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Martin Luther’s Experience as a Pilgrim in Rome

Rome, Italy

The young monk Luther visited Rome and was dismayed by the Church’s extravagance, corruption, monopoly on the Bible (in Latin, which few could read), lack of interest in the plight of the poor, veneration of relics, and the selling of indulgences.

Complete Video Script

In 1510, seeking a way to help the troubled young monk overcome his demons, Brother Martin’s superiors at the monastery sent him on a pilgrimage. He walked 700 miles through a harsh winter, over the Alps and down the spine of Italy on a pilgrim’s trail just like this. His destination: the hometown of his Christian faith, the city of Rome.

Imagine Luther, the weary yet wide-eyed young pilgrim, trekking for weeks… and finally cresting this hill and seeing Rome. Passing through the gates of the city, he dropped to his knees and said, "Hail, holy city of Rome!"

He would have seen many of the same sights that tourists and pilgrims enjoy today: Places like the fabled Colosseum; the glorious Pantheon — where pilgrims remembered early Christian martyrs sent to their deaths; and churches approached by long stairways — busy with worshippers climbing on their knees. He marveled at exquisite basilicas… and gazed at Castel Sant' Angelo — the fortress where the pope would take refuge when the city was under siege in that rough-and-tumble age.

Luther crossed this bridge, the venerable Ponte Sant’ Angelo, to reach the highlight of his pilgrimage: St. Peter’s Basilica.

Today’s basilica stands on the tomb of St. Peter — the spot where, nearly 2000 years ago, Christianity became solidly established in Europe. It’s believed that Peter — Jesus' right-hand man — was crucified for his beliefs right here at a chariot racecourse, which was decorated by this obelisk.

His followers buried his body in a humble graveyard on the Vatican Hill just over there. For three centuries, Christians worshipped quietly at his grave.

In the 4th century, after Christianity was legalized, a huge church was built directly upon Peter’s tomb. While today’s basilica was built shortly after Luther’s visit, stepping into the grand church, Luther would have had an experience much like pilgrims do now. He’d have seen Peter everywhere: in artwork, his tomb, and in the words that Christ spoke to his disciple, which gave the popes in Rome their holy authority: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” And, like today's pilgrims, Martin Luther lined up to kiss the foot — worn shiny by over a thousand years of veneration — of this very statue of Peter — the first pope.

Despite all the history and grandeur, Luther was struck by the contradiction between the enormous wealth of the Church and the Bible’s emphasis on simplicity and caring for the poor.

During Luther's visit, the bombastic Pope Julius II was in the midst of spending a fortune for an extravagant remodel of his church. In addition, the pope had hired Raphael to decorate his personal living quarters with elaborate frescoes, and Michelangelo to paint his sanctuary — the Sistine Chapel. All this was to be financed by money extracted from faithful parishioners across Europe.

Over the centuries, the Church ruled from Rome had grown increasingly corrupt and worldly. Popes, bishops, and priests lived in luxury while others struggled, tarnishing the Church's reputation. The Church hierarchy had become materialistic and entangled with politics. Sins were crimes, and tithes were collected like taxes. Popes waged war, and bishops were treated like royalty — when one entered the room, you knelt and made a show of humility.

The Church — tasked with protecting 1500 years of tradition — had grown conservative, even as the times were changing quickly. While scientists and progressive thinkers were introducing new ideas, the Church — which defended the notion that the world was the center of the universe — fought against these new ideas.

And the Church was the keeper of knowledge. Knowledge is power and in Europe, until modern times, Church abbey libraries held most of the books. And locked away in these libraries were any books with threatening ideas — the “libri prohibiti” or prohibited books. Church leaders were the gate-keepers to this knowledge, and they alone had the key.

Back then access to the Bible was also controlled. It was only available in Latin, which only the educated elites of medieval Europe — which was the clergy — could read. For over a thousand years Mass had been said in Latin. Priests would interpret the word of God to the parishioner, who had little choice but to simply nod in agreement.

In Rome, Luther came face to face with this worldly corruption at its worst. And one thing he found particularly troubling: the veneration of holy relics.

Relics were the physical remains of something holy — a saint’s bone, a piece of the cross, or a drop of holy blood. Rome was the richest place in Christendom for relics — which helped make it the ultimate destination for pilgrims. And the pilgrimage trade was a big money-maker for the Church.

Medieval Christians believed they’d go to heaven only if they did more good than evil. And most figured they'd fall short. So when they died, God would need to purge them of their excess sin. The Church called this purging process purgatory and the people thought of it as years of misery. To reduce waiting time in purgatory, the devout accumulated good works in this lifetime by doing penance and by venerating holy relics.

Like any devout pilgrim, Luther immersed himself in the holy sights of Rome and visited a long list of relics. But he became increasingly disenchanted. He wondered if these objects really were that important. He observed lots of greed and hedonism… and very little spirituality. It seemed that each spiritual favor came with a price. Corrupt monks and clergy were abusing both their powers and the trust of their parishioners. And Luther bristled at the pope’s lavish lifestyle and vanity projects funded by the sale of indulgences.

Indulgences worked like this. The saints lived such holy lives that they accumulated a surplus of “heavenly merits”. These merits could be earned or purchased by sinners and then used as a kind of currency to buy down the consequences of their sins. An indulgence came as a letter from the pope — a kind of coupon good for less time in purgatory. And they were transferable. An earnest Christian could actually buy credit for his dead loved ones as well.

One day while in Rome, Luther visited the Scala Santa or Holy Steps — brought back from the Holy Land and believed to be the very steps from Pontius Pilate's palace that Jesus climbed on the day he was convicted. As Roman Catholic pilgrims still do today, Luther joined the crowd and made his way up, saying the Lord's Prayer on each step. The pilgrim's reward for this climb: fewer years in purgatory for each of those steps.

Reaching the top, Luther stood up and thought, "Who knows if this is actually true?"