MSW's Vacation Log

It had been nine years since I crossed the Atlantic to visit Europe and my life has changed a great deal in those intervening years. My last trip was decidedly ecclesiastical as I was attending a consistory. But, as more and more of my life has been happily consumed by thinking about the Catholic Chruch, it was not really a surprise that my trip to Bavaria and Austria last week turned into a bit of a pilgrimage. With limited time in cities I have never before visited, I head straight for the churches.

I attended Sunday Mass at the Frauenkirche, which is the Cathedral in Munich. (Actually, the co-cathedral. The original seat of the diocese was Freising, now a suburb of Munich, which is still home to the Cathedral of Saints Mary and Corbinian. This year, Cardinal Reinhard Marx used the Cathedral in Freising for priestly ordinations.) The Frauenkirche’s twin towers dominate the skyline of old Munich, one of them wrapped in scaffolding for repairs, and unlike its co-cathedral in Freising, it was never baroque-ized. It remains essentially a gothic church, somewhat spare even, in its ornamentation and statuary.

I do not speak a whit of German, but of course the Mass follows the same pattern, so it is easy enough to follow along. Still, I have no idea what the opening, preparation and concluding prayers were about, yet I said “Amen” at the end of each of them. We should not too easily say “Amen.” It is a complete statement of complete affirmation, no quibbles, no trimming. A few years ago, NPR brought back a series from the 1950s called, “This I believe,” in which people spoke for a minute or two about the beliefs that most animate them. Listeners were asked to send in proposals. I did so, saying that I wanted to recite the Nicene Creed and add a bit about why I believe it. My proposal did not make the cut, which tells us more about NPR than it does about the Nicene Creed. But, Sunday, in an unfamiliar church, surrounded by strangers, I repeatedly said “Amen” to something I did not understand. There is a lesson here: We can trust the Church on such a vital matter, and the ability to say “Amen” with confidence is indeed a vital matter. I wish I could say that I came to this insight all on my own, but the thought came to me largely because my friend Dana Dillon, who teaches theology at Providence College, has related a similar story with the identical conclusion in some of her presentations. I am grateful she did. It made my “Amens” at the Frauenkirche more full-hearted.

As noted, the Frauenkirche is one of the few non-baroque churches in Munich. Indeed, some, like the Theatiner Church and especially the Asam Church, are among the most extravagant rococo churches I have ever seen. I wrote to a friend that after making a pilgrimage to half a dozen Munich churches, I was “rococo’d out.” There is beauty in the baroque and rococo, to be sure. Obviously, the people who built these churches strained every part of their imagination to give glory to God in their work. A barren piece of wall or ceiling must have seemed an insult to God in their eyes. It is not difficult to see where Pope Benedict got his affection for the baroque – he grew up with it. It is churlish to think that our world would be a better place if the men who built these churches had spent their energies on building a more just society or combating social ills instead. Obviously, their understanding of social order was vastly different from our own. Besides, “Mankind of never so happily inspired as when it built a cathedral,” as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote. I would add that a cathedral, unlike the massive, sprawling Residenz of the Electors of Bavaria up the street, with its rooms upon rooms of similarly expensive ornamentation, was and remains the possession of the poor as much as it does of the rich. The poor are entitled to beauty in their lives too and who but the Church has ever given it to them? Those puti and scrolls and frescoes are as visible to Lazarus as to Dives in the churches of Munich.

I have long had an interest in architectural history, but my church-hopping through Munich served a different purpose as well. It is a long time since I have traveled alone and a very long time since I traveled to a place where I did not speak the language. One feels very alone in such a circumstance. But at each church, I knelt and prayed, first for Cardinal Marx and the local church of Munich, but also for my family and my friends. The week previous, in his blog, Cardinal O’Malley had written about attending the solemn profession of vows by three Capuchin friars at St. Augustine Church in Pittsburgh. That church is modeled after a parish church in Munich, St. Benno. I found it on the map and although it was a bit out of the way, it made for a nice walk. (Strange, too, making walks without my St. Bernard, Ambrsoe, in tow!) Mercifully, St. Benno is a Romanesque revival church, completely untouched by puti and scrolls and other baroque ornamentation. It was breath of fresh, albeit medieval, air. There I prayed especially for Cardinal O’Malley and the three new solemnly professed Capuchins, and for my Capuchin friends in Puerto Rico, and for the entire order, whose charism seems so in tune with the call of Pope Francis. The thought occurred that for all the differences of time and space and language and ethnicity and the rest that grow up between us human beings, prayer can unite us with people far away, across all those barriers and differences, even people we do not know and will never meet. 

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Every church I visited also contained pictures of what the building looked like in late 1944 or early 1945. The U.S. Air Force essentially reduced the city of Munich to rubble. I am not sure why. There were no arms caches stashed in the Frauenkirche, no soldiers hiding in Saint Michael’s Church. Strategic bombing aimed to destroy the will of a people to fight, but it had not worked in London in 1940 and 1941, so I do not know why the military leaders of the Allies thought it would work in Munich and elsewhere in 1944. Not for the first time, and not for the last, military leaders failed to perceive the actual effects their actions would produce. Maybe it was just payback. Still, I almost felt the need to apologize to people for the devastation our nation wrought on this city. I understand that there were worse things going on in 1944 than the destruction of churches. Dachau is just up the street. But, still, Dachau was the result of an evil design. Our Allied aim was liberation, it was noble. Did we need to resort to such destructive methods to achieve it? Was the war shortened because the Frauenkirche and St. Peter’s and St. Michael’s and the Holy Ghost churches all had their roofs blown off?

In Austria, we visited many beautiful churches but the manmade beauty pales in comparison to what God has made: The natural beauty of the country is breathtaking. In Gaming, where we stayed for two nights, the old Carthusian charterhouse has been turned into a hotel and dorms for students in the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study-abroad program. It is set amidst the steep foothills of the Alps, with a fast-running stream just across the street. Driving along the Danube with its vineyards, from Krems to Durnstein to Melk, one encounters a landscape especially lush from the great deal of rain they received this summer, the vineyards resplendent, the fast moving river providing drama, the hills dotted with shrines and churches that humanize the landscape by divinizing the landscape. The great abbey at Melk made one wish to have been a Benedictine circa 1715. But, nothing compared to beauty of the towns between the autobhan and the small, imperial town of Bad Ischl. Here the mountains run right down into the pristine lakes. The craggy peaks around Mondsee and Trauenkirchen and Scharfling were shrouded in clouds and mist the day we were there, but this only added to the romance of the landscape. And, to demonstrate that we need not create a dualism between natural and manmade beauty, the Basilica of St. Michael in Mondsee was the most beautiful church we saw. You have seen it too: It was used to film the wedding scene in the Sound of Music. I prayed there, as in the other churches, for family and friends, but just as importantly, I took a picture of the church for my niece who was very excited that I would be standing where Captain von Trapp stood at the top of the steps as Maria made her way down the aisle.

They say that there are only six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet. Belonging to the Catholic Church shrinks that number considerably. At the Institute for Theological Studies outside Vienna I met a Lithuanian professor and a Greek Catholic chaplain who both knew a Puerto Rican monsignor who is also a friend of mine. At Gaming, the fact that I had once worked for General Wesley Clark made me an instant hit with the priest and bishop from Kosovo, where Clark is a national hero. Over dinner one night, a Polish priest and I exchanged stories about the late, great Archbishop of Lublin, Joseph Zycinski, whom we both knew and admired. And, a Latvian archbishop and a Lithuanian bishop both knew a Lithuanian friend of mine who serves in the Vatican diplomatic corps. It is more than nice, it is a blessing, to be in a foreign land, surrounded by unfamiliar people, and to discover these kinds of links of mutual friendship.

Vacations are wonderful things, but I am always happy to be coming home. There is not enough weinerschnitzel in the world to entice me to have stayed on another day and, upon entering my home, I was greeted with fifteen minutes of sustained excitement and puppy licks from my three dogs. I wish to record my gratitude to Robert Christian and the young writers from Millennial who filled in here at Distinctly Catholic in my absence. Readers will now know why they should regularly consult the writings of these fine young Catholic thinkers at their website.




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