Luther had hoped to gain spiritual strength through his visit to the Holy City, but he left Rome with mixed feelings. His journey to Rome was a business trip, concerning the affairs of the order. His personal involvement concerned a different aspect of Rome: incredible opportunities of furthering the cause of salvation for others and himself as well.

The indulgences offered for sale in Germany were only poor imitations of what could be purchased in Rome. There was first of all the opportunity of a general confession, which he wanted to seize to unburden his soul, making it as clean as it had been after baptism.

But his own salvation was not his sole concern. He celebrated mass in Rome daily; at the altar of St. Sebastian, he once even said several in a single hour. He caught himself regretting that his parents were still alive: “For I would have loved to deliver them from purgatory with my masses and other special works and prayers.”

But priests from many European countries rushed to the altar with similar wishes in mind, so that it was difficult to put his pious intentions into action: “There is a saying in Rome: ‘Blessed is the mother whose son celebrates a mass in St. Giovanni in Laterano on a Saturday.’ How I would have loved to make my mother blessed there! But the waiting line was too long, and I did not get a turn.”

Because Luther wanted to free his grandfather—Lindemann or Heine Luder—from purgatory, he scaled the Santa Scala on his knees, with an Our Father on each step, for by praying this way it was said one could save a soul. When he had arrived at the top, however, skepticism overtook him: “Who knows if it is really true?”

His flash of doubt arose from the conviction that God would not allow himself to be pinned down in this way. It was this sense of reverence, typical of his faith and piety from the start, which stayed with him on the road to Reformation.

Blasphemous behavior

Luther’s experiences in Rome were ambivalent. He was convinced he would be able to find salvation in abundance in this center of Christendom and was thus determined to make the most of the unique opportunities being offered everywhere. For Luther, Rome was and would remain the glorious city of the steadfast martyrs, where the apostles Peter and Paul and the first Christians had witnessed to their faith with their blood. But noticing how much blasphemous behavior went on in the Holy City disturbed him deeply.

“Where God builds a church, the Devil puts a chapel next door”—would that this saying applied to Rome! But, as people put it, Rome was worse: “If there is a hell, then Rome is built on it.” This saying would later take on a new significance when the monk became the reformer, unmasking the pope’s alliance with the Devil.

Luther’s criticism of Rome was not a result of his excommunication by the pope. Later he remembered clearly the shock and horror he felt in Rome upon hearing for the first time in his life flagrant blasphemies uttered in public. He was deeply shocked by the casual mockery of saints and everything he held sacred. He could not laugh when he heard priests joking about the sacrament of the Eucharist. In Erfurt his first Mass had set him shivering with awe; now in Rome he had to stand by while servants of God thought it funny to blaspheme the most sacred words of institution: “Bread thou art and bread thou shalt remain, wine thou art and wine thou shalt remain.”

The rampant immorality he saw and heard about shattered his ideal of Rome; the saying that was in the mouths of so many contemporaries also proved true for him: “The closer to Rome, the worse the Christians.” But his belief that the church in which he had been raised was the true church remained unaffected.

Luther was by no means alone in his criticism. Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had journeyed to Rome five years earlier, wrote as unambiguously: “With my own ears I heard the most loathsome blasphemies against Christ and his apostles. Many acquaintances of mine have heard priests of the curia uttering disgusting words so loudly, even during Mass, that all around them could hear it.”

Ten years later Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, was advised against going to Rome—because of its stupendous depravity. It was Pope Hadrian VI who officially admitted the deplorable state of affairs. He had his nuncio read out a confession of guilt to the Diet of Nuremberg in January 1523: “We know that for years there have been many abominable offenses in spiritual matters and violations of the commandments committed at this Holy See, yes, that everything has in fact been perverted. ... The first thing that must be done is to reform the curia, the origin of all the evil.”

But it was not the moral decay, the vice and immorality at the center of the church, that made Luther start to doubt whether the pope was indeed the vicar of Christ. Luther had been a “fierce papist,” and for that reason later hesitated to publish his early writings, which were still “loyal to the pope.” His misgivings began with the indulgence controversy in 1518–19, when he had to recognize that God’s grace was for sale in Rome. Even after the papal excommunication had driven a wedge between Wittenberg and Rome, the reformer never claimed moral superiority. It is not the profligacy of the Church of Rome that divides us, [he explained, for] “there are just as many bad Christians among us as under the pope.” It was not Rome, the proverbial cesspool of vice, that gave birth to Luther the reformer.

Luther’s reminiscences of his trip to Rome are an invaluable aid to understanding why the Augustinian monk started on that lonely journey which would ultimately bring him to the Reformation breakthrough. The question he posed at the top of the Santa Scala—“Who knows if it is true?”—was gradually transformed into the fundamental quest for the reliable basis of all church doctrine.

It is illuminating to see Luther’s trek to Rome in light of later events. Any serious search for salvation is subject to the question: who knows if it is true? For Luther, God’s promise became the only life-sustaining answer that could provide certainty: the just shall live by faith.

Dr. Heiko A. Oberman is a professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona. He is author of Luther: Man between God and the Devil (Yale, 1989), from which this article is adapted by permission.