In the sixteenth century, religious tourism generated large sums of money for the Papacy and for the city of Rome. In the Renaissance Period, the Church invested heavily in impressive works of art, which continue to be admired today, all of which helped to boost the city’s status as the spiritual centre and a magnet for tourists.
Therefore, when Martin Luther, as a monk and priest, was asked to represent his Augustinian Order on business in Rome, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The 900 mile journey, by foot, was not merely the longest journey that this German Augustinian had ever taken, but this was a pilgrimage to the Holy City and an opportunity to discover the peace and the grace that so far had eluded him.
After completing the business for which he had been dispatched, Martin was free to explore, for some four weeks, the sights of Rome. As a priest, he was honoured with the opportunity to perform masses for the many who visited the Holy City, like himself, seeking special grace in their lives.
The dates when Luther visited Rome are unclear. Some have set the time as late 1510 or early 1511, while others have reckoned his pilgrimage occurred as late as early 1512. What is certain, however, is that, under Julius II, Rome was a city undergoing tremendous change. Julius II is infamously known as ‘The Warrior Pope’, pursuing an active foreign policy that involved the prosecution of two wars. He was also a great patron of the arts, being on personal terms with Raphael and Michelangelo. Indeed, Martin Luther may well have been visiting Rome while Michelangelo was completing his famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Julius II was also redeveloping the architecture of Rome, having demolished St Peter’s Basilica, therefore preparing the way for the new, more impressive building that we see in Rome today. All of this activity must have been bewildering for the country lad from small town rural Germany.
Yet Martin Luther was not overawed by the sights of Rome. He would not be deflected from his purpose, even by the works of some of the greatest artists who ever lived. God, by his grace, was performing a greater work of art in the soul of this German priest, which would have a more enduring legacy than even the works of the great Michelangelo. This pilgrimage to Rome and this quest for peace with God would be instrumental in bringing Luther to this place of rest, but not in the manner that he anticipated from the outset.
Martin Luther had been seeking Justification through the Church, her priests and her sacraments. Therefore, it was logical for him to deduce that his best opportunity for grace must be in the home of the Church, in the city where the Vicar of Christ was supreme:
“The main purpose was that I wanted to do a complete confession of my sins from my youth on, and had become completely pious, although I had already made such a confession in Erfurt two times.”
He was to be bitterly disappointed. He encountered many clerics who cared only for their personal wealth and had little interest in the souls of men and women. He was horrified by the irreverence among the priests while performing Masses, and he himself was urged to hurry along as he assisted at the altar. He was disgusted by the immorality that made Rome a city that was anything but holy:
“I had not been in Rome long before I had seen much that made me shudder”.
The most famous story that took place during Martin’s visit to Rome occurred at the Scala Sancta. This is a relic that continues to be a favourite place for pilgrims to come and pray. According to Roman mythology, this was the very staircase which Christ had ascended on His way to be tried by Pontius Pilate. In reality, this was in Luther’s day, and remains, an aspect of Rome’s incredible revenue generating system, preying upon the devotion of the faithful. Does anyone really believe that this staircase was miraculously transported from ancient Jerusalem to Rome? When Martin Luther visited Rome, however, despite his growing sense of reservation, he remained one of the devoted faithful seeking grace through the Church in the Holy City. Following the path that many pilgrims have followed, he ascended the twenty-eight steps reciting a “Pater Noster” (Our Father), on each step, in the hope that his deceased grandfather would be released from the flames of Purgatory. D’Aubigne, the great Swiss Reformation Historian, in his beautifully elegant style records the impact this had upon Luther’s soul:
“But while he was performing this meritorious act, he thought he heard a voice of thunder crying from the bottom of his heart…The Just shall live by faith… he rises in amazement from the steps up which he was dragging his body: he shudders at himself; he is ashamed of seeing to what depth his superstition had plunged him. He flies far from his scene of folly.”
Some modern historians believe D’Aubigne with a certain artistic license had stretched the impact of the staircase on Luther’s heart a little too far. But even they will admit that the thought crossed the German Monk’s mind as he reached the top:
“Who knows whether these things are so?”
It is evident, however, that Martin Luther left Rome a much wiser and more prepared man, than he was when he first arrived, as Peter Stanton records:
“The phrase often ascribed to Luther, is that he went to Rome with onions and came back with garlic. He travelled to Rome with something that smelt bad and returned with something that that smelt even worse.”
He was wiser and more prepared, despite his disappointment, because he now knew that grace could not flow through the Church. If the Holy City was such a centre of corruption, then assurance and peace must come from God alone apart from the Church, her priests and even her Pope. Therefore Martin Luther’s experience as a tourist to Rome taught him to look beyond religion and men to God, seeking Justification directly from Him. It certainly was a holiday well spent for this German soul. Although his conversion experience was still some way off, God was working in his heart.
Luther’s Roman Pilgrimage teaches us that we do not merit the favour of God. Church attendance, Baptism, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Table, Masses, Prayers: none of these acts can justify the soul. Grace is what God gives freely and is the total opposite of what we deserve.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
“Naught have I gotten, but what I received,
Grace hath bestowed it, since I have believed,
Boasting excluded, Pride I abase,
I’m only a sinner saved by grace”
James Martin Grey (1851 – 1935)
Peter Stanton, “The Catholic Dissident”
J. Merle D’Aubigne, “History of the Reformation”
Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, “Our Own Hymn Book”