February 6th would have been my grandmother’s 127th birthday. She was born Maria Olga Feilitzsch, in 1890. Her mother’s family was Hungarian and her father’s family was German. While remembering her, I also realized that later this year will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And although it may not be overtly obvious, there is a connection between the two.
Beginning with St. Peter, the popes had led the Christian Church. This was quite a difficult task until the Edict of Milan in 313, which ended Christian persecution in Rome. It was issued by Constantine the Great not long after his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.). It was said that on the night before the battle he had seen a cross in the sky with the words “in hoc signo vinces” (in this sign you will conquer).
Because of the great territory of the Roman Empire, Constantine also established a new capital for the Eastern Roman Empire called Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). After the fall of Rome to the barbarians in 476, the Eastern Empire continued to flourish as the Byzantine Empire. The Christian leadership in the east continued to fall under the rule of the Pope until the first Great Schism of 1054. This is when the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the west.
Despite the split between east and west, the authority of the Popes continued to increase. For example, in January of 1077, Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, stood in the snow for three days before the gates of the castle of Canossa, waiting for the Pope to see him and lift his excommunication from the Church. There were inquisitions (most notably the Spanish Inquisition) and indulgences to be paid to the Church to obtain salvation. With so much power, the Church had strayed from its foundation in the teachings of Jesus.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 and, based on the wishes of his father, was destined to become a lawyer. But apparently, after he began law school, a lightning strike came extremely close to him, and he promised Saint Ann that he would become a monk if his life were spared. He lived and went on to study theology. He in fact received degrees in various areas of study (Master of Arts in grammar, logic, rhetoric and metaphysics; Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies and Sentences by Peter Lombard, the main textbook of theology of the times; a PhD in theology). He was ordained a priest in 1507 and, after receiving his doctorate, he taught theology at the University of Wittenberg, becoming the department chair.
It was on October 31, 1517 that he wrote to his bishop, opposing the sale of indulgences and then nailed his 95 Theses, which were also sent to the bishop, on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Although a few others came before him, they did not fare as well: 80 of Peter Waldo’s followers, known as Waldensians, were tried and sentenced to death in France in the early 1200’s; Jan Hus, a Czech, was executed in 1415; and John Wycliffe, who died in England in 1384, was declared a heretic, posthumously excommunicated and his writings were banned by the Council of Constance in 1415. So the official beginning of the Protestant Reformation is assigned to Martin Luther’s actions at Wittenberg.
Among Martin Luther’s greatest contributions to religion and to society was his translation of the Bible into German, which not only allowed the average person to have access to the Scriptures, but also helped to create a standard German language. He also wrote two Catechisms, one for the priesthood and one for the congregation, thereby giving full instructions on how the new Church should function. In addition to this, he wrote many hymns that were to be sung during Mass.
When he was 41, he married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and they went on to have 6 children. This began the tradition of allowing Protestant ministers to marry.
He was excommunicated for his teachings and his opposition to certain Church and papal practices. He was also named an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. In fact, according to Charles V’s decree (Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521), anyone providing food or shelter to Martin Luther would be punished, and if anyone killed him that person would not be charged with a crime. Nevertheless, when he died in 1546 at the age of 62, it was due to illness and not at the hands of his enemies.
Martin Luther seemed to stay steady in his belief in faith over reason when it came to religion. But his views on certain other subjects changed over time. When the Turks were invading Europe in 1518, he originally was against fighting them, but by 1529 he was encouraging the Emperor to fight the Turks. Beside his personal battle with the Catholic Church, he had some other controversies in his life. Among other things he advised Philip of Hesse that it was all right to take a second wife as long as he kept it secret. When Philip’s bigamy was revealed, he told him to lie about it. He also had many writings that were considered anti-Semitic. Most of this stemmed from his anger over the Jews rejecting the divinity of Jesus.
Over the last 10 years of his life Martin Luther suffered from various illnesses. As a result of this he became quite rude and short tempered. His writings also became angrier. His final sermon only three days before he died was devoted to having the Jews driven out of German territory unless they repented and converted to Christianity.
Oh yes, you may still be wondering why my grandmother, who actually belonged to the Reformed (Református) Church, reminded me of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? Well, one of the knights who was a close friend and protector of Martin Luther was Philip von Feilitzsch, one of my ancestors on my father’s mother’s side of the family.
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.