Letter to Harold “Hoot” and Annie Gibson cont. part 3
(THE BIRTH OF JUNK MAIL & RELIGIOUS ADVERTISING!)
Well, by 1500 things in Christendom were in quite a pickle. Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, and the greatest of Christian cities fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453, and the Turks seemed destined to swallow up the rest of Europe, and Christendom with it. The Popes had returned to Rome and the Western Schism had ended by 1417, but Rome was a mess. Old St. Peter’s Basilica, built by the first Christian emperor, Constantine in 330 AD, was about to collapse. It was after all, over a thousand years old and while everyone was arguing about who was the real pope, no one had worried about the tuck pointing or cleaned the gutters.
Pope Nicholas V (1447–55) wanted to clean up Rome and was the first to consider tearing down the venerable old church and putting up a new one. He never quite got around to it, but one of his successors, Pope Julius II, decided to go ahead with the demolition and replace it with something more suitable. After all, he planned on being buried there. So around 1505, the old church was torn down.
(There is a story here that I can’t resist telling. Julius planned his tomb right in the middle of the new St. Peter’s, smack dab on top of the apostle’s grave. It was to be a sort of stepped pyramid, covered with Michelangelo statues. The whole thing took longer than Julius imagined; 120 years to be exact. They didn’t quite finish on time and Julius didn’t get the glorious tomb he had planned in the new basilica. They put Julius elsewhere for the time being and the few statues finished by Michelangelo at the time of Julius’ demise were scattered around Rome Finally, the remains of Pope Julius were interred in St. Peter’s many years later. If you visit St. Peter’s today, walk toward the great altar and over on the right side you will see a large wooden console that I believe holds organ pipes. Around behind it they stack folding chairs for special events. Under the folding chairs you will find the grave of Julius II. The wonder of it all.)
Eventually, serious work was begun on the rebuilding of the heap of ruins that St. Peter’s had become. Giovanni d' Medici, was born in 1475. He was raised as a Medici prince, fun-loving, cultured, a patron of the arts and without the sense that God gave geese. He was elected pope in 1513 (died 1521), an eight-year disaster. He was the last non-priest to be elected Pope. He was quickly ordained and crowned as Leo X. He is reported to have said to his brother Giuliano d’ Medici, “Since God has seen fit to give us the papacy, let us enjoy it." And boy, did he. He paraded through Rome at the head of a lavish parade featuring panthers, jesters, and Hanno, his pet white elephant. Leo could go through money like a drunken sailor in a disreputable port. It is not cheap being a Renaissance pope, what with Italian wars, feeding white elephants, hiring relatives and all, and then there were all the rebuilding projects, and don’t forget St. Peter’s.
One method for raising funds was the granting of indulgences in return for contributions. Remember, bingo had not yet been invented. Enter Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg. Albrecht wanted to be the Archbishop of Mainz, because the Archbishop of Mainz was one of seven people who voted for the Holy Roman Emperor. He was, however, only about 27 or 28 years old, too young to be an archbishop. But Pope Leo was happy to overlook this difficulty for a slight monetary consideration (Remember Hanno, the hungry elephant.) Albrecht had borrowed 21,000 ducats (I have no idea how much a ducat is worth. Though I imagine quite a bit.) from Jacob Fugger, and then got permission from Leo to conduct a sale of indulgences in order to repay the loan, provided half the proceeds went to Leo. Albrecht hired the Dominican priest, Fr. John Tetzel, to preach the indulgence and thus light the fuse that started the reformation.
Fr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German priest and professor of theology at Wittenberg University in the diocese of Mainz. He, like many of us Germans, could always be counted on to have an opinion. When he saw the ad for Tetzel’s revival and fire sale of indulgences he challenged all comers to a debate with his famous 95 Theses, which he both sent to Albert and nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Among a number of ideas, mostly gathered from our friends Huss and Wycliffe, was the idea that indulgences were a bunch of hooey, starving elephants notwithstanding.
Albrecht forwarded Luther’s letter to Rome, and the fertilizer hit the ventilator, theologically speaking. One at first sides with Luther, and perhaps he did have a point. The case can be made that the whole Church was being run by a bunch of crooks.
Fr. Luther might have done great good for the church, had he insisted on the renewal of the Church and the papacy. He started out that way, but he soon came to believe that the pope was not infallible, but that he, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther was, and Dr. Luther had some very strange ideas indeed. In normal times, Fr. Luther would have been in hot water, or at least the guest of honor at a medieval barbecue, but these were not normal times.
The papacy was in the hands of a bunch of self-indulgent idiots and the German princes (just as self-indulgent) were intrigued by the idea that they might not have to send all that money to Italy in order to marry their cousins or buy a get out of hell free card. And remember Gutenberg and his printing press? Martin was the first person in history with the means to tell all of his friends just what kind of loons were in charge and just what he thought of them.
Let us review:
1) After a century of exile and schism, the Church, the papacy and the Holy City of Rome were in a shambles.
2)The aristocratic families of Italy thought the papacy existed for their enrichment and amusement.
3) The Muslims were in the process of swallowing up the Christian world, and
4) the German nobility met a German monk with a bad temper and some strange ideas about Christianity, who, they thought could help them say “Take ye a hike, thou varlets!” to those thieves in Italy.
FR. MARTIN LUTHER, SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW