While a member of the Order of Saint Augustine Martin Luther (1483-1546) visited Rome seven years before the Protestant Reformation began in the year 1517.
There is probably no other period in the life of Luther that is so filled with legends and with wildly varying interpretations by later authors. Essentially he was the travelling companion of another Augustinian. Together they would raise German Augustinian matters with the Augustinian Curia in Rome, but Luther was the junior partner in the duo. He was then aged twenty-seven years, and had been a priest for four years, and had not yet attained his doctorate.
Image (above): The Church of St Augustine (Sant'Agostino) at Arezzo, Italy, was founded in 1257 by friars of the Augustinian Order. The church was modified in the 14th and 18th centuries. The bell tower was finished in the second half of 15th century. As an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther celebrated Mass in this church during his journey to Rome. Inset: Interior of the church.Luther accompanied Anton Kresz O.S.A. from Nuremberg, who was in charge of the mission. Kresz was familiar with the ways of the Curia in Rome. The Augustinian purpose of this journey to Rome – which many historians have somewhat overlooked – will be presented herein. In October 1510 Luther, the pious monk, departed from the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, located in central Germany. He prepared himself for a journey of 850 miles (1,000 kilometres) southwards on foot to Rome. Along the route, these two Augustinians probably stayed in Augustinian houses in Ulm; went through the Sempter Pass in Switzerland to Milan, Italy; visited the convento of San Gallo, the convento of Santo Spirito in Florence and the convento of Santa Maria della Misericordia in Bologna; and during theit month in Rome stayed with the Augustinian community at Santa Maria del Popolo.
Luther was reportedly given ten gold florins by the Order for his travel expenses. He became ill en route and feared he would die; he was saddened that he might perish in a foreign country. He became despondent for a time, but his health returned and he continued his journey to Rome. On his arrival at the Porta del Popolo beside the Augustinian church of Santa Maria del Popolo, it is said that Luther kissed the ground, and shouted, "Blessed be you, holy Rome!" Visually, Rome was not necessarily an edifying image. A large part of the city consisted of waste ground, on which churches and a few house stood here and there. The majority of the population was crowded together along the banks of the Tiber. Even so, he soon came to dislike everything about the city, from the ignorance and casual attitude of the priests, the movement of the hands that accompanies Italian conversation, the luxurious lifestyle of many clerics, the haste with which the Mass was celebrated, the refuse floating in the Tiber, the ubiquitous immoral women, the moral corruption even in high ecclesiastical circles, and even the universal Roman habit of urinating in the street almost anywhere except within view of a picture of a saint.
Despite his reservations listed above, Luther nevertheless saw Rome through the eyes of a pilgrim. He made a confession of his entire life in Rome, and later said that he had visited "like a mad holy man" many of its churches and catacombs. For example, he went up the broad steps at the Lateran Basilica (Rome's cathedral) on his knees praying, and offered up the resulting indulgence for his deceased grandfather. Back in Germany in 1519 (i.e., two years after preparing his famed ninety-five theses), he still expressed the opinion that not all the shameful doings in papal Rome could justify "the decision to tear oneself away or withdraw from the Church itself."
Certainly, in Rome Martin Luther experienced an unease as at the Roman churchmen allowing low morals, greed, inadequate clerical training and its interest in money to hinder people in a strict following of Christ. Luther is said afterwards to have repeated the Italian proverb, "If there is a hell, Rome is built over it." Other comments attributed to him are, "Rome is a circus, a running sewer," and "You can buy anything in Rome, even eternal life!" His dismay at life in Rome was similar to that of the then-unbaptised Augustine of Hippo when he first saw Rome some 1,134 years earlier. Possibly Rome had not changed all that much in the meantime.
In Rome, Luther stayed in the Augustinian convento of Santa Maria del Popolo. He celebrated Mass in the adjacent church of the same name, which is still conducted by the Augustinians. Followers of Luther have said that, during his few weeks in Rome, Luther learned a little Hebrew from a rabbi, and some Greek from a refugee from Constantinople. It would appear highly improbable for Luther to have accomplished very much in this regard while in Rome for only four weeks, during which he spent much time pilgrim-like, visiting numerous churches and sacred sites. Yet Luther was in Rome for longer than he had initially expected because he and his companion had to wait there for weeks. This was because the Prior General of the Order was visiting Bologna with Pope Julius II, who was using military force in the papal territories in central Italy. The Prior General was Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. (1469-1532). He was a Renaissance scholar and writer who was an Augustinian of great stature during this period immediately before and during the Protestant Reformation. He had been directly appointed as Prior General by Pope Julius II in 1506.
In talking to him at the offices of the Augustinian headquarters in the Convento S. Agostino, Luther discovered a person who also had sympathy for reform of the Order of Saint Augustine and of the church generally. Luther recognised the deep and genuine desire within Giles for reform. (Interestingly, the word Reformatio was in use within the Augustinian Order for decades before it came to connote what is now meant by the historical term, "the Reformation.")
The German Augustinian issue raised in Rome
As already stated, Martin Luther went to Rome as one of a pair of representatives attempting to uphold the partly independent status within the Order of Saint Augustine of a number of reformist houses in Germany, of which Erfurt was one. The Augustinian house in Erfurt, where Luther had joined the Augustinian observant movement in 1505, and thereby joined a group of Augustinian houses which comprised the “German Congregation of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine.”
Established by the pious and zealous Andreas Proles O.S.A. in 1503, and provided with excellent statutes intended to promote a reform of discipline, the Congregation had, since its foundation, been withdrawn from the control of the Provincial of the unreformed Augustinian Province of Saxony in order the better to preserve its stricter observance.
It stood directly under the Augustinian Prior General in Rome - in Luther's time, Giles (in Latin, Aegidius) of Viterbo, whose German representative was a Vicar-General [in Luther's time, Johann von Staupitz]. Staupitz was called the Vicar-General, or sometimes Provincial. There were four German (“conventual) Provinces of the Order, and excluded from the authority of these four German Provinces were a total of thirty “Observantine” houses that were directly under the Prior General via German-born and German-based Vicars General.
The German representative of the Prior General to the Observantine Congregation was a Vicar-General. Both the Conventuals and the Observantines were members of the First Order; both took the same vows; both observed the same Rule, and both acknowledged the Prior-General at Rome as their head, both being styled "Hermits of Saint Augustine." It might be well to state here that the Augustinians were not the only Order so divided; the Franciscans, Dominicans, Servites and Carmelites were similarly constituted.
These thirty German observantine houses were distributed throughout several so-called districts, each headed by a Rural Vicar [Luther himself held this position in 1515]. Staupitz's aim was to bring about a reunion of the German Congregation with the numerous non-observant monasteries in Germany, an amalgamation which would probably have led indirectly to his becoming the head of all these communities. He had already on 30th September 1510, after sounding the Pope, published a bull approving such a union, and by virtue of the same, begun to style himself Provincial of Thuringia and Saxony.
The administrative efforts and plans of Staupitz, however, were met by decided opposition within the Congregation. Certain houses favoured the status quo because they feared that union would lead to a relaxation of discipline; these houses vehemently opposed Staupitz and his plans. To this particular group belonged the Erfurt monastery, and Luther himself took an active part in the position assumed by his house. The opposition of the seven Observantine monasteries became acute when the bull above referred to was published by Staupitz. It was the protest of the seven Observantine monasteries against the Bull as the direct cause of Luther's despatch to Rome.
Luther did not travel to Rome because of any personal or communitarian theological or ecclesial differences with the Roman authorities; indeed, he did not venture to Rome on his own initiative, but in response to being chosen to be a travelling companion and support to a more experienced Augustinian to speak to the Augustinian general leadership about an administrative matter. In fact, Luther found himself offside with his Erfurt community when upon his return he explained that he had been won over to the opinion of the Prior General that any desire for a stronger union with houses not seeking an equivalent degree of renewal had potential to divide the Order further and thereby to retard the possibility of general reform rather than to advance it.
There were thirty monasteries in the German Observantine Congregation, all nominally of the stricter "observance." But within this Congregation of Observantines there was a division of thought: part wanted to reunite, to return to the original division into provinces together with the same rules which prevailed before Proles reformed them (this was represented by Staupitz at Wittenberg); another part did not wish to go back, to reunite with the non-observant, unreformed Augustinian Province, and this school of thought of seven priories was represented by Erfurt and Luther, for which cause he went to Rome.
It should not be thought, however, that all of the Conventuals (i.e., those houses not part of the Observance) were thereby lax in the observance of the Rule of Augustine; in fact, in so far as the effects of the Reformation upon the Augustinian Order are concerned, the Saxon Observantines were among the first to fall before the storm set loose from Wittenberg, whereas the German Conventuals, under such worthy provincials as Trager and Hoffmeister, proportionately coped better in warding off the tide of the Protestant Reformation than did the Observantine houses.
Luther, then, was sent to Rome by his Superiors at Erfurt in behalf of the seven Observantine convents which objected to Staupitz's proposed union. It did not take much time to complete his official business, and it seems that Luther was quite satisfied with his treatment by the Augustinian Curia. With regard to the effect of the journey concerning the Order, a certain compromise was reached. At any rate Staupitz was unable to carry out his plan and eventually gave it up. It is true that the Prior General, Giles (Aegidius) of Viterbo, had, in accordance with the decrees of the fifth Lateran council regarding all mendicant orders, taken measures in 1516 against any abuses that had crept in through the granting of many dispensations and privileges, and he made a conscientious effort to bring his brethren back to the common life.
A summary and a conclusion
So much ado has been made of Luther’s journey to Rome in 1510-1511 at the behest of his Augustinian superiors on official Augustinian business, that one might be led to believe, perhaps, that the results of this trip were a deciding factor in his spiritual upheaval. But the legends built up around this trip have greatly overemphasized its effects on Luther's spiritual stability. Insensible to the glories of the Renaissance he beheld only its accompanying evils, of which doubtless there was an abundance, but even these excesses did not, in his own words, shake his conviction of the authority of the Holy See at this time, and he himself adds that he did not discover his gospel until after taking his doctorate (1512).
Nothing at the time even remotely suggests that Luther was stirred to revolt or given an inclination to break with ecclesiastical authority from his visit to Rome." Then too it is obvious that neither the Roman trip nor the dispute which took him there rested heavily with him, since he changed his stance on the controversy after meeting the Augustinian Prior General in Rome.(Luther continued on the next page.)
The Life and times of Martin Luther. A short illustrated presentation. http://www.reformation.org/luther2.html