This Day in History

October 31, 1517:
The Spark That Ignited the World

The year 1517 witnessed the end of the Fifth Lateran Council. This council made decrees that, if they had only been followed, could have begun the long-awaited reformation of the Church. Near the end of the council, a layman, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, told the council fathers that if churchmen did not begin to lead moral lives, then all was lost. If Pope Leo X, said Mirandola, did not punish the immoral clergy, God himself would cut off those rotten limbs and burn them in fire. Leo, however, did nothing.

Johann Tetzel
Instead, the same year, Pope Leo made a deal with a wealthy German churchman, Albert of Brandenburg. Though he was already the archbishop of Magdeburg in Germany, Albert wanted to be archbishop of the German city of Mainz as well. To do this, however, Albert had to pay an enormous sum of money to the Roman curia. To help Albert come up with the money, Leo allowed him to take one-half of the funds raised in the indulgence for St. Peter’s Basilica and use it to pay off his debt to the curia.

Typically, in those days, preachers were sent throughout Europe to offer the indulgence to rich and poor alike. Though these preachers were supposed to tell people that they needed to repent of their sins and go to confession before the indulgence could do them any good, they often did not do so. Instead, they emphasized how much people needed to pay — the wealthy more, the poor, less, while some only had to promise prayers — and spoke as if the simple payment of money alone could win the indulgence for people or for family members who were in Purgatory. This was the case with the indulgence Albert of Brandenburg (with the pope’s blessing) ordered to be preached in Germany. The Dominican preacher, Johann Tetzel, who preached this indulgence, used this rhyme to convince people to offer their money: “When copper coin in coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther in 1520
In 1517, word came that one of the indulgence preachers was coming to region around Wittenberg, a city in German Saxony. When the Augu-stinian priest Martin Luther, head of the theology faculty at the new University of Wittenberg, came to hear of it, he resolved to do something about it. Luther, like other theologians, had come to the conclusion that the way indulgences were being preached led people away from a true under-standing of the forgiveness of sins offered by Christ. But Luther went even further, for he began to doubt that the pope had the power of issuing indulgences at all. On October 31 — the eve of the feast of All Saints — in 1517, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses (questions for debate) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, announcing a public lecture and debate on indulgences and other matters.

Martin Luther was a persuasive preacher and popular university lecturer. He had entered the Augustinian order and become a priest against his father’s wishes. To prove to his father and himself that he could be a priest, Luther tried to observe religious life perfectly. But though he took on severe penances and piled on many good works, he felt he could not earn God’s favor. Even though his confessor spoke to him about God’s mercy, offered through the crucified Christ, Luther still feared God terribly.

While still a young man, Luther had been appointed a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Studying St. Paul’s epistles, Luther slowly came to the conclusion that God offered salvation to those who simply believed and trusted in his mercy. Luther came to think that salvation came by God’s Grace through the gift of faith — which the Catholic Churchtaught. Yet, Luther went on to deny that good works count for anything, even for those who have the Grace of God within them.

A detail from a pamphlet commemorating the Ninety-Five Theses. Luther holds a book that reads, Scrutamini Scripturas 
(“Search the Scriptures”)
It was partly on account of this belief that Luther objected to indulgences — for how, he said, can any good work we do remove any of the punishments for sin? In his Ninety-five Theses, Luther also complained that so much money, taken through the indulgence, was passing from Germany to Rome. Luther said that if the pope knew how poor the German people were, he would not take their hard-earned money even to build that new basilica over St. Peter’s tomb.

The point about the money appealed to Germans, who for years had been taxed heavily by Rome. Luther did not stop with just posting his theses for debate; he had them translated into German from Latin and printed on that new invention, the printing press, and they were distributed throughout Germany. The theses quickly became very popular among Germans of all classes. It was not long before Luther’s name became well known throughout Germany and even reached the pope in Rome. In 1518, the curia began the process that would end in the condemnation of Luther.

The foregoing is taken from our textbook, Light to the Nations I.

Additional Resources:
The Catholic Reformation by Henri Daniel-Rops (out-of-print, check library)
History of the Reformation in Germany by Joseph Lortz (out-of-print, check library)

This Day in History

October 24, 1648 :
Westphalia, The Peace of Death

The struggle that would leave Germany devastated, Europe religiously divided, and religion itself discredited in the eyes of many began when two imperial counselors, thrown from a high window, fell into a heap of manure. This “Defenestration of Prague” of May 23, 1618 was the first salvo in Bohemia’s revolt against the Holy Roman emperor, Matthias, and his cousin, Ferdinand von Habsburg, whom Matthias had designated as his successor both as emperor and king of Bohemia. The Bohemian Revolt formed the first phase of the terrible Thirty Years’ War. 

We often hear this conflict — or, rather, series of conflicts — called a religious war. And, indeed, at its inception, it was at least largely religious in character, for it pitted the Catholic imperial power and the Catholic League of princes against Protestant princes in Germany and the Protestant king of Denmark. After 11 years of fighting, a triumphant Emperor Ferdinand II could issue a decree demanding that the Protestant princes return to the Church all the lands they had seized from her since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. But then the religious character of the conflict began to give way to political interests (though these were never lacking throughout the war). Cardinal Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, the prime minister of France, had seen the war as a way of weakening Habsburg power; and with this in view, this prince of the Church had instigated the king of Denmark’s entry into the conflict on the Protestant side. Now, with what appeared the possible destruction of Protestant political power in Germany, Richelieu encouraged Gustavus Adophus of Sweden to enter the fray. Then, in 1635, Cardinal Richelieu led France herself into the war. It was now France, Sweden, and the Protestant German princes pitted against the Catholic League, the Habsburg emperor, Ferdinand II, and the Habsburg king of Spain, Philip IV.

It was in this its last phase that the war in Germany grew especially violent and lost any religious character it may have had. It had become a political struggle, with Protestants fighting with the emperor (Ferdinand III, who had succeeded his father, Ferdinand II, in 1637) and Catholics fighting on the side of the Protestants. Neither side showed any Christian charity to the civilian population, which was caught between the contending armies. French, Swedish, and Protestant armies on the one hand, and the imperial and Catholic League armies on the other, ravaged Germany. They burned houses, massacred inhabitants, destroyed livestock, and ruined crops. Both sides said such destruction was the necessary consequence of the “religious” disagreement. The “enemy” was expected to suffer and pay for his “opposition to the Truth.”

The Thirty Years’ War finally ended with the Peace of Westphalia, which was signed after long negotiations on October 24, 1648. Under the agreement, though Ferdinand III still held the title of emperor, the German states became practically independent of his power. Ferdinand, however, still held control of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, which, in the future, would form a strong Habsburg-controlled state. But the German empire, from then on, would be an empire only in name.

More important and lasting than the parts of the Peace having to do with the empire were those that touched on religion. For the first time, the empire was forced to recognize Calvinism alongside Lutheranism and the Catholic Church as an official religion. But more significant than this was the provision stating that all states that had been Protestant in 1624 would remain Protestant, and all states then Catholic would remain Catholic. This provision made the religious division of Germany permanent and signified that any hope of reuniting Christendom had been openly abandoned. The Thirty Years’ War was thus a great tragedy for Europe as a whole and Germany in particular. That land was devastated. Whole provinces were left uninhabitable wastelands, and almost half of the population of Germany had been killed. It took nearly 150 years for Germany to recover economically to the level of prosperity it had enjoyed before the conflict.

France’s war with Spain continued until 1659. Abandoned by Ferdinand III, his cousin for whom he had sacrificed so much, Philip IV, with the Spanish, fought bravely on. The Spanish cause, however, was hopeless. Portugal and England joined France against Spain. The Spanish treasury was empty, and vast numbers of Spanish soldiers had been killed in the long war. When the war ended in 1659, Spain, once the richest and strongest state in Europe, had become one of the poorest and weakest.

Richelieu’s supreme goal had been achieved, though he did not live to enjoy his victory. France came out of the Thirty Years’War the most powerful nation in Europe. But to achieve this, France had forced Europe to pay an enormous price — the permanent dismemberment of Christendom into Protestant and Catholic states.

File:Map Thirty Years War-en.svg

The foregoing text draws from Chapter 18 of our middle school book, Light to the Nations II: The History of Christian Civilization. 

Additional Resources:
Richelieu by Hilaire Belloc (out of print, check library)
Understanding Europe by Christopher Dawson (googlebook)

The Last Habsburg

Blessed Karl I of Austria
On November 11, 1916, Archduke Karl von Hapsburg received the news he had long expected. It came in the form of a telegram, sent to him at his camp in Galicia, on the Russian front. Emperor Franz Josef was dying. Karl had to go at once to Vienna.

The end came swiftly for the 86-year-old emperor who, since 1848, had witnessed so many of the great dramas of European history. He died in the night of November 21 while Archduke Karl, Archduchess Zita and others knelt praying around his bed. Though Karl prayed for the dying monarch, he possibly prayed also for himself. Rising from his knees after Franz Josef had breathed his last, Karl was no longer archduke and crown prince. He was Karl I, the reigning emperor of Austria, and soon-to-be crowned king of Hungary.” (from Light to the Nations II)

Karl of Austria was born August 17, 1887. His parents were the Archduke Otto and Princess Maria Josephine of Saxony, daughter of the last King of Saxony. The emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef I, was Karl’s great uncle. Karl was not the direct successor to his uncle’s throne, but with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Karl became the next heir.

Karl was given a strongly Catholic education, and the prayers of a small group, devoted to his intentions and well-being, accompanied him from childhood. When Karl was 8-years-old, an Ursaline nun and stigmatist prophesied that Karl “would have to suffer greatly and be a target of Hell” and advised that he be enveloped in prayer.  This small prayer group became the “League of Prayer of the Emperor Karl for the Peace of the Peoples.” A deep devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus grew in Karl and he turned to prayer before making any important decisions. 

File:Hochzeit Erzh Karl und Zita Schwarzau 1911bb.jpg
Karl & Zita on their wedding day
On the October 21, 1911, he married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. The couple was blessed with eight children, five sons and three daughters, during the ten years of their happy married life. Karl declared to Zita on his deathbed: “I’ll love you forever.” When Karl was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II, his wedding date was chosen as his feast day.

Five years later, the 29-year-old Karl inherited a country at war. World War I was underway, and he immediately set out to do what he could to relieve his people’s misery. Karl eliminated all luxuries at the palace, and the royal family was put on short rations like the rest of the country, while the imperial carriages were used to deliver food and coal to the poor. He spent his free time visiting and encouraging his people and the soldiers on the front lines, earning him the nickname “Karl the Sudden” because he was apt to appear anywhere without warning. Karl envisioned his office as a way to follow Christ: in the love and care of the people entrusted to him. Despite the extremely difficult times, he initiated social reforms, inspired by social Christian teaching. He was called “Emperor of the People,” and he loved that title the best. In the army, Karl banned flogging, ended the custom of duels between officers, stopped strategic bombing raids, and put strict limits on the use of poison gas. He established a pension fund for soldiers, knowing they would be broken men after this terrible war. On July 2, 1917, he granted amnesty to over 2,000 political prisoners. Karl placed a commitment to peace at the center of his war strategy, and he was the only one among political leaders to support Pope Benedict XV’s peace efforts. Both were thwarted in their attempts to end the Great War by the unresponsive Germans and especially the Allies, who wanted unconditional surrender.

Even as the war ended,  Karl thought of the good of his country and its peoples. He saw his throne as a trust given to him by God and he would not betray that trust by abdicating as President Wilson demanded. However, knowing that his decision might lead to civil war and dire repercussions on his people from the Allies, Karl stepped down from power and approved the new republican government that had been formed in Vienna, calling on the people of “German-Austria” to support it. Karl renounced all participation in the affairs of state. “The happiness of my people has, from the beginning, been the object of my most ardent wishes. Only an inner peace can heal the wounds of this war.”

Austria-Hungary, 1914

Karl remained in name Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, but was banished from his country. He and his family were exiled to the island of Madeira. They were not given any living expenses and so lived in poverty in an unheated mountain house, loaned by a banker on the island. In March 1922,  Karl caught a bad cold, which in his weakened condition developed into pneumonia. He offered his sufferings as a sacrifice for the peace and unity of his peoples. “I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again.” He did not complain during his sufferings and forgave his enemies; yet he longed for his homeland, telling Zita “I long so much to go home with you. Why won’t they let us go home?” He died on April 1, 1922 at the age of 34. On his deathbed he repeated the motto of his life: “I strive always in all things to understand as clearly as possible and follow the will of God, and this in the most perfect way.”

At the beatification of Karl of Austria, Pope John Paul II said:
The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God’s will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as “something appalling”. Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Blessed Karl’s family

Additional Resources:

Youtube video of Emperor Karl and Empress Zita’s wedding.
Make this Austrian cheesecake to celebrate Blessed Karl’s feast.
A Heart for Europe: The Lives of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary

This Day in History

October 19, 1812
Retreat from Moscow 

When Tsar Aleksandr heard of the burning of Moscow, he burst into tears and swore he would never, never surrender to the barbarous French. If his army were destroyed, said the tsar, he would lead the common people of Russia against the enemy. He would not “subscribe to the shame of my country and my good subjects, whose self-sacrifice I know how to value. God is trying us,” he said. “Let us ho pe he will not leave us. Either Napoleon or I — I or Napoleon; but we cannot rule together. I have already learned his character; he will deceive me no more.”
The fires raged in Moscow for two weeks, and while they raged, theGrand Armée carried out its own destruction. Soldiers desecrated churches, stripping them of their ornaments; they dug the bones of saints from their shrines, casting them into the streets. The sanctuaries of many churches were used as stables or as places for drunken revelry. God’s human temples fared no better. The few Russians left in the city (some criminals, others just unfortunate poor) were treated with great brutality. And, though he protected one church and a hospital, Napoleon did nothing to stop the violence. Indeed, it seemed it had all passed beyond even his power to control. 

Continue reading about Napoleon’s troubles in Russia. This excerpt is from our 8th-10th grade book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.

Purchase Light to the Nations II here.

Light to the Nations, Part II: The Making of the Modern World (Textbook)

This Day in History

October 16-18, 1859
John Brown’s Futile Defense 

A bitter fight ensued in which, one by one, Brown’s men fell dead around him. “Brown was the coldest and firmest man I ever saw in defying danger and death,” wrote Lewis Washington, one of the besieged who survived. “With one son dead by his side, and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other, and commanded his men with the utmost composure, encouraging them to be firm and to sell their lives as dearly as they could.”

Continue reading about the fiery abolitionist of the Civil War. This excerpt is from our high school book (currently available only as an ebook), Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.

Purchase Lands of Hope and Promise here.

Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America (Textbook)