by Mary Ellen Bork
On a recent pilgrimage in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI to Bavaria, Austria, and northern Italy, I visited centers of Catholic culture and religious devotion and came away with an unexpected sense of hope about our efforts to evangelize today. It is true that the churches in Germany and Austria are contending with sexual scandal and revolts by dissident priests, but Bavaria has a long Catholic religious history. The roots of Catholicism in Bavaria, where the pope was born, are very deep and from these roots of faithful devotion new buds can spring in our day. The pope’s own faith was formed in the Catholic culture that has flourished there for a thousand years in its churches, monasteries, and shrines. Benedict’s love of Mozart’s music took us to Salzburg and an unforgettable concert of Mozart’s Coronation Mass. We then visited northeast Italy near Lake Garda and Trent where in the sixteenth century the Council of Trent was held, ending doctrinal confusion after the Protestant reformation and promoting reform.
Three aspects of this pilgrimage ancient religious devotion, music that evokes transcendent beauty, and deeper knowledge of Church history convinced me that these aspects of Catholic culture are important to deepening our own individual faith and can help us in our efforts to explain our witness to God in a very secularized world. Why? Because Catholic culture born of the faith is one of the greatest gifts of God to the human community and offers a rich understanding of human life and its possibilities. The spiritual and cultural beauty inspired by the Catholic faith needs to be better known so that it can inspire us and open our hearts to God.
After arriving in Munich, the group of thirty-five pilgrims from Washington, DC drove east to the town of Altötting to visit the shrine of the Black Madonna, a prayerful center in Bavaria for a thousand years. Benedict visited this Marian shrine often as a young person. We were tired from our overnight travel, but after we arrived at our lodgings we hurried to the shrine nearby for the rosary before our opening Mass.
The tiny chapel sits in front of a larger church in the town platz. The walls outside and inside are covered with mementos of miracles. When you enter the chapel through a small door there is a small area with four or five small wooden benches, a second small doorway leads to a small inner sanctuary with the diminutive statue of the black Madonna over the altar, surrounded by painted black walls and silver candles and adornments that shine and sparkle in candlelight creating an aura of beauty and transcendence.
Tired as we were, we joined the men and women praying the rosary in German, standing because every seat was taken. The quiet rhythm of their prayer and obvious devotion drew the pilgrims into the presence of God, and through faith we Americans were at one with this Catholic community. We were together in a holy place where believers have prayed to Mary and experienced her protection and intercession.
The retired bishop of Passau, Bishop Etter, a friend of one of our pilgrims, said Mass for us in the tiny chapel. He was ordained with Pope Benedict and knows him well. He later joined us for dinner and asked us to pray for the needs of the Church in Germany.
The next day he accompanied us to the pope’s birthplace in Marktl am Inn, a small nearby town on the river Inn. We had Mass in St. Oswald’s church, one block away, where the pope was baptized at the Easter Vigil shortly after he was born. His house has become a museum with many artifacts of the family and of his priestly service. What impressed us at the shrine and St. Oswald’s was the living faith of the congregation, a felt sense of community, beauty, and devotion. We visited several other churches and shrines but starting at a shrine beloved of the pope was an auspicious beginning of a prayerful trip.
The second aspect of the pilgrimage the beauty of music, the highlight of the trip was in Salzburg, the city of Mozart. Besides being famous for the Sound of Music, Salzburg has a history of being a dynamic Catholic center, at one time boasting twenty-one churches and several monasteries. Pope Benedict plays Mozart on his piano almost every day and finds in it a source of joy. We arrived in the city during the music festival and were fortunate to attend a special concert at the baroque cathedral of the Resurrection. The conductor, Professor Czifra, an expert in Mozart, gave us a talk the night before the concert to explain the Coronation Mass.
In the afternoon of August 3, we had a tour of old town Salzburg and a tour of the cathedral. Mozart played his music in this cathedral. That evening we arrived at the cathedral for the concert. We entered the baroque cathedral walking to the nave toward the resurrection of Christ painting over the main altar. With expectation we watched the large choir assemble in the sanctuary, organists to the right and left in the balconies, trumpets and timpani to the left rear balcony, maestro in the center.
How to describe the ethereal combination of choir, instruments and resonance of sound in that beautiful setting all for the praise of God in Catholic worship? Professor Czifra said Mozart’s Kyrie expressed both faith and fear of the Lord; the Gloria, praise; and the Agnus Dei, the tenderness of God’s mercy. Being lifted up by the beauty of the architecture and by Mozart’s music lovingly performed where the composer had played it three hundred years before in this profoundly Catholic setting was an unforgettable experience. Pope Benedict has eloquently said that art opens “a door on to the infinite, on to a beauty and a truth that go beyond the daily routine. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and of the heart, impelling us upward” (Address following a concert at Castel Gandolfo, August 31, 2011).
The third aspect of the pilgrimage was learning more about Church history. After Salzburg, we visited several cities important in the history of the Church, Padua, Venice, and Trent among them. The city of Trent, south of the Brenner pass in an area of Italy called the Trentina, hosted the sixteenth-century council that was the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant reformation, making possible the restoration and renewal of Catholic life in the midst of the Protestant challenges to the Catholic faith.
The council lasted for eighteen years mainly because of interruptions caused by the intense political conflicts of the day. Trent clarified Catholic teaching on many of the questions raised by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, and it took positive steps to promote Catholic life. One of its most important actions was the creation of seminaries in every diocese, which led to better preaching and formation of the laity. Pope Gregory once said first comes the preaching and then Christ comes.
Saint Charles Borromeo, cardinal of Milan, by the end of his life had built three seminaries in his diocese and Catholic life flourished. As a result of the council prince-bishops became less secular and more imbued with a sense of mission in union with the pope. The popes who ruled after the council implemented the reforms and there was flourishing of Catholic life, new religious orders, and worldwide missionary activity. The Church began a process of de-secularization and a re-Catholicizing, with the help of a new catechism and renewal of the liturgy.
True renewal is always a matter of deepening the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Today the need continues to be one of re-Catholicizing a Church disheartened by scandal and pressured by secularism. Pope Benedict XVI told the German laity last September that the Church has to continually rededicate herself to her mission and strive to be unworldly.
He went on to say: “In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God. In this she follows the words of Jesus: ‘They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world’ (Jn 17:16), and in precisely this way He gives Himself to the world. One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform” (Address, Freiburg im Breisgau, September 25, 2011).
Why do I single out these aspects of our pilgrimage as important to evangelization today? Many modern Catholics have not been taught the faith adequately, and in many cases have a narrow understanding of faith as a set of rules or a vague sense of duty to perform some rituals to please a righteous God. They need to understand and remember that Catholic culture was inspired by faith in the past and can be inspired again by our inherited tradition of great depth and beauty and virtue.
Pope Benedict pointed out to Germany’s political leaders on the same visit that we need to understand the positive influence of faith on human life and culture. Instead of thinking that we are just self-creating beings, we must recognize that God has created and redeemed us. This insight at the heart of Catholic culture opens the human spirit to God, friendship, the creation of beauty in art, architecture, music, and the ordering of a virtuous life.
This insight was the formative influence on European culture, a truth that many Europeans do not want to acknowledge today. Germans experienced what happens when that insight is lost and when power opposes what is right and crushes it. It must not be seen as just a “thing of the past” but is the inner identity of Europe and the West.
Pope Benedict has proclaimed that beginning in October 2012, the Church will observe a “Year of Faith”. This focus on faith can be an opportunity to grow in a more profound understanding of the influence of faith on culture. The pope is in a position, as head of the Catholic Church, to teach the truth that Christianity is integral to Europe and the world’s history. He represents the living Christian memory of Europe and the world.
Looking back I am grateful to Monsignor Peter Vaghi, priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, and Guido Adelfio of Bethesda Travel who so carefully planned this trip, one of several they have arranged over the years for the John Carroll Society, a Catholic lay group of Washington.
This was not an ordinary pilgrimage. We did not go to any large cities, except Venice (we passed through Munich) and our focus was inspired by Pope Benedict’s life and love of music. The combination of natural beauty of the mountains and lakes, the many shrines and chapels built with love and a sense of beauty were inspiring and uplifting. We came back with renewed gratitude for Pope Benedict’s leadership as teacher-pope and lover of beauty and eager to keep a living memory of the Catholic culture we have inherited and now must defend.
(Ed. Note: Pope Benedict’s addresses during his apostolic journey to Germany, September 22-25, 2011, are accessible on the Vatican web site: vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/ 2011/september/index_en.htm).
Mary Ellen Bork is a freelance writer and lecturer on issues affecting Catholic life and culture. She serves on the Advisory Board of the School of Philosophy, Catholic University of America, and Christendom College. She is on the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Chesterton Review. For several years she has facilitated groups studying Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. She is doing research on Catholic leaders during the English Reformation and sixteenth century Catholic religious leaders. Her articles appear in the National Catholic Register, The Washington Times, Voices, and The New Criterion. She and her husband, Judge Robert H. Bork, live in McLean, Virginia.
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