In the Footsteps of Luther

When passing over the cobbles of Rome it is easy to imagine oneself as literally walking in the footsteps of the saints, since ever since the days of Peter and Paul these shining lights of faith in God have spent some part of their earthly journey in this place. However, over these same streets passed those whose lives would turn out far differently, such as a German Augustinian who arrived at this city in 1510, staying in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, the interior of which is shown to the left. Inside this same church almost 500 years ago prayed this man, who came to Rome full of excitement for the spiritual riches to be found there but would leave scandalized by the worldly excesses he found instead. Six years after leaving this city that friar, Martin Luther, would begin the Reformation, an action the consequences of which reverberate to our own day.

To be honest, I’ve long found Luther an interesting character, in a large part because of the drama of his own life. After all, he did not start the Reformation because of hatred for the Church but rather because of love for it and his wish to see it rid of corruption. However, at some point a shift occurred, and he went from being a well-intentioned reformer to an attacker of some of the foundational beliefs of the Church.

To be perfectly clear, there were many abuses in the Church at that place and time- history would prove Luther right, insofar as the Catholic Church, which had had a reform movement for some time before Luther, would ultimately call the Council of Trent to reform the abuses at the roots of Luther’s complaints shortly before his death. It is the manner in which Luther carried out his attempt at reform that was wrong. He thought that the Church could be reformed by his own actions and those of his followers, when in reality the Church is not under the control of anyone save God, and our part to strengthen it is to follow Him faithfully even when we are almost alone in doing so, all the while witnessing to others our faith in Christ.

When we see problems in the Church, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water- we must not sacrifice the whole Church, or our membership in her, because of the actions of some of her members. St. Thomas More, a contemporary of Luther, also saw the problems with the way in which many churchmen, including the pope, we conducting themselves in his day. However, that did not stop him from going to his death for his faith in the spiritual office of the papacy. He recognized, in a manner which Luther seems to have forgotten, that the Church is both a human and a spiritual reality.

While the human elements of the Church can and do fall, her spiritual reality is that she is pure and sinless, the immaculate bride of Christ, her head. One modern theologian has said that the Church is sinless in herself, but ever in need of purification because of the sinners- us- whom she holds in her bosom. It is with this attitude that we must approach the Church: while we may recognize weaknesses and failings in her members, even those who hold positions of high authority such as pastors, bishops, and even the pope, we can never think that the Church in her essence is corrupt. Rather, we must recognize that all members of the Church on earth are disciples seeking to follow Christ. Just like that early band, some will betray Christ and His Church, as did Judas, and others will lose courage when it is most needed, as did the other disciples on Holy Thursday night. Yet we may only hope that all may, like Peter before the Sea of Galilee, ultimately say to our Lord, “You know that I love You.” (Jn. 21:15)

So, to sum up the point of all this: pray for the well-being of the Church on Earth, pray for those called to positions of authority in her, and pray for all her members who are (or at least should be) striving towards holiness. Learn about her, but above all love her, for it is through her that we learn about Christ, and in her that we are carried to Him and the Church Triumphant in Heaven.

Postscript: If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend The Splendor of the Church, by Henri de Lubac, a book that helped me grow in my knowledge of and affection for the Church.