Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Trial and Triumph of Mariawald Abbey

Mariawald Abbey
(Photo: Daniel Tibi)
Situated on the northern edge of Germany's Eifel National Park and surrounded by gently sloping hills and dense forest, Mariawald Abbey is home to a small but resilient group of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. Every morning at 4:15 A.M., the monks rise for Laudes, the official morning prayer of the Church, and the Canticle of Zachary can be heard rising up through the arches of the Abbey's church, resounding well beyond the white walls of the monastery. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated daily, is said in Latin and follows the Tridentine form, virtually unchanged since it was promulgated by Pope St. Pius V (ora pro nobis) in the year A.D. 1570.  When the monks retire to private prayers, a profound stillness descends, broken only by the occasional whisper of leaves dancing in the gentle breeze, or by faint birdsong emerging from the depths of the surrounding forest. The kind of peace only Our Lord (miserere nobis) can give is palpably present. To the untrained eye, it would seem as though the Abbey has somehow managed to escape the ravages of the last 500 years. Yet the history of Mariawald Abbey has been anything but tranquil.

Heimbach Pietà
The story of Mariawald Abbey begins with Heinrich Fluitter, a simple and devout thacher from the village of Heimbach. In the year A.D. 1471, on pilgrimage to the Cathedral at Cologne - which, at the time, was still under construction - Fluitter purchased there a small Pietà for the princely sum of 9 Marks, which he had borrowed expressly for the purpose. Upon returning home with his newly acquired treasure, Fluitter installed the Pietà in the hollow trunk of a tree on the edge of the Eifel forest so that passers-by could spend a few moments adoring the Blessed Virgin and Our Lord before continuing on their journey. As the crowds of pilgrims grew in size, Fluitter built a small wooden chapel at a nearby crossroads, and re-installed the Pietà there for adoration. To ensure that pilgrims could visit the statue at any time of day, Fluitter added a small cell to the side of the chapel, where he took up a solitary residence, remaining until his death in 1478. The following year, Fr. Johann Daum of Heimbach replaced the little chapel with a wooden church and requested the Cistercians of the monastery at nearby Bottenbroich to assume the maintenance of the shrine and the care of the pilgrims. In exchange for these services, Fr. Daum signed over ownership of the church and the Pietà to the Cistercians in 1480. The monks immediately began with the construction of a new monastery. The church was completed in 1481, and the first monks took up residence on April 4, 1486, the official date of foundation. The monastery was given the name Nemus Mariae, literally "Mary's Grove", in German: Mariawald. As the monastery quickly flourished, it was decided to replace the wooden church with one of stone, which was completed in 1539.

This initial period of peace in the Abbey's history came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), followed by the French Revolution (1789-1799). As the French army invaded German lands beyond the Rhine, Mariawald was made to suffer greatly, eventually being dissolved in 1795 by order of the French Occupation. Its land and all its moveable goods were auctioned off, though the Pietà was secreted away to the church of St. Clemens in Heimbach, where it remains today. For the next 65 years, Mariawald, reduced to ruins, remained empty.

In 1860, peace having returned to the land, the Abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Oelenberg bought the deserted property, and the following year, Cistercian monks began the work of restoring Mariawald. Though briefly interrupted by war in 1870, and despite the monks being forced by the Prussian government to abandon the monastery from 1875 to 1877, the work of restoration was finally completed in 1891. 18 years later, in 1909, the status of Mariawald was raised to that of abbey.

The period of the World Wars was particularly hard on the Abbey. During the First World War, 33 of the monks were drafted by the German army, several of whom died. During the reign of the National-Socialist government, the Abbey was again dissolved, this time for "activities enimical to the state". The priests were exiled, and the monks were forced to work the expropriated land. During the Second World War, the buildings were used to house a field hospital, where 414 soldiers died. The monks buried the dead in a nearby field, now known as the Ehrenfriedhof. Near the end of the war, as the Allies engaged the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, the monastery and church were almost completely destroyed by heavy artillery, and the remaining monks were forced to flee. Once again, Mariawald was reduced to ruins.

The Restored Mariawald Abbey
(Photo: Natur Provence)
In 1945, Fr. Christopherus Elsen was given the task of attempting to locate the exiled priests and missing monks. It was discovered that three had died during the war, and four more were missing, never to be found. Gathering the remaining monks together, Fr. Elsen began anew the work of restoring the Abbey, which was finally completed in 1959. 

As the changes mandated in the wake of the Second Vatican Council swept through the Catholic Church, Mariawald Abbey was not spared. The church was renovated between 1962 and 1964, and the ancient liturgy of Popes St. Gregory the Great and St. Pius V was replaced by that of Cardinal Bugnini and Pope Paul VI. Abbot Otto, who had been drafted by the German army, wounded in battle on the Eastern Front, and interred in a Russian P.O.W. camp, guided the Abbey through this difficult period. The monastery continued in strict observation of the charisms of the order, though tensions over reforms were not entirely absent. Abbot Otto was succeded by Abbots Meinrad, Franziskus and Bruno.

Abbot Dom Josef and Pope Benedict XVI.
Since 2007, Mariawald has been governed by Abbot Dom Josef. After a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, Mariawald Abbey was granted permission to restore its liturgical tradition and return to the exclusive celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass, making it the first monastic order in Germany to receive this privilege. Since then, it has become a bastion of traditional Catholic spirituality and a true blessing to the many pilgrims who seek the peace of Christ within its walls.

To learn more about Mariawald Abbey, visit their homepage (German) at: Kloster Mariawald

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