In 1523 Giulio de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII. Martin Luther was causing problems at the time; but portents soon appeared of greater distresses to come. On April 8, 1527, as Clement blessed a crowd of 10,000, a fanatic in leather loincloth mounted a nearby statue, shouting, “Thou bastard of Sodom! For thy sins Rome shall be destroyed. Repent and turn thee!” Not quite a month later, on fog-shrouded May 6, 1527, a vast army of barbarians burst through Rome’s walls and poured into the city. They had been sent—but were no longer controlled—by Emperor Charles V. By the time the troops reached Rome, they were hungry, unpaid, shoeless, reduced to tatters, and rabid.
The defending Roman and Swiss guards were annihilated. The barbarians pillaged, plundered, and burned with abandon. They entered hospitals and orphanages, slaughtering the occupants. Women of every age were attacked; nuns were herded into bordellos; priests were molested. The banks and treasuries were looted, the rich flogged until they turned over their last coin. Fingernails were ripped out one by one. Children were flung from high windows. Tombs were plundered, churches stripped, libraries and archives burned. Priceless manuscripts became bedding for horses. Drunken soldiers strutted around in papal garments, parodying holy rites. Within a week, 2,000 bodies were floating in the Tiber and nearly 10,000 more awaited burial. Multitudes perished. Rats and dogs eviscerated the bloating, fetid corpses that piled up in the city.
Pope Clement had barely made it into the safety of the Castle of St. Angelo, and from its towers he helplessly watched the ravaging of his city. “Why did you take me from the womb?” he wailed. “Would that I had been consumed.”
As news spread over Europe, Protestants interpreted the sack of Rome as divine retribution, and even some Catholics agreed. “We who should have been the salt of the earth decayed until we were good for nothing,” wrote Cardinal Cajetan, Luther’s contestant at Augsburg. “Everyone is convinced that all this has happened as a judgment of God on the great tyranny and disorders of the papal court.”
My eyes are red from crying, my stomach is in knots, and I feel sick all over. My people are being wiped out, and children lie helpless in the streets of the city. Those who pass by shake their heads and sneer As they make fun and shout, “What a lovely city you were, the happiest on earth, but look at you now!” ((amentations 2:11,15)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 6.
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