In the winter of 1510 Luther and another monk were sent to Rome to representing one side of a conflict as to how the Order of the Augustinian Hermits should be organised and governed. Luther was the junior partner in this enterprise; in reality he was simply a travelling partner as the Augustinians required monks travel in pairs.
Not that he was complaining. For him this journey took the form of a pilgrimage; his secondary role allowed him free time to see and to explore the glories of the Holy City of Rome, and gave him opportunity to fulfil a cherished ambition: to obtain for himself and for those he loved just about any and every indulgence he could.
Richard Friedenthal writes: “The city of Rome was the goal of every devout pilgrim. To go there guaranteed a large indulgence. To have seen the holy places was for many the most ardent desire and the greatest experience of their lives. Such must have been the attitude of the young Father Luther.”
Luther was given ten gold florins to take care of his needs.
The trip from Erfurt to Rome is 634 miles by air. However, Luther did not take the trip by air. He and his companion walked the entire distance. This walk was considerably greater than the 634 miles of a straight line trip; the huge geological obstacle known as the Swiss Alps was in the path, meaning that the total distance they walked was more like 800 miles. This equated to a virtual marathon of 25-26 miles per day for the 31 days of their journey.
The distance of this travel was further heightened by its obvious danger. The Septimer Pass heading down to Milan was lined with many crosses, marking the spots where previous travellers had been killed. Many of the wilder spots in the Alps were so terrifying they were given names of places from hell.
en route to Rome, he was distressed by the evidence of luxurious living, the loose morals, and the lack of interest in spiritual things among the monks they visited. Still, the two monks made it in one piece, finding food and lodging in monasteries along the way. This journey brought an unexpected challenge for Luther:
Nevertheless, Luther still held high expectations for Rome itself. When the papal capitol first came into view he shouted, “Hail, holy Rome!” as ecstatically as a Jewish pilgrim catching his first glimpse of Jerusalem.
Luther was not particularly interested in any of the great archaeological sites tourists desire to see today – the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, or the Pantheon. His primary focus was the great ecclesiastical sites – those religious shrines and holy places that provided opportunities to do works of penance and to gain indulgences.
Most of Rome’s religious shrines and holy places had indulgences attached to them. When a person visited such a shrine and listened to a mass, made confession and received communion, they were eligible to obtain whatever indulgence was attached to the place. The indulgence they received then reduced the amount of time or temporal punishment that person or whatever person they designated in their place would receive in purgatory.
At certain locations, it was possible to obtain a plenary indulgence, which meant that not just a part but the whole of temporal punishment could be discharged simply by visiting a shrine and listening to mass while there and making confession and receiving communion.
The most famous incident of Luther’s stay in Rome occurred as he climbed the Sancta Scala – a staircase claimed to be the very staircase Christ ascended and descended in His trial before Pilate and believed to have been magically transported the 1,428 miles from Jerusalem to Rome by angels. Each step gained for the faithful pilgrim the removal of nine years from a person’s stay in purgatory. Steps that had crosses carved into them counted double. If a person climbed the whole staircase they could procure for themselves, or someone they loved, a plenary indulgence, which meant a complete indulgence or release from all of the temporal punishment of sin to be suffered in Purgatory. Luther climbed all 28 steps on his knees, kissing each step as he went and saying the necessary “Our Father” – not for himself but for the benefit of his deceased grandfather.
However, when Luther completed the terms of this indulgence, reached the top and turned and looked back down, he said to himself, “Who can know if these things are so?” The Lord had planted the seeds of doubt and disillusionment in the mind of this young Catholic friar.
During his stay in Rome, Luther learned a little Hebrew from a Jewish Rabbi. He also took some Greek lessons from a refugee from Constantinople. But the more Luther saw of the city, the more his reverence for Rome turned to loathing: the city, which he had greeted as holy, was a sink of iniquity; its very priests were openly infidel, and scoffed at the services they performed; the papal courtiers were men of the most shameless lives; he was accustomed to repeat the Italian proverb, “If there is a hell, Rome is built over it.”
Having come to Rome with an innocence and naiveté, he was returning to Erfurt a better, wiser, sadder man. Later he would say that came to Rome with garlic and left with onions. So he went away thoroughly disenchanted with the “holy city,” but the month he spent there counted for much later on. He never forgot what he saw.