Letter 33 published 27 December 2012

“Restoring Her Youth To the Church”: an interview with the Abbot of Mariawald

In letter #162 of our French edition (January 16 2009), we commented on the return to the traditional liturgy at the German Abbey of Mariawald. It had taken place at the end of 2008 in application of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

After four years we thought it might be a good idea to ask this Abbey's abbot, Dom Josef Vollberg, for an initial assessment of this choice. Here is the interview, originally conducted in German for our German-language letter, followed by our reflections.


1) Most Reverend Father, would you, in just a few words, give us an introduction to your abbey, its history, and its place in the German Catholic landscape?

Dom Josef: The Mariawald monastery is located on the edge of Eifel national park, roughly fifty kilometers southwest of Cologne, near the Belgian border. It is an isolated place, up in the hills, surrounded with pastures and forests.

Its history begins at the end of the fifteenth century with the increasing veneration of a “Pietà” that someone in the area had set up. In 1486, Cistercians moved here and inaugurated their first chapel in 1511. The monastery kept growing until the upheaval of the French Revolution and, later on, Bismarck's “Kulturkampf,” and then the Nazi terror which led to its partial destruction and even to its suppression. Yet every time, the monastery and the order it belongs to were able to find the resources to regenerate.

Mariawald is the only Trappist monastery in Germany. The Trappists are monks who came out the Cistercian renewal that Abbot de Rancé sparked off late in the seventeenth century with his reform of the Abbey of La Trappe. The order's complete title is “Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae” (OCSO), that is, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance.

Mariawald occupies a specific place in the German Catholic world, especially since the 2009 reform. With the permission of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the abbey celebrates the liturgy according to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, in conformity with the books that the Cistercians had been using until the Council. Mariawald follows the Holy Father's will; indeed, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had already warned against the subjectivist self-dissolution of the faith and against forgetting our spiritual roots. The work done by Mariawald intends to serve the Church and Christians the world over.

To a great extent the reaction of Catholics unfortunately does not correspond to the Holy Father's will. Too often, the reform he proposes is labeled as reactionary and refused.

Yet Mariawald's choice has encountered the gratitude and understanding of many people, witness the increasing number of the faithful who come to Sunday Mass and the constant demand for housing for retreats or short restful stays. It must be said that we have a very respectful, kind, and friendly relationship with the community of faithful who keep and venerate the miraculous icon of the Pietà of Mariawald--a relationship that, alas, remains an exception.

2) Can you tell us the motivations that led you to embrace the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum and to choose the extraordinary form at your Abbey, late in 2008?

Dom Josef: In our community there had been no visible fruits of the changes brought about by the second Vatican Council and our numbers had fallen drastically. From 1965 to 2011, many monks left the monastery and we had only two confirmed vocations.

And so, faced with the new liturgy's anthropocentric tendency, the desire was born to put God back at the center of the life of the monastery. Just as a tree lives only when it is fed by the energy it draws up through its roots, so too the monk (and not only the monk!) needs the wisdom of a centuries-old treasure to restore her youth to the Church.

Note that the liturgy at Mariawald is not completely identical with the Roman rite. It has its own specific features in terms of the calendar, Eucharistic liturgy, and especially as far as concerns the Breviary (the Liturgy of the Hours).

3) What changes has this choice meant for your religious life?

Dom Josef: The reform as made the monks' spiritual life more demanding. The new--understand “ancient”--liturgy requires an appropriate learning process: singing Gregorian chant is an art that demands a specific formation; attention to Latin as the proper language of worship demands willpower and diligence; reciting the Breviary takes longer and starting the Office at 3am demands a true willingness to surrender onself. All these sacrifices are rewarded by the discovery of heretofore unknown riches.

Service at the altar too requires appropriate training and the faithful themselves have to be formed to the liturgy versus Deum. Celebration versus Deum rather than versus populum demands a different kind of 'participatio actuosa' on their part--and for the most part, a more conscious one. Communion on the tongue also leads to deeper adoration. By the way, the Holy Father himself distributes Communion on the tongue in the Novus Ordo, thus giving an example of the much desired “reform of the reform.”

4) What influence has it had on the quality of your community life?

Dom Josef: Forty years of the new liturgy make any new change of orientation difficult, especially for the older brethren.

These days, however, the earlier tensions have eased and the situation is more serene. Openness to the Church's uninterrupted tradition and the more intense spiritual life are slowly bearing fruit, especially when it comes to new vocations. There is no room for impatience. If I may use the image of one of the Abbey's friends: reforming Mariawald is like turning around an ocean liner going at full steam: it takes time. Mariawald needs time . . . and also everyone's prayers.

5) What assessment are you in a position to make of this choice today? Has it had an effect on the vocations you have been attracting?

Dom Josef: If you wish to ask me for an assessment, I would say: “I would do it again, despite many, and sometimes subtle, difficulties.” There have been and there still are many candidates to enter at Mariawald: since the 2008 reform, between forty and fifty. But most of them do not stay because of the demands specific to the strict rule that we observe. This reflects a general phenomenon in our present-day society: the inability to commit on the long term. Ones sees it in the refusal to marry, the ever more general practice of cohabitation, and the increasing number of civil divorces.

This fear of commitment reaches all religious orders and is not tied to the nature of our reform.

In 2008 we were twelve monks at the monastery. Two have since passed away. Today, therefore, there are ten of us, including a brother who has recently made his solemn profession (there's one who isn't afraid to commit!). We also have a novice and shall welcome a postulant this year, and there are two or three people who have shown serious interest in joining us. We also have three monks who live outside the monastery.

6) Do you sometimes take in priests (whether diocesan or from other religious communities) who wish to discover, or even learn, the extraordinary form?

Dom Josef: Yes, we regularly receive requests on the part of priests who wish to learn the usus antiquior. Alas, because of our limited means, we cannot provide such a formation.

7) It is clear, at the parish level, that the “reform of the reform” of Pope Benedict XVI, with kneeling for communion, Gregorian chant, the offertory in Latin, celebration towards the East, crucifix on the altar, etc. is only moving forward slowly. Have you witnessed an effect of the Motu Proprio on your community of Trappists?

Dom Josef: A positive reaction to the wish of the Holy Father to integrate elements of Tradition into the ‘Novu Ordo’, are not visible. Rather an attitude of resentment is felt, tied with a further growing discrimination against the Holy Father and of a disdain for the clear statements of the Council regarding the liturgy. Obedience and humility seem to be lost virtues. In our community the unlimited love for the full tradition did not grow beyond boundaries within the movement of reform, but the acceptance has indeed grown. The ones that truly love her do not want to do without her anymore.