He was twenty-seven when he made the trip, feeling enormously grateful for the chance to go and see it all for himself. For even half a millennia ago, the Eternal City was still an ancient destination, filled with all kinds of amazing artifacts from antiquity that bore silent witness to the glory of an empire that once ruled the world.
Still relatively new in his spiritual calling, however, it was not ruins that interested the young priest but religious renewal, and spending a month in Rome seemed to offer enormous possibilities towards that end. Only as Martin Luther settled into his new surroundings, what soon began to overwhelm him was both the ineptitude and the outright immorality of many of those within the Vatican.
Priests rushed through the mass in a race to complete as many each day as possible, for instance, telling Luther to “passa, passa” or speed it up when he said the liturgy. And the shameful scandal of the Renaissance popes, siring children and selling off indulgences, still lingered like a bad odor in the church infecting all. Thus, as Roland Bainton long ago expressed it in his classic biography of the reformer, Luther was horrified to hear that “if there were a hell Rome was built upon it.”
There were good people of faith there as well, of course, for God has always had His sacred, if sometimes secret, agents scattered throughout. As disgusted as he was by what he saw, Luther thus continued to believe that the church that he served still held the valid means of grace, even if seven years later—five hundred years ago on Tuesday, in fact– he challenged that church in a movement that became known as the Protestant Reformation.
But walking through the Vatican last week, I have to admit that I too found myself wondering what to make of church leaders whose egos and impulses were clearly out of control. For in erecting room after room, and indeed, palace after palace, filled with monuments to themselves, the overarching ambition of many of the popes seemed to be simply to be remembered, no matter how much money and maneuvering it took to do so. And that temptation, so it seems, still needs to be checked in all of us, both Protestants and Catholics, who dare to lead God’s people. For whenever ministry is about us, it becomes self-serving and not at all worthy of the One who came to serve all.
On the other hand, should you happen to be in Rome one of these days, you might want to look out for a used grey Ford Focus. For if you look closely at the elderly man in it moving through those ancient city streets, he may look slightly familiar to you. His name is Francesco, and had he been the pope when Luther visited Rome in 1510, we can only imagine how things might have turned out a bit differently.
Even for this Methodist making his first trip to Rome as well.