Saturday, September 19, 2015

Luther. In Rome Again

Martin Luther made his first trip to Rome as an Augustinian monk in 1511. He had started in Wittenberg in December 1510 and crossed the Alps in the winter at 2300 meters via the Septimer Pass. Two months of long and hard pilgrimage lay behind him when he saw the Eternal City from a distance in January 1511. He threw himself on the wet Italian soil praying: Hail, Sancta Roma! Yes, made truly holy by those holy martyrs, dripping with their blood.

Rome as Luther saw it. The old St. Peter's Church is in the back in the middle
Once in the city Luther went through the full traditional pilgrimage that promised indulgence from all sins. Later in his life he recalled: At Rome, as I was such a great saint, I ran through all the churches and holy corners believing everything although it was all lies and it stank. In Rome I probably read one or ten masses and I almost felt sorry that my father and my mother were still alive, because I would have liked to redeem them from purgatory with masses, good works, and prayers. But it was too big a crowd, and I could not get through; so I had a salted herring instead.

Eventually I wanted to redeem my grandfather from purgatory. So on my knees I ascended the 28 steps of the Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs in the Lateran praying an Our Father on every step ... But when I got to the top, it occurred to me: Who knows if it's true?

I wasn't in Rome for long, but read many masses and saw others reading mass. I still shudder when thinking of it. I heard courtiers laugh and brag at the dinner table, how some clerics read mass and speak bowed over bread and wine: Bread you are, and bread you stay - and then hold up bread and wine. Well, as a young and devout monk those words insulted me. And besides, I was disgusted that they read mass so rapidly as if they were performing a jugglery. Before I came to reading the gospel my neighbor and colleague had already finished mass, and shouted at me: Passa, passa, get on, finish up.

In retrospect Luther regarded the outcome of his journey as a flop both religiously and spiritually: Anyone who went to Rome and brought money, got the forgiveness of his sins. I, fool that I was, took onions to Rome and brought back garlic. It is obvious that Luther's Roman experience laid the groundwork for his later disputes with the institutional Church.


Last Wednesday after more than 500 years Luther returned to Rome. It had taken the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Italy (CELI) and the Seventh-day Adventist Church six years before the Roman magistrate agreed to name a street or a square after the reformer, just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 1517.

Una piazza su Colle Oppio intitolata al padre della Riforma protestante 'Piazza Martin Lutero - Teologo tedesco della Riforma (1483-1546) (A square on the Oppio Hill was named after the father of the Protestant Reformation Piazza Martin Lutero, German theologian of the Reformation).

©La Repubblica Roma
Rome's mayor and a German delegation from Wittenberg unveiled the street sign. Some commentators hailed the event as a milestone in ecumenism. I doubt it.

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