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Protestants are drawn to Rome, though we define ourselves against it. Strictly speaking, we do not go there on pilgrimage. Yet we have always visited Rome, at once attracted and repulsed.

It began in 1510, when Martin Luther took the trip that triggered the Reformation. “Rome, once the holiest city, [is] now the worst. Let me get out of this terrible dungeon,” he wrote. For Protestants on the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, Rome was an object of either reverence or wariness. It was capable of seducing young aristocrats from Northern Europe into “priestcraft” and “autocracy.” Reflecting on his own time in Italy, Henry Adams later wrote that Rome “was seductive beyond resistance.”

Protestants recoil from the idea that any act of ours can have salvific value or effect. So we look askance at those who get on their knees to climb the Scala Sancta—the marble staircase that Jesus is believed to have ascended during his Passion.

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