tetzel often scared the people by telling them that their dead family and friends were crying from purgatory. All the people had to do to help stop their suffering was to buy indulgences. He also told them that the bones of St. Peter and St. Paul were being polluted by rain and snow because the church their bodies were in needed fixing. In fact, the money gotten from selling indulgences was being used to build the grand and lavish church of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Many people believed what Tetzel told them. But some were angry and thought he was deceiving the people. Some asked, “If the pope can set souls free from purgatory why does he need money to do it? Why doesn’t he just take pity on them all and set them all free at once?”
Many people did not like indulgences for these reasons. But many poor and superstitious people gave what little money they had to buy indulgences. Often, very poor people made great sacrifices to buy an indulgence for a dead parent who they believed was suffering in the fires of purgatory. Who wouldn’t want to stop the suffering of a loved one if all it took was money? For these reasons, the sale of indulgences was very successful and a sure way for the church to make money.