Fraumunster, Grossmunster – Why is Zürich Protestant and not Catholic?

I stepped into the two main churches in the Zurich old town and got confused. What greeted me were not grand, beautiful catholic churches, they were tall and bland. Almost bald in the interiors and picture taking was banned. This wasn’t a Catholic church that I was used to.


This didn’t make sense. Where was the Marian statue, the stations of the cross, the tabernacle? Where were the typically Catholic symbols in the church? But isn’t this a Catholic country? Then I realised that only a third of Switzerland was actually Catholic and a third was Protestant.

This was something that confused me about Switzerland, seeing as it was so near France, Italy and southern Germany (Bavaria) which are all Catholic strongholds in Europe. Mass attendance rates may be low, but these three regions are certainly culturally Catholic. In many of these regions, there is certainly a lot of religious diversity, but certainly their main churches and sights were still of Catholic origin.

Why was Switzerland so different? Or rather, how was it allowed to be so different back in the day?

Christianity arrived in Switzerland when it was part of the Roman Empire, although it took about 400 years for the religion to become truly planted into the soil. The Romans may have brought the religion but the religious soil was tilled by missionaries who to the Germanic tribes lead by Saint Columbans and Saint Gall – who lent his name to the city of St Gallen, but more on that another time. It was from that point on that Christianity in what was to become Switzerland gained a cultural influence – the German one.

Like all of Western Christianity, Switzerland was of Catholic persuasion for centuries, being far away from the issues and centres of power that led to the Great Schism (between Western & Eastern Christianity) in 1054.

It was however at the epicentre of the next great Christian schism – the Reformation.

The Catholic Church in the medieval age was drunk on power. It had grown from a persecuted religion, into the official religion of an empire. Rather than have its most important religious officials matyred and disemboweled, its most important religious officials had become feted and fat. Their words went from outlawed to The Law. The Pope has gone from a man crucified for leading his faith, to a man who christened kings and emperors. Regardless of the message, the messengers had become corrupted by their own authority and power. Power hungry families took the crown as their own plaything and wrestled with it for power – there were the Borgias of Aragon, the Medici’s of Florence and the Farnese of Parma among them.

Something very different from what the cardinals of the church are expected to not desire (that just like Jesus, they pray that the cup passes their lips), and something that fortunately it feels like the Popes of today are more appreciative of (I hope, although the present day church until a decade ago was considered the most corrupt after the Borgias & Medicis 😦 ).

Obviously wrong institutions such as the Cardinal-nephew (individuals elevated to the cardinalate because of blood relations and nothing else) were instituted – the cardinal-nephew travesty was what gave birth to the word, nepotism. Other nonsensical ideas included the sale of indulgences, a forgiveness of sins that was given to Peter and the bishops by Jesus in the bible – a religious/ papal indulgence has merit theologically but the sale of indulgences had only capitalistic merit. Many of these money-making ideas were intended for the creation of beautiful monuments to the church – a cross which the church today, has to unfortunately continue to bear.

In 1520, a young monk one who grew up constantly in the fear of God and who wallowed in his insufficiency under God had enough of the mess that was going on in the church and wrote a 95 theses which he then nailed onto the wall of the Church of Wittenberg admonishing the church of the error of its ways.

The man was called Martin Luther and all he wanted was a way to send recourse to the Pope.

But politics intervened. The church by the 1500s was an insufferable presence to many noble families and the people. The people saw in the purity of Luther’s intentions an attracticve way to practice their faith and the princes found a way to strengthen their political hold at home and free themselves from the control of Rome. A group of princes decided to support and defend Luther to a hilt, this was their chance to break away.

Although Luther was the most well known of the initially theological leaders of what became the Protestant Reformation, he was not the first. One of the first was a Swiss preacher called Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli was born into a poor argricultural family and became a priest at a young age. As a normal parish priest of the era, Zwingli did not have much education in the biblical texts in the Catholic tradition, he was expected merely to say mass for the people. But Zwingli was not content on being a normal parish priest, he was a man of greater ambitions and he volunteered to be a chaplain in the service of the Papal States. It was there that Zwingli honed his craft as a politician. The Papal armies however lost the war and a despondent Zwingli retreated to a small village to learn and reflect. It was in this small village that Zwingli learnt Greek and Hebrew which enabled him to read the bible, correspond with the intellectuals of the day and grow in his theological understanding.

The post of pastor of the Grossmunster Church in Zurich became vacant in 1519 and it was then that Zwingli returned to oublic prominence.

Grossmunster Church

It was there that Zwingli began to do things his own way. He changed preaching was done and deviated from the norms, continuing to evolve his methods was a pastor at the Grossmunster church had began preaching in 1519 about the excess and of the church and the necessary reforms that were required of the church.

Zwingli was a powerful speaker and his words were received rather well by the faithful for years, with opposition to his preaching never amounting to much.

Then it all broke down.

1522, the season of Lent. Zwingli who by now had been practiced as a preacher and a theologian disagreed with the practice of Lent on the basis that there was no biblical basis for the practice. During Lent, he and a few others cut and distributed smoke sausages. This would come to be known as the Affair of the Sausages and marked the informal beginning of the Reformation in Zurich. The next decade was one of religious upheaval. The politicians and religious leaders took sides with some Cantons siding the Catholics and others the reformers. The leaders of Protestantism openly and vigorously disagreed with each other just as they disagreed with the Catholic Church. A civil war broke out in the Swiss cantons. Fundamentally this was a competition of how individual humans intepreted what they saw as God’s word from the bible, the difference was that the bible and the fear of God was something that people of the time had in much more serious quantities than the majority of people in the same societies today. The reformation was in full swing and soon enough the Swiss Reformed Church was formed.

Despite being at the border of many Catholic strongholds, there was no attempt at a religious invasion. For one, Switzerland was small and the political leaders had other issues on the horizon, secondly, even within Switzerland the independent cantons could not even agree on what was their official religion, there was little need to get involved. In fact Switzerland was paralysed in its ability to have a united front for some three centuries because of these confessional differences.

Eventually though, the majority of the Cantons and people chose to be part of the Swiss Reformed Church and was the majority population (56%) in the 1910s. With time, increasing religious diversity and the immigration of southern European labour into Switzerland, that state of affairs has reversed with Catholics now outnumbering Swiss Reformed Christians in the country, together with a sizable number of Muslims and other Christian groups on the growth trend.

The interiors of the churches made sense now, these were not Catholic Churches, they were Reformation Churches.




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