Luther made a fateful trip to Rome in 1510 to represent his Augustinian monastery in a dispute. The monastery where he resided was an observant, or reformed congregation, in the Augustinian order that held to a strict interpretation of its rule and emphasized discipline within the order. Johannes von Staupitz, vicar general of the order in Germany and Luther’s own confessor, sought to further the cause of reform by uniting the observant congregations and the conventual, or non-reformed, congregations. The decision was met with much disapproval from both sides. Staupitz dealt directly with Rome to obtain approval for the measures, but the dissenting monasteries in Germany protested, including Luther’s at Erfurt. They attempted to appeal directly to the pope, but were not allowed since the Augustinian order was subject to local episcopal jurisdiction (as opposed to exempt orders, such as the mendicants). After their complaint was rejected by the bishop of Magdeburg, the Erfurt monastery chose to bring the issue before the vicar-general of the entire order in Rome, Giles of Viterbo. Luther was conscripted for the task and sent along with an unnamed companion to Rome in order to present the case.
Much has been made of what Luther found in Rome. After a long and difficult journey, walking the entire way by foot, he was in awe of the city’s splendor, crying out “Be greeted, thou holy Rome, truly holy because of the holy martyrs, dripping with their blood.” He would soon grow distressed, however, at the state of religious life inside the city. Like any other pilgrim, Luther visited the most prominent shrines and sought to participate in the most sacred rites. He attempted to say mass at a private side altar in one of the chapels, but was rushed through it by another impatient priest. He hoped to make a full confession, but could not find a competent confessor suitable to the task. Pope Julius II and the curia were in Bologna at the time, but he was nevertheless taken aback by the opulence of their residences and the tales of their immorality. He famously climbed the steps at St. John Lateran, saying the Lord’s Prayer on each step, in order to free his own grandfather from purgatory, yet walked away only with nagging doubts about the practice.
The result of his mission was a failure. Giles of Viterbo declined to hear the case, citing concerns over the order’s unity. He thought it best that all congregations remain under a single authority rather than granting each their autonomy and risking further controversy between them. More than that, Luther was disappointed with the state of the church as he saw it in Rome and began to lose faith in its institutions. He would later describe himself as a devout follower of the papacy when he went to Rome, in obvious contrast to his later opinions about the church hierarchy.