10 January 2011

This sounds all too familiar

I am one of those readers who frequently - if not always - reads more than one book at a time. One of the books I am currently reading is James Monti's The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life and Writings of St. Thomas More (which incidentally also happens to be on sale).

In the work he related a small - but important - detail concerning Martin Luther's posting on the door of Wittenburg's castle chapel of his 95 theses on 31 October 1517. The Gospel passage for Mass that day included the prayer of Jesus:
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23).
Given the way Luther's action that very day about Noon would tear the Church apart, these words deepen the sadness of that day.

In Luther, we find a man of many contradictions, as anyone who has read him will well know. Monti summarizes one of Luther's contradictions in these words (with my emphases):
The reformer's propensity for tirades of ungovernable verbal abuse heaped upon his enemies also may have played a role in the increasingly explosive atmosphere. His calls for religious liberty among Christians stood in striking contrast with his intolerance of any who disagreed with him, whether it was the Church authorities whose teachings he rejected or the dissenters who, following in his footsteps, staked out theological positions even more radical than his own. Hence against the pope and his adherents, Luther pronounces an anathema in his Babylonian Captivity only a few lines after those on the freedom of the baptized Christian... (122-123).
But I found in Monti's work something that saddened me all the more. In describing the beginnings of the Protestant revolt stemming from the figure of Martin Luther, he writes (with my emphases and comments):
Around Luther there gathered an inner circle of disciples who quickly became the cutting edge of the Reformation, advancing positions considerably more radical than those of their master yet consonant with the overriding ethos of dissent first unleashed by him. Most notable among these was Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, dean of Wittenburg's university theological faculty, who as early as May 1521 denounced the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. In July 1521 he resurrected the eighth-century Eastern heresy of iconoclasm by calling for the removal of all pictures and statues from the churches. On October 9 of the same year, all but one of the forty monks of Wittenburg's Augustinian monastery (Luther's own monastery) announced their resolve to cease saying private Masses [clearly life in that monastery was not healthy]; included in this number was Gabriel Zwilling, who labeled the Mass a "devilish" institution. In November twenty-eight of the Augustinians deserted their monastery; Karlstadt, meanwhile, had stopped celebrating Mass. By December Luther's men had excited the populace of Wittenburg to the boiling point; on December 3, several bands of students and townspeople stormed the parish church, where they chased the priests from the altar and took away the missals. The following day the rioters disrupted Mass at the Franciscan monastery, throwing stones through the cloister windows and demolishing the altar. On Christmas morning Karlstadt finally reentered the sanctuary, but most definitely on his own terms. Celebrating what he termed an "evangelical Mass", and officiating without vestments, he told the people in his homily that they need no longer concern themselves with the fasting before Communion or with being free of serious sin in order to receive the sacrament, for "faith alone makes us holy and righteous." Continuing with the Mass, he altered the words of the liturgy so as to remove all references to the Eucharist as a sacrifice and refrained from elevating the Host at the consecration. Communion followed, under both species (which was at that time not permitted), with each communicant taking the Host and chalice into his own hands. So nervous was one layman about participating in these prohibited practices that he dropped the host and was too frightened to pick it up [this happens even today]. The next day Karlstadt flaunted his repudiation of clerical celibacy by celebrating the engagement to the daughter of a nobleman (the wedding took place three and a half weeks later) [Albert Cutie is appearing on the news programs doing the same today]. Meanwhile more dissenters arrived in Wittenburg - the so-called "Zwickau Prophets" - who advocated among other things the elimination of infant baptism. On January 11 (1522), the Augustinians, led by Gabriel Zwilling, demolished all but one of the altars in their monastery chapel and tore down all the religious images, burning them along with the sacramental oils.
What so saddened me is that many of these happenings are all too reminiscent of recent decades.

1 comment:

  1. Demolishing a holy altar is a tragic act, Father, no argument from me, and it sounds as though at least a few (maybe more) of Luther's followers were over the top in their cynicism and rhetoric. I'm wondering, though, whether Monti's book addresses any of the theological/pastoral shortcomings of the Church in that era--i.e., the things that Luther and his followers were reacting ("protesting") against.

    Finally, I can't help observing that most of us, unfortunately, are "men [and women] of many contradictions." All of us are fallen; we're all sinners, desperately in the need of God's grace and mercy even on our best days. I would venture that most popes, and most saints, have been people full of contradictions. Over the centuries, some of them have participated in--or helped cover up--scandals. It does not surprise me that Martin Luther, in whom there certainly was some good, also had significant faults. (God knows I have plenty of faults of my own!)

    For what it's worth, I'll put the book on my wish-list, based on your recommendation.