CCD Spotlight Blog

Coffee with Moravian Ancestors: Rodrigo de Borja

BCM Spotlight BannerBY WILLIAM NEEDS |

Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts here. To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at


At the end of the 1400s, Martin Luther had not yet emerged. The Church of Rome was aware a Bohemian reformation had grown out of the Hussite rebellion but didn’t develop a consistent response. In a few generations, followers of Hus organized the Unitas Fratrum and were called Bohemian Brethren. They encountered sporadic resistance and persecution in Bohemia. But when Father Martin began his pronouncements in Germany, he seemed to have impressive backing from German noblemen.  A response by Rome and its allies had to be forceful and resolute.
Admittedly, leaders of the Roman Church are not considered Moravian “Ancestors”. However, their decisions influenced the history of the Unitas Fratrum. It is worth understanding how Popes may have viewed our development.  For that reason, I decided it appropriate to imagine having a conversation with Pope Alexander VI who served the Catholic Church during the time of Luke of Prague. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and join us in this conversation.
Coffee with Rodrigo de Borja, (1431-1503); aka Pope Alexander VI from 1482 to 1503

Q. Most Holy Father, you know I’m having a series of imaginary conversations with different ancestors of the Moravian Church in order to understand more about the leaders and circumstances influencing this church’s development. Although you are not technically an “ancestor”, the position taken by leaders of the Catholic Church (then known as the Church of Rome) firmly resisted calls for reform. This indeed brought about the establishment of the Moravian Church (then known as Bohemian Brethren). I’ve invited you to explain Rome’s reluctance to address reform. Would you give me your view on this matter?

A. To understand my position, you must first consider the role of the pope in church history.

Our premise is that the Roman Church is the “only true church.” Its leadership traces its history all the way back to Christ’s instruction to Peter to “tend My flock – feed My sheep.” Since Peter arrived in Rome to expand the church beyond the “Holy Land,” the church’s authority has been demonstrated through a succession of popes based in Rome. They continue the mission of the church to tend the flock of believers throughout the world.

There were problems, of course, which we well documented. Christians encountered and initiated multiple invasions, persecutions, divisions, and even religious wars. The Black Plague of the 1300s especially left the church devastated, the population of all of Europe was decimated and commerce was very limited.

Nevertheless, history shows that from the time of Charlemagne and during the following 12 centuries, the church grew into a successful enterprise using a hierarchy of clergymen, led by myself and other popes. Our efforts were backed by royalty and nobility.

To maintain the faith, we delegated authority to local priests. The priest was the only person authorized to hear individual confessions and offer absolution for sins. To support the network of priests and maintain the ecclesiastical purpose of the church, dogma, doctrine, and rituals were devised and rigidly enforced. Heretics were punished by imprisonment, banishment, or execution.

Although Brethren in Bohemia professed to be Christians, your version of Christianity was different to that practiced by our Roman tradition. This could not be allowed.

Pragues’s Church of Our Lady before Týn – Utraquist Chuch in 1400s | A symbolic bridge between the Church of Rome and the Unitas Fratrum | Drawing by Bill Needs.

Q. You mean to tell me that you saw in the Bohemian Brethren a threat to the survival of the Church of Rome?

A. No, that is an exaggeration. Remember my initial statement, there is only one church and only one leader in the form of the Pope. This is the indisputable reason for our existence. You, Bohemian Brethren, challenge that notion, that is all.

Granted, Hus expanded Wyclif’s message. But both messages directed reform within the Church of Rome. They did not profess a breakaway.

I was just beginning my career as a Cardinal in the church when the Hussite Wars ended. One condition for truce in Bohemia allowed for the establishment of the Utraquist Church, a more lenient version of our Church. Although this option did end the loss of life and treasure from wars, it was unpopular with the Papacy. It weakened our “one church” position. Obviously, it was not totally acceptable to Hussites as well.

When your little band of peasants officially broke away, not only from the Church of Rome but also from the Utraquist Church alternative, we assumed you would shortly die out like other Hussite groups. But you organized as a church with an appealing message. You also added another issue for reform, claiming there is corruption in the Church of Rome. Your call for change resonated throughout Bohemia, from King and noblemen, to merchants and peasants.

In the late 1400s, reports arrived in Rome that the Unitas Fratrum was advancing by admitting prominent people of Bohemia. No, your so called “church” was not a real threat in Rome nor to other loyal states distant from Rome. But your success in Bohemia was creating an existential threat to the reason for the Holy See. That threat increased when Father Martin Luther in Germany echoed your Bohemian clamor for change.

Q. So, did you or your ambassadors reach out to try to negotiate some kind of settlement?

A. What do you call the Utraquist Church if not a settlement? There was room for only one true Church. Popes did not negotiate with Muslims or heathens, nor any others who proclaim action to minimize the purpose of the Church or challenge my credibility as pope.

The Utraquist Church was a philosophical compromise, allowing communion in both kinds to be served and mass said in your language. But the Brethren wanted more for the common man, even to authorize him to lead in worship as a priest.

We considered it totally absurd that ordinary people could establish a direct connection to God without the intercession of a priest! It was ludicrous to think common men could achieve spiritual atonement by the simple notion of a personal relationship with Christ, without being overseen by an ordained priest using time-honored rituals and doctrine long established by the Church.

Centuries of managing all things ecclesiastical and secular had created a management style for us, popes, which used cunning, charisma, and charm. However, we do not hesitate resorting to psychological and social banishment, spiritual isolation, excommunication, physical imprisonment, torture, and even death when we feel it is needed.

When corruption was injected into your argument for reform, clergymen saw that argument as an expression of evil focused on the Roman Church.

Q. You mention the argument of corruption inside the Church of Rome. Do you think this argument was manufactured? Didn’t corruption exist?

A. You speak broadly about corruption within the Church of Rome. I see no corruption.

The pope is the Chief Executive Officer of the Church, supported by a hierarchy of clergy; cardinals, bishops, and priests, all backed by local leaders and politicians. Of course, there was opportunity to profit through paybacks and manipulation. Favors were exchanged, from property and wealth to appointments of title. In some sense, the pope was a kingmaker and dealmaker. This was good business practice, not corruption. Consider my own life as an example.

Like many other young men, I had an influential uncle, a cardinal in Rome, who offered me the opportunity to leave my home in Spain at age 20 and enter the clergy. When my uncle became pope, I was elevated to the level of cardinal and assumed administrative duties. I quickly learned using bribery, deadly force, and excommunication was an accepted way to get things done.

I had 40 years to observe what was going on in Bohemia while overseeing administration of papal affairs for all the world. I knew how heretics should be handled and the College of Cardinals knew what they were getting when they elected me pope in 1492. I was 60 years old. That same year, Columbus discovered the “New World.” One of my first papal bulls reconfirmed the rights of the Spanish crown to acquire the treasures found in this land and rights of the Church to claim the souls of its natives.

With these international responsibilities, why should I devote my attention trying to reach lenient terms with you heretics in Bohemia? Bishops and cardinals and local Bohemian priests did try. They were backed by some Bohemian noblemen loyal to Rome, but their 1499 attempt to control this insurgency failed. You were kidnapping our parishioners and robbing our treasury. You had to be stopped. This set of affairs prompted me to issue the Papal Bull of 1500 wherein I stated my desire to get revenge by seeing the Unitas Fratrum “ground into powder”.

Q. Holy Father, please excuse my persistence on this topic of corruption but it seems to be a recurring theme which led to the reformation. May I give you some examples that represent corruption as seen by a protestant? For example….

A. No, I will not allow you to question me this way. I am the one in charge on this matter. Where you see corruption, I see fall-out from enforcing the rules of the Church.

People sin. When a person sins, he must assume liability for some kind of punishment. Only a priest can determine what action the sinner must take to regain God’s grace and forgiveness. I don’t tell the priest what to say as he mediates with God for the penitent sinner in the confession booth. I don’t tell him what form the penance should take nor what it should cost.

You complain about unscrupulous use of indulgences, about favoritism shown to the rich versus the poor, about the appearance of unholy behavior on the part of the clergy, and more. Am I, the Pope, to blame for this?

Look at the Church of Rome and our influence throughout the world for 13 centuries. Could the pope accomplish so much if each pope paused to act upon each complaint of unjust behavior? I know what questions you want to raise. As pope, I have heard them before. I do not wish to hear them from you!

Q. I struggle to know what to say next. It seems we simply have to end this conversation by agreeing to disagree. We both are Christian, but it seems our methods to achieve a relationship with our Lord and God are radically different. Would you agree?

A. There is no denying our differences. It does seem the distance between us and how we practice our faith is too great a chasm to bridge.

The Church of Rome has rules, established over centuries of practice and refinement. We have roles for our clergy. We have expectations of our parishes and parishioners. You may protest how we implement these rules among our clergymen and our parishioners, but that is not your business. It is my job as pope to keep a lid on these matters, for whatever reason, by whatever means.

You, Brethren, claim to be Christian, but I think you have a naive concept of faith and how to practice it. Your worship appears beautiful and appealing in its simplicity. Your focus upon the Bible is admirable. To a practicing Catholic, however, you seem too lenient.

Mind you, your leniency will someday cause your churches to split, then split again into endless number of splinters, each proclaiming their interpretation is somehow better than the last. Protesting and social activism will become a way of life. Is that good or bad? Time will tell. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that your church will ever grow to the size, grandeur and influential scope as my Church of Rome.

Indulgence certificate signed by Johannes Tietzel. The German text reads, “In the authority of all the saints, and in compassion towards you, I absolve you, from all sins and misdeeds, and remit all punishment for ten days.” | Photo courtesy of Bill Needs.

Q. You make good points here. What do you think will cause the changes you foresee?

A. I suspect the cause of your leniency might be the “humanism” that has creeped into society. While people remained illiterate, there was no movement toward individualistic interpretation. No one questioned the dictates of the Church of Rome through its pope.

When the Unitas Fratrum emerged, your leaders took it upon themselves to promote literacy in Bohemia. Your printing presses spewed words and ideas much more effectively than our priest from his pulpit. Germans printed the Bible in their own language, and you did the same in the Czech language. You printed your own hymnals and catechism. I reluctantly admit your strategy was brilliant!

Now people will read on their own and form their own opinion without the direction of a priest. Nations and national identities will be born under of the influence of humanism. Individualism will fuel a new brand of economic and political development. There may be no end to this renaissance. All will be affected by it. But God will continue to work His will through these changes, in His own time.

Peace be with you.

Alexander VI reigned as Pope from 1492 until 1503. His legacy is filled with contradictions – an excellent administrator, renown negotiator among nations, steady advocate for the Church of Rome, yet contradictory in his personal behavior.

His disdain for the Bohemian reformation never wavered. It is reflected in “The Edict of St James” issued five years after his death. That decree authorized loyal estates in Bohemia to act against the Bohemian Brethren. Issued in 1508, all public and private meetings of Brethren were banned; books and writings of the Brethren were burned; businesses, property, and even churches and schools confiscated. Brethren who refused to join the Utraquist or Roman Church were banished from Bohemia. Noblemen who harbored Brethren were fined. Clergy and teachers were to be imprisoned.

Jan Augusta was elected Bishop of the Unitas Fratrum after the death of Luke. He was not immune to imprisonment demanded by this edict. Our coffee conversation with Bishop Jan Augusta is scheduled for May 18. Mark your calendar to join us.

Note: This is part of a multi-month blog series, “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” Bill will sit down with important figures in the Moravian church to have a cup of (Moravian) coffee, asking questions about his or her life and how they have impacted the church! Look for Bill’s other blog posts, all titled “Coffee with Moravian Ancestors.” To accompany his blog posts, he has drawn the images from his trip to Europe on the Roots of the Moravian Church Tour. For more art, visit Bill’s website at

About the Author

Photo courtesy of Bill Needs.

Raised in the Moravian Church in Dover Ohio, Bill graduated from Moravian College in 1962. A drop-out of Moravian Theological Seminary, Bill now lives with his wife, Sara in Marietta, Georgia. Bill’s career served disabled individuals and employers in providing realistic vocational choices as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. After retirement in 2004, Bill discovered he had a previously unknown artistic talent for drawing.  Now, when Bill and Sara travel, he supplements his photography record with art inspired by the scenes and experiences. For more art, visit Bill’s website at For discussion about art or blog content, email [email protected].

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