WITTENBERG, GERMANY — Dead 470 years, Martin Luther's light has yet to go out in Germany. Indeed, the onetime monk who taught 37 years at the University of Wittenberg and preached more than 2,000 sermons in this small German city promises to beam his light across the nation, across Europe and the world as ceremonies begin this month to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
For Catholics who did not grow up hearing much about Luther -- at least not much that was edifying -- the year ahead promises not a revisionist history so much as a fresh look at the man who altered history by defying both the pope and the Holy Roman emperor in the early 16th century. Ahead of his time by centuries, critics concede, Luther fought for freedom of conscience, and sought to educate the faithful, especially fathers and heads of households, with his Small Catechism, and the clergy with his Big Catechism.
In a real sense, Luther stamped his spirituality and his soul's likeness upon the German language, creating a literary vessel into which he could put his translations of the Scriptures, making them accessible to all readers. Not only did such an undertaking popularize Christianity, it also became a factor in German nation-building. Luther also translated the Mass into German and wrote scores of hymns that have carried the movement across borders from generation to generation.
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His legacy can be found not only in reforms introduced in the Catholic church during the Second Vatican Council, but 400 years earlier at the Council of Trent, says Luther scholar Wolfgang Thönissen of Paderborn, Germany, consultant to the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity.
Luther spent his life questioning: "How can I find a merciful God?" His struggle filled days of prayer, fasting, reading, writing, confessing, teaching and preaching.
As the Catholic church's Year of Mercy closes and a year recollecting the Reformation opens, this reporter chose to walk in the footsteps of Luther, traveling eight days in mid-September to destinations in Germany where he trod between his birth on Nov. 10, 1483, and his death Feb. 18, 1546.
Pilgrims -- more than a million are expected in Germany next year -- may want to commence their journey at the brass-engraved doors of Wittenberg's All Saints Castle Church, where it has long been held that Luther hammered his 95 theses on Oct. 31, 1517. The new doors date from 1858; the originals were destroyed by fire a century earlier.
The 2,200-pound door to Wittenberg, Germany’s All Saints Castle Church has Martin Luther’s 95 theses inscribed in their original Latin. (Wikimedia Commons/Fewskulchor)
Contemporary Luther scholars doubt that the monk ever hammered his 95 sentences impugning the sale of indulgences and other practices he found corrupting the Catholic church. They acknowledge that he wrote his tract, probably early in 1517, and preached on it, publishing it later, but never posting it.
Even Pope Francis has agreed the Reformation was ushered in on the heels of abuses in the Catholic church. "In that time … the church was not really a model to imitate. There was corruption in the church. There was worldliness; there was attachment to money, power," he told journalists on a papal flight back to Rome from Armenia June 26.
Only a politician would hammer a notice on a church door, Luther scholar Timothy Wengert told NCR before giving a talk on the Reformation at Seton Hall University Oct. 5.
"Luther was many things, but not a politician," said Wengert, emeritus church historian at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
A painting above the door to Wittenberg’s All Saints Castle Church depicts Luther with a German Bible and Philip Melanchthon holding the Augsburg Confession. (Wikimedia Commons/Dr. Avishai Teicher)
Academic arguments aside, grab your camera and do a selfie at the 2,200-pound door, which has all 95 theses inscribed in their original Latin. Above the text is a painting depicting Luther with a German Bible and his Wittenberg colleague and fellow theologian Philip Melanchthon holding the Augsburg Confession, the document Melanchthon authored in 1530, defining Lutheran beliefs.
The two reformers hold pride of place in Wittenberg's handsome marketplace, where their statues were erected in the 19th century. The marketplace invites contemplation and admiration. The viewer can look to either side and see the tower of the Castle Church at one remove and the twin-towered St. Mary's Town Church on its opposite end. Curb your contemplation and enter St. Mary's, where you will find a bronze baptismal font and carved pulpit dating to Luther's day.
The towers of St. Mary's Town Church are seen from the market square in Wittenberg. (Wikimedia Commons/Asurnipal)
Nearby is a beautiful altar with scenes painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, who includes Luther among a group of apostles, deep in dialogue. Cranach -- and later his son, Lucas the Younger -- were chief illustrators of the Reformation. Their frequent portraits and woodcuts of the reformers helped spread the movement across Europe.
The altar provides a lovely frame to the English worship service held weekly here or in the Castle Church. Sponsored by Wittenberg English Ministry, the service of the word -- now in its 19th year -- is conducted by guest pastors from the United States and Canada.
If time permits, visit the Luther House, originally called the Black Cloister of the Augustinian Hermits. Here, the reformer lived first as a Catholic monk in 1508. Its upper floor contains Luther's cell, the middle floor an academic setting and the lower floor the monks' refectory. Luther continued to live in the house even after the monastery was dissolved and almost all the monks left religious life.
Eventually, the elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, who was Luther's sovereign and patron and who owned the Castle Church, deeded the house to Luther. After Luther wed former nun Katharina von Bora in 1525, they raised their six children, plus six of his nieces and nephews there. They were joined by Katharina's aunt and several students and guests. Biographers note that Katharina made dinner for up to 40 guests nightly, almost as many as were on this reporter's tour bus.
Halle and Eisleben
Back on the bus, or in your car, stop briefly in the nearby city of Halle, where composer George Handel was born and baptized in 1685. Lutherans and Catholics have sung his dramatic oratorios for three centuries. Visit Handel's house in Halle or catch a green tram with the composer conducting and his orchestra painted on the surface of the tram.
Inside Halle's St. Mary's Church, view Luther's death mask as well as his personal Bible and a number of notes in his handwriting.
Not far from Halle is Luther's birth and death place, Eisleben. The two houses commemorating his beginning and his end are not the original structures, though their contents give a feel for what a mining family's life was like in the late Middle Ages and the death house contains a replica of Luther's deathbed.
The house that commemorates Luther's death in Eisleben (Wikimedia Commons/Tilman2007)
In an effort to settle a land dispute between the counts of Mansfeld -- two estranged brothers -- Luther returned to Eisleben in January 1546. He was 62 years old and ill much of his three weeks there. Still, he preached his last four sermons in St. Andrew's Church, where his body lay in state for two days after his death by heart attack on Feb. 18. His last written words are displayed in his death chamber: "We are beggars -- that is the truth of it."
On his deathbed, Luther professed Christ as his Savior and Lord before breathing his last, according to the two counts and his sons who attended him.
Thousands of mourners came out in Halle and in other towns along the route as Luther's body was borne back to Wittenberg by 60 horsemen for interment in the Castle Church. And tens of thousands of believers have continued to pay him reverence at his burial site over four centuries.
A Luther memorial stands in the marketplace of Eisleben. (Wikimedia Commons/Tilman2007)
Erfurt and Veste Coburg
"Luther lived as a Catholic and died like a Catholic," said the Rev. David Elseroad, who was also walking in his footsteps. Elseroad, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Hawthorne, N.Y., although ordained a Lutheran pastor, considers himself a Catholic.
"I have to constantly share the Gospel," he told NCR, noting Luther has helped him do just that. "Luther didn't want a revolution; he wanted reform."
To appreciate his catholicity, the pilgrim had best spend some time in Erfurt, the city where Luther earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Besides its outstanding university, the city was also known for its numerous churches and monastic orders, which had proliferated after Erfurt's founding by St. Boniface in 742.
Luther's father wanted his bright son to study law so he would not have to work in mining and could support the family. But in late summer 1505, returning to the university after a visit with his family, Luther was knocked to the ground by a lightning strike near the village of Stotternheim. In terror, he invoked St. Anne, the patron of miners. He promised her that he would become a monk.
A stained glass window in Erfurt's Catholic cathedral, where Luther was ordained in 1507, dates to the 14th century. (Wikimedia Commons/GFreihalter)
Within days, he divested himself of all possessions and pounded on the door of one of Erfurt's most austere mendicant orders, the Augustinian Friars. It was a decision his father loathed, but one that saw Luther ordained in 1507. Visit Erfurt's Catholic cathedral, site of his ordination, and the monastery that still has some of the original flooring and stained glass windows that Luther would have seen in his day.
Just south of Erfurt in the lush river valley and hill country of Northern Bavaria is the 900-year-old Veste Coburg, or Coburg Fortress. Here, Luther took refuge for six months in 1530 while his fellow reformers went to Augsburg to attend a meeting with the Holy Roman emperor. The times were thought too turbulent and Luther's enemies too numerous for him to attend the Imperial Diet, which was called to unite Germany around a single Christian faith at a time when the Turks were encroaching upon Europe.
A monument to Luther on the walls of Veste Coburg (Wikimedia Commons/Storfix)
Both inside and outside Coburg castle, the visitor can marvel at the breathtaking views that may have inspired Luther's writing of 26 Reformation tracts. Music, too, has long been linked to Coburg. One can almost hear Luther, who loved to sing and play the lute, humming in this enchanted chamber.
Eisenach and the Wartburg
Just east of Erfurt and north of Coburg lies the city of Eisenach, where Luther spent his middle-school years while attending its well-regarded Latin school. Besides Latin, he also studied rhetoric, poetry and music and earned pocket money singing in a boys' choir, which caroled from house to house, often appealing for bread as a reward.
Frau Ursula Cotta loved to hear young Martin sing. She offered him housing for three of his four years in Eisenach and hired him to watch over her little son.
The Cotta house, which has been converted into a state-of-the-art, interactive museum of the Bible, is well worth a visit. All the exhibits are in English as well as German. One room contains lavish praise for Luther's translation from such German greats as Goethe, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heine and Brecht. "Luther … awakened and unbound the German language, a slumbering giant," noted theologian Johann Gottfried Herder.
The Cotta house in Eisenach, where Luther is thought to have lived as a schoolboy (Wikimedia Commons/Hjalmar)
Much of this awakening was done not far away in Wartburg Castle. The true Luther pilgrim will count the 250 steps leading from the bus stop up to the castle door. It was here in 1521 that Luther spent 11 weeks turning the Greek Scriptures into a language that could be understood by all, creating a translation so successful that it was instrumental in the development of standard written German.
The desk where Luther translated the Bible into German stands in Wartburg Castle. (Wikimedia Commons/Vitold Muratov)
None of this came easily. The visitor can still see the stain on the wall where Luther hurled his inkwell at Satan, who was bedeviling his literary efforts.
Luther's 10 months in the Wartburg were not a sabbatical from Wittenberg. Rather, they were an ambush and safe haven arranged by his supporter, Frederick the Wise, after Luther defied Emperor Charles V's call at the Diet of Worms to recant his writings. Luther refused, reportedly telling Charles and thus Pope Leo X, whose papal bull threatened him with excommunication: "Here I stand, I can do no other."
Fearful that Luther would be killed, as his response had branded him an outlaw, Frederick had his men kidnap him en route back to Wittenberg and stow him at the Wartburg. Here the reformer grew a beard and was known as Knight George to the very few who saw him daily.
Luther's weeks in the Wartburg were perhaps the most prolific in a life of continuous study and writing. But they were also filled with depression, melancholy and digestive ills brought on by the rich foods served in the castle -- so different from the scant fare in his Augustinian quarters.
Prior to landing at the Wartburg, Luther's days attending the Diet of Worms were among the most stressful in his life. The monk looked forward to the meeting with Charles during the emperor's first trip to Germany. Luther thought the diet, an imperial meeting, would be the place where his 95 theses would finally get a hearing. He grew alarmed when he learned the proceedings would not be a debate of his views, but rather a judicial hearing ending in his condemnation and excommunication.
An engraved slab in Worms displays Luther's refusal to recant. Also in the city is the largest Reformation monument in Germany, its personages taking in movement leaders like Calvin, Zwingli, Erasmus, Savonarola, and the Bohemian Jan Hus, who was burnt at the stake in 1415 following the judgment of the Council of Constance that labeled him a heretic. To spend time studying this giant bronze work with Luther at its center can provide a lesson in the width and breadth of a revolution that began before his birth and was carried far beyond Germany's borders by Luther's writings and teaching.
Luther stands at the center of the Reformation Monument in Worms. (Wikimedia Commons/JD)
While Luther's tracts were often edifying and inspiring, they could also be vitriolic attacks on the papacy, which he called "an institution of the devil," against its cardinals and especially its traveling indulgence peddlers. But Jews suffered greatly from Luther's output, too, especially tracts he authored toward the end of his life that were significantly different from earlier sermons in which he had sought fairer treatment for Jews, whose long history in Germany is filled with discrimination, death and ghettoization.
Among the most tranquil places in Worms is Holy Sand Jewish Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe, dating to 1059 and containing more than 2,500 headstones, at least a third of them erected in the Middle Ages. The burial grounds are within easy walking distance of the Reformation Monument.
Gravestones in Holy Sand Jewish Cemetery in Worms (Wikimedia Commons/Dietrich Krieger)
Worms and nearby Mainz are ancient settlements with long histories of Jewish life. Germans are quick to show visitors the many reminders of their tainted past throughout Lutherland, including derogatory engravings on the side of St. Mary's Church in Wittenberg, the 600-year-old rediscovered synagogue of Erfurt, and the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, commemorating the Holocaust and erected in Berlin in the shadow of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate.
Mainz and Heidelberg
In Mainz, visitors can tour the cathedral, whose interior has the feel of an ecumenical barge cruising down the nearby Rhine, the river that has made this city prominent since Roman times. In Luther's day, it was Johannes Gutenberg, a Mainz goldsmith who invented movable type, thus helping to spread the Reformation tracts with missionary intensity along the trade routes of German merchants.
Inside the Gutenberg Museum, visitors can watch an actual printing of a text similar to methods used in Luther's day. They can also hear what is called "the printer's kiss," when the roller is pulled away from the page and the page, now filled with inked type, is lifted.
Of the 180 Gutenberg Bibles, only 49 remain. Three are in the Mainz museum. A pair of them -- arranged side by side and open to the same text -- show the variety of illumination and artistry that was available to noblemen, rich merchants and the religious orders who were the first purchasers of this German gift to civilization.
The Reformation would not have succeeded without what Ernest Weidl called Luther's "helping hands." Chief among these were Gutenberg's movable type and letterpress innovations. Within days of a Luther sermon or handwritten tract, a printed copy became available in pamphlet, poster or woodblock form, said Weidl, of Augsburg, Germany, a retired teacher and principal, who led the tour of Luther sites.
Related: "Lutherans and Catholics chart path to unity" (Oct. 19, 2016)
Weidl pointed to Cranach, the mayor of Wittenberg as well as its chief realtor, who publicized events of the reformers through portraits, woodcuts and his easy access to aristocrats and landowners. He noted, too, the contributions of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dynasty and the role of Frederick the Wise and his successor, John the Steadfast, in promoting Luther's ideas and protecting him against papal authorities.
German Protestants have no intention of canonizing Luther, and are well-aware of his faults and diatribes against not just Rome, but also Jews and Muslims. "We don't have saints," Weidl said.
But later that day, he confessed the need for them, when one of the 43 pilgrims in his Educational Opportunities tour group went missing in Heidelberg. The university town is where Luther presented his views on Scripture to Augustinian Hermits and invited guests in what has come to be called the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.
A plaque in Heidelberg’s University Place commemorates the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. (Wikimedia Commons/Anneyh)
Wiedl called it "Germany's most romantic city," whose university spills onto every street and was once celebrated in a film called "The Student Prince." Among 35,000 students and an equal number of tourists, there is no better place in Germany to wonder far from the throng.
"I have been a Lutheran all my life," a relieved Weidl told his tour group. "But at 1:10 p.m. today, I became a Roman Catholic, praying to St. Anthony to help us find our lost passenger."
Anthony always comes through, the few Catholics on the bus assured Weidl as, two hours later, he guided the lost soul to her seat. At least one Catholic on the bus wondered if Anthony might help Lutherans and Catholics grow closer, perhaps receive the Lord's Supper at each other's table, in this year of remembering Luther and celebrating mercy.
[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime NCR contributor.]