Mar 20, 2014
During the pontificate of the warrior Pope Julius II, in 1510, Martin Luther visited Rome. On entering the city, he dropped to his knees, exclaiming “Salve, Sancta Roma!” He was in awe of this great city. Here Peter and Paul had walked. Here both apostles preached the Gospel. Here the Prince of the Apostles and the Apostle to the Gentiles both died for the faith. Luther went to Rome with pious thoughts of martyrs and saints. He left the city disappointed. The young monk from Erfurt had found a city steeped in sin and corruption.
Luther’s stay in Rome left him with little good to praise about the Eternal City. He is reported to have said, “If there be a hell, Rome is built over it.” Nothing escaped his stinging criticism. Only one place was spared: the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Both pilgrims and Romans held this hospital and its adjacent Church of the Holy Spirit in high esteem.
Today, the Church of the Holy Spirit stands across the street from the world headquarters of the Jesuit order. It is one block south of the Via della Conciliazione and one block east of St. Peter’s Square. As early as the 8th century, a church had stood on this site. It bore the name Santa Maria in Sassia, because many pilgrims going there came from Saxony (Sassia). These pilgrims from Northern Europe were welcomed and given both spiritual and material assistance. In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III ordered the very first hospital in Europe dedicated to the Holy Spirit to be built on this site. Thus, today’s Church of the Holy Spirit stands on a spot made sacred by a long history of bringing mercy to those in bodily or spiritual need.
Pope Francis has taken a cue from the history and location of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia. On Dec. 15, 2013, when he announced his program for pastoral reform, he made a surprising request of the senior members of the Roman Curia. He asked them to take turns hearing confessions in this church located just a few blocks away from their offices.