Statue of Martin Luther,
St. Mary's Church, Mitte, Berlin
I didn't really know very much about Martin Luther. He was a monk who didn't agree with the Pope selling indulgences to build St. Peter's, so he became a Protestant and married a nun. After that, he got mixed up in my mind with Henry VIII, the Church of England, the Fight for Irish Freedom and Brendan Behan.
So when a Roman Catholic priest turned Anglican suggested that I go see a one man show about Luther, I couldn't refuse. As it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but thought some of it a bit over the top. I thought some of the claims attributed to the bishops about the specific relics they claimed to have had in their possession had been invented for dramatic effect. Likewise the power claimed for indulgences to wipe the slate clean of the most hideous and blasphemous crimes. But I did get a good laugh out of them.
Then I thought to myself: I have never read up on this guy and his 95 theses and the specifics referred to above. In fairness, I thought, I should check this out.
Well, I got the shock of my life. All this Alice in Wonderland stuff was true. These people were clinically insane and at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church of their day. And, what's more, Luther didn't start out to break with the church. He didn't even want to critise the Pope, allowing the possibility that the indulgence traders were exceeding their brief.
All Luther wanted, at least initially, was to have this stuff discussed and debated. That's what his Disputation was all about and the 95 theses were meant to kick off the debate. Instead, he hit a stone wall. The Vatican came down on him like a ton of bricks - RECANT, RECANT etc. and before he knew what hit him he was excommunicated, which in those days meant a lot more than it does now.
So if you get a chance to go and see Oliver McQuillan in his own one man show, The Trial of Dr. Luther, don't pass it up. You won't regret it.
And just before you go.
Here are a few of Luther's theses which are particularly relevant today:
5 The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.And these are some of the powerful relics in the church's armoury:
11 This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
12 In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
21 Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
27 They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
28 It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
36 Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
39 It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
43 Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
50 Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
51 Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
75 To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness.
[and from the shrewd observations of the people]
86 Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"
89 "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?"
By 1509 Frederick had over 5,000 relics, purportedly "including vials of the milk of the Virgin Mary, straw from the manger [of Jesus], and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod."Any of it feel familiar?