“As the Middle Ages drew to a close, many advocates of reform were convinced that the greatest ill of the church was the obscurantism of what soon would be called the “dark ages.” The printing press, the influx of Byzantine scholars, and the rediscovery of the artistic and literary legacy of antiquity gave credence to the hope that the furtherance of scholarship and education would produce the much-needed reform of the church. If at some point in the past centuries practices had been introduced that were contrary to original Christian teaching, it seemed reasonable to surmise that a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices.
This was the program of the humanist reformers.”Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 10.
This hope, that “a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices,” inspired Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like them as thed into the 16th Century. But the signals from the top were not very promising. The series of “wicked Popes” that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church as the 15th C ended and the 16th began seemed to point to ‘more of the same’ and perhaps even worse, with open depravity and debauchery fouling the Holy See. The Conciliar Movement had been swept aside by the brazen highhandedness of the nepotistic Curia under these Pontiffs. There was open flaunting of the law of celibacy even at the Papal level and no evidence of observance of chastity or self-control.
A radical named Girolamo Savonarola had briefly brought a sort of revival and purging of the most flagrant abuses and moral outrages in Florence in the mid 1490s, but when he began denouncing the outright ‘paganism’ and ‘anti-Christ spirit’ of the current Pope, said Pope had manipulated his overthrown and subsequent condemnation and burning as a heretic in 1498. A little later the massive fund-raising campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s and the Vatican as state of the art manifestations of the new cultural glories began. All over Europe there were outcries from the humanists and the religious reformers alike at the grandiose scale of the undertaking to be financed on the backs of the whole continent, but the instructions from Rome were to forge ahead and ignore all the carping. Prelates were directed to send contributions from their dioceses. Eventually, a supplementary campaign would be directed to the gullible unwashed who would buy into the indulgence promises for their dead loved ones and themselves when they would pass on. The “unwashed” did. Local needs must be met by local tithes and offerings on top of everything else.
For the 99% of the at least nominally Roman Catholic population of Europe west of Muscovy and north of the Balkans in the early 1500s, Rome was the ‘Holy City’, the awesome place where dwelt the exalted personage of Christ’s earthly representative. They held all kinds of fantastic notions about the place and the person who sat on the lofty gold-leafed throne that shone like heaven’s seat itself. To make pilgrimage to Rome was an ambition only next to the now all-but-impossible idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once more locked firmly in the mail-fisted Islamic grip.
Pilgrims traveling to Rome in the last 100 years before Western Christianity blew itself apart, disillusionement often proved tbiggest outcome. The tawdriness of Rome in those days quickly disabused many visitors. The ardent pilgrims were viewed as sheep to be fleeced by the wily Roman populace. Everything in Rome came at a price—access to pilgrimage sites, masses and novenas for the peace and remission of one’s own or one’s loved ones’ sins, a brief instant of audience time in the Papal presence, outrageous prices for food and accommodation, and the prospect of being waylaid and robbed on the roads and byways around or in the city itself.
Visitors to the city often left minus the aura of holiness they may well have arrived with thanks to the army of priests and mountebanks peddling relics, medals, rosaries, and making outrageous claims for the spiritual blessings and benefits they came with. It took a heavy dose of credulity to accept that the red-robed “Princes of the Church” parading in jewels and expensive robes and carried to and fro in fancy sedan chairs or carriages by legions of liveried servants and escorted by Papal guards were the living vessels of Christ’s grace and mercy who dispensed His favour to a yearning people. If the Pope was even glimpsed, he seemed far removed from the pictures of the poor, simple Jesus one saw in the stained glass of the churches or heard about in the Gospel stories.
Such a visit, in company with other monks of his Augustinian Monastery, illuminated and disillusioned the mind and spirit of a young German monk named Martin Luther in 1510. Luther never forgot that visit or its impact on him. He remained an obedient servant of his Order as he departed, but his awe for Rome and its Papal monarch had evaporated. The full fruition of this would explode a little over a decade later.
The humanists were not the only ones hoping for some miracle of awakening to turn the hearts of the people and the drift of the church and society away from some sort of cosmic upheaval. Surely the renewed advance of Islam into Europe after the dismal failure of all the Crusades to stem the tide, and most recently the Fall of Constantinople, the bastion protecting Europe’s Eastern door, were signs of God’s judgment and displeasure? And yet the secular Princes did not seem to care as they set out to enrich themselves by seeking to “do and end-run” around the Turks to the fabled riches of the Orient. True, they had found some distant new lands far across the great ocean, and there were barbarian pagans there to exploit and perhaps convert— if they weren’t first massacred by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors posing as agents of Christ the King via his stand-ins, their earthly sovereigns. But the tales of Spain’s newly found riches and some thousands of forced baptisms hardly boded a massive spiritual renewal.
More quietly and far less conspicuously, the Brethren of the Common Life worked at the grass roots level, seeking to build community in the towns and cities where the regular institutional church agencies mostly failed to touch the hearts and souls of simple people. The Brethren did not seek Papal benediction. Nor did they always approach the Pope’s hierarchical deputies, the Bishops, or the Bishop’s deputies, the parish priests, for approval to establish houses, schools, and centres.
They focused on providing education to the less advantaged. They encouraged daily prayer and meditation and study of Scripture and the lives of the saints. The principle of voluntarism allowed adherents to choose their own level of involvement. Some took personal vows, but there was no obligation to remain single and take a lifelong vow of chastity or obedience to religious superiors. They all contributed to a common purse, but having some of one’s own money was allowed as well.
It is unfortunate that the culture of the time gave few options to young women. Girls’ education, including literacy and numeracy, was entirely at the discretion of the parents, and especially the father. If not done at home with a tutor or perhaps through the mother or, very rarely, the father, the girl might be entrusted to a convent. But it is still possible to see the hunger for relationship with the Creator among women very much in evidence, and there were indeed very notable exemplars of some who even gained high reputations and influence. Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich are two such, and there are many others.
There seemed a sort of ‘quiet before the storm’ as the 1510s moved along. Perhaps it was more the numbness of hopelessness, what with the holders of temporal and spiritual power so firmly anchored in the status quo when the need for drastic spiritual and social reform was so evident to all—even the peasants and labourers in the countryside and cities. National rivalries continued to fester and block meaningful steps forward, lest somebody lose some real or perceived position of advantage or influence. Radicals such as the remnants of the Waldensees and Lollards were still hunted and executed, despite a growing grass-roots sympathy for them.
Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day. His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy. He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it. Even the most obtuse reader could identify everything he “praised” as sadly all too true. The book was an immense success in terms of the literate public of the day. But, if everyone with a conscience knew how true it all was why was it so impossible for anything to be done to address all these abuses?
The time for action was past-due, and the patience to wait was fast evaporating. Kings and Emperor laughed in their sleeves at the Papacy while continuing to pay it lip-service and depend on its role to maintain a spiritually flaccid populace. The successive Popes were happy to receive tithes and due honours while enjoying the immense benefits of a seemingly unassailable ultimate authority over people’s allegiance. The Renaissance humanists applied their newly gained philosophical and cultural perspective rooted in the ancient masters of Greece and Rome to find solace from the moral and intellectual wasteland they saw in the decaying body of Christendom. They advised other discomfited thinkers and sympathizers to do likewise.
TO BE CONTINUED