Thursday, September 15, 2011

More abut Martin Luther's Trip to Rome

This is not what it looked like in Luther's Day, or even
a century ago, but here is a contemporary picture of
the Vatican Basilica at night.
As I mentioned in the last entry, Martin Luther went to Rome in  late 1510.  He was a young priest, twenty-seven years old and ordained only three years.  Martin was a very scrupulous man and had undergone a “conversion” as a young man of twenty-one when he was nearly missed by lightening on his way back from home to the university where he had been studying law.  Giving up the profitable career in Law he entered a reformed monastery of Augustinian hermits in Erfurt.  Luther was by own admission a monk’s monk—scrupulous in every detail of his religious life.  He strived to say ever prescribed prayer, keep every mandated fast, avoid even the smallest sins.  He worried endlessly about his salvation.  A wise superior, knowing that the young friar had to loosen up a little, sent him to Rome as the companion of an older friar who was going on business for the Order.   Luther could use a break and could use also to see that sin ran deeper in the human experience than this naïve friar allowed for.  Unfortunately, with an idealist like Martin, this strategy was not the wisest.  
     Luther spent about two months in Rome.  Passing through the city gate he fell to his knees and prayed: Hail, Holy Rome, Thrice Blest for the Blood othe Martyrs who died here!  This guy was a believer!  He ran from church to church, said mass at every shrine he could arrange.  He climbed the Scala Sancta (The Holy Stairs—a set of stairs supposedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem where it was said Christ had climbed these steps on his way to be judged by Pilate.)  He sought out relics for veneration and lighted votive candles. He made a general confession of all the sins of his life.  As I said this boy was a believer.  But his eyes were gradually opened to the corruption of the city.  The priest to whom he confessed treated lightly the sins that Luther bore with such serious guilt.  He saw that there were brothels reserved for the clergy and the monks.  The Cardinals and other high churchmen were immensely wealthy and amidst the poverty of the crowds they displayed their wealth in a show of red silk and fine horses and luxurious palaces.  Priests were sloppy in their duties and said mass with little or no reverence.  Luther himself claimed to have seen a priest distributing communion declare “panis vinumque es et panis vinumque manebis  ( Bread and wine you are; and bread and wine you will remain.”  Personally, while I am sure that most of the Roman priests said mass with little or no attention to the sacred rites, I suspect this story is what the clergy refer to as a “pulpit tale;” that is a preacher’s exaggeration or fabrication to illustrate a point.  The reason I say that I believe this story to be unlikely is that I don’t believe that a priest would undermine his own earning ability by making little of the Sacrament; furthermore at the time it was only the bread that was given to the faithful at communion, not the wine; and finally I wonder how many priests then—or now—would know enough Latin to be able to put together an original sentence.  But who knows—the situation was every bit as bad as Luther described it.  And I am not convinced—as a person who has lived in Rome for considerable periods of my life—that it is all that better now.  When Martin Luther headed back on his two month journey to his monastery in Erfurt, he was a far less naïve fellow.  He had not lost his idealism but he had lost his confidence in the institutional Church.  Meanwhile Julius’ church was rising, the artists were hard a word, and the chamberlain of the Roman Church—the Cardinal in charge of finding money to pay the bills—was working hard to come up with new sources of revenue to finance this renaissance.             

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