Lateran V

Giles of Viterbo
Giles of Viterbo

Ever seen the Sistine Chapel? Michelangelo painted the ceiling, and the wall behind the altar. Do the paintings communicate a message? A grim one? A hopeful one?

The ceiling gives us our past. The creation, the prophets. And behind the altar: What we will ultimately face. Judgment by Jesus. Not grim; not dark. Luminous and splendid.

Michelangelo had a “theological consultant.” Martin Luther’s ecclesiastical superior, the head of the Augustinian order. Giles of Viterbo.

Michelangelo painted. Meanwhile, on the other side of Rome, an ecumenical Council began in the Lateran Basilica.

A group of Cardinals had met a few years before, and had “suspended” Pope Julius II. Like the principal suspending a delinquent student. Though, in this case, the Cardinals had no authority to “suspend” the pope.

But they did have reason. At his election to the See of Peter, Julius had sworn, under oath, to convene an ecumenical Council to address the degradation of the Church. And Julius took his time doing it. He preferred to fight wars. Literally. He practically abandoned the sacred functions of his office and fought in the battlefield instead.

Pope Julius finally fulfilled his promise, in 1512. And Giles of Viterbo gave the Council’s opening address.

The sacred things of our religion: it is not for us to change them, the preacher declared. We must let them change us.

Giles warned the assembled bishops and the pope that Christianity stood on the brink of utter collapse, because the Church had all but lost Her connection with the sources of Her life. The sacred traditions coming from Christ. The life of prayer. The struggle against vice, especially against worldliness, avarice, and sexual impurity.

Giles did not spare the pope. Julius had focused on the wrong battles, Giles declared, expending himself on futile military enterprises. The real battle had to be fought in prayer.

But Giles hoped for a better day. With the pope and bishops meeting together in Council, they could focus on the Christian religion as they had received it–in the sacred texts and traditions. They could survive and thrive by uniting in the unchanging essentials.

…A lot of the drama sounds eerily familiar. Let’s have the same hope. It is not for anyone to change the sacred realities of our religion. It is for them to change us.


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