How bad was it really? Eric Metaxas, in his brand new biography on Luther that just appeared at the beginning of October, 2017, described one of Martin Luther’s experiences during his first journey to Rome as follows:
Another disturbing aspect of his time in Rome was the astonishing incompetence and cynicism of many of the priests there. Luther had never seen anything that began to approach it. It was one thing to have questions about God and the religious life, but what to make of these priests who seemed to go through the motions with a contemptuous indifference, or in some cases even a mocking blasphemy? It was positively diabolical. On the first score, Luther noted that Mass was said with such breathless speed that even he, who was exceedingly familiar with every word, found it utterly unintelligible. It was mystifying, as though the priests had secretly been replaced with fast-talking auctioneers. For Luther, who had revered the Mass to the point of awe and even terror, this cavalier attitude toward this holiest of privileges must have been a horror to behold. If ever one needed a picture of “dead religion” and “dead works,” here it was in all of its most legalistic ghastliness. Luther saw that these priests hadn’t the slightest reverence for the holy act in which they were participating but wished only to tick off the appropriate box and gallop off to something less demanding. The shortest time officially allowed in which a priest could hurry through the Mass was twelve minutes, but Luther recalled that at the basilica of St. Sebastian seven masses were said in an hour—in other words, in something less than nine minutes each. And when Luther himself said Mass, the next priest—fidgety with impatience—almost literally breathed down his neck. “Quick, quick!” he said to Luther, sarcastically adding, “And send our Lady back her Son!”—obviously a joke about the transubstantiated host. At St. Sebastian, Luther also recalled the freakish oddity of two masses being said simultaneously at the same altar, the priests merely separated by a painting.*
What Luther saw, and what many other reformers grasped, is that, by the time of the reformation, so much of what the church was doing was exactly in line with the failures in worship which have always been a part of human sinfulness. Worship was not about the word of god, but was rather filled with the vain imaginings of men who made up ceremonies and rules for themselves. Worship was not about the glory of God any longer, but was a tool for the religious elite to use to enrich themselves as they horded political power. Worship was not simple and congregational, but it was complicated, confusing, and only for the priests to perform on behalf of the people.
*Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter 3.