Luther to Enter Rome, Again

movie-luther-2003-fiennes-as-luther-on-scala-sancta

Oh, sure, now

Next month a hilltop square in Rome is due to be named Piazza Martin Lutero, in memory of Luther’s achievements. The site chosen is the Oppian Hill, a park area that overlooks the Colosseum.

The move has been six years in a making, following a request made by the Seventh-day Adventists, a Protestant denomination, Italian daily La Repubblica said. The original plan was to inaugurate the square in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s historic trip to Rome in 2010. City officials were not able to discuss the process behind naming the square or the reason for the holdup.

Despite Luther being thrown out of the Catholic Church during his lifetime, the Vatican reacted positively to news of the square’s upcoming inauguration. “It’s a decision taken by Rome city hall which is favorable to Catholics in that it’s in line with the path of dialogue started with the ecumenical council,” said the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, deputy director of the Vatican press office, referring to a gathering of churchmen to rule on faith matters.

The move contrasts sharply from views held by Luther around the time of his visit to Rome, when it was said he repeated the saying“If there is a hell, Rome is built over it.”

I’m sure he was not speaking literally, as in a historical-grammatical sense, but more in the “Where is my damn espresso?” sense…

If you know anything about Seventh-day Adventists, other than that they forbid the drinking of coffee, which is a sure sign of cultic practice, and not in a good way, like in the Brotherhood of the Sacred Bean, Caffeinated, of which I am treasurer, they have a special affection for Luther, even though he would have denounced their theology in no uncertain terms, or, rather, in certain terms, none of which are repeatable on a family blog. (The Seventh-dayers remain the only denomination that formally teaches soul-sleep, or psychopannychism, which does not refer to someone who’s ga-ga for sliced bread. It is an idea Luther toyed with early, as did Tyndale, but I believe jettisoned eventually.)

Now here’s an idea: why not lift the excommunication while you’re at it? If Pope Francis really wants to make a splash on the ecumenical scene, how about issuing a retraction on October 31, 1517 (assuming his enemies haven’t spiked his amaretto by then). I mean, can you really trust anything signed by Leo X? Sure, he loved music and was a “cultured hedonist” and all that, but he was also, according to David Hume, probably too intelligent to believe Catholic doctrine. So who was he to judge?

I say call another council, this time invite confessional Protestant theologians, and fight it out again. May the better theology win.

Until then, and in a spirit of irenic ecumenicity, I give you an essay by Fr. George Rutler, on the history of pews. Fr. Rutler used to write a monthly column called “Coincidentally” in which he packed an extraordinary amount of history into relatively few words by finding the strange, consequential, and amusing coincidences that make history fun. In his last column under that title, he left us with this:

In a financial coincidence, the $25 million paid by the United States to Colombia in 1921 as compensation for the loss of Colombia’s onetime colony, Panama (the United States had been involved in Panama’s rebellion), was identical to the price the United States had paid to Denmark for its portion of the Virgin Islands in 1917. The rapacious exactions of the Colombian generals with respect to Panama provoked President Theodore Roosevelt to use a pejorative term for people of Spanish extraction. The preliminary negotiations for the Virgin Islands were begun in 1867, the centenary year of the birth of Roosevelt’s great-granduncle, Nicholas J. Roosevelt, the inventor of a vertical paddle wheel. He applied for a patent for his wheel in 1813, the birth year of Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote his Fear and Trembling for Régine Olson, the daughter of a Danish governor of the Virgin Islands.

He who is not conscious of history, if not dead, might as well be. When asked in 1892, at the age of four, how he occupied himself during fits of insomnia, little Ronald Knox (later to become one of England’s greatest Catholic converts) replied: “I lie awake and think about the past.” The same story was told of the boy George Augustus, who became King George II of England in 1727. That strange coincidence, spanning two centuries, is probably fascinating only to this writer among all the billions of people now living—which is itself a coincidence.

For the record, I attended many a service at Our Saviour on Park Avenue when Fr. Rutler was senior pastor there and celebrated, or so it seemed to me, Mass every single day. He revitalized that congregation mightily, and the liturgy was a wonder to behold: a joyful mix of Latin and English, with hymns, incense, reverence, and awe to stop the pie hole of a Richard Dawkins. I was actually drawn to convert, and was in RCIA not once but twice. Beauty will do that to you.

Of course, bishops being what they are, Fr. Rutler was given the boot from Our Saviour and transferred to St. Michael’s on West 34th Street. One might say such “trades” come with the territory, “term limits” and all that, were it not for the fact that Our Saviour is in the process of being denuded and St. Michael’s is on the chopping block. Every time I think Rome may hold the key to stability, I think of this (and other things, of course) and slap myself.

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