Deep in the woods outside Vienna there is a monastery, Stift Heiligenkreuz, which draws more than 100,000 tourists a year. They come on day trips to visit one of the most beautiful medieval monasteries in the world. They see the Romanesque abbey church and the 13th-century cloister, enjoy lunch at the restaurant and perhaps buy some monastery wine in the small shop.
But Heiligenkreuz is more than a popular attraction. It is living and growing. This one monastery ordains more priests than some archdioceses, although it is perhaps only known in Britain for the million-selling record Chant, which topped the charts in 2008. The oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world, founded in 1133, is now thriving. There are currently more than 90 monks – 30 years ago it was half that – with an average age of under
50. Vocations are booming.
Last year Heiligenkreuz clothed another eight novices, and candidates come from all over the world, including recently from England.
Fourteen monks currently teach at the faculty of theological studies, sited in the monastery’s new campus. With some 300 students, this is now the largest Catholic study centre in the German-speaking world. It is part theological academy, part seminary, teaching not only members of its community but also laity (both men and women), and 160 future diocesan priests and Religious from throughout Europe and the developing world.
Heiligenkreuz is part of the original Cistercian order, rather than the later reformed Trappist tradition, and so perhaps closest in feel to English Benedictine houses such as Ampleforth, Downside and Worth. The monastery has active responsibilities not only in teaching but also parochial life. It administers more than a dozen parishes, two large priories (one, founded in 1988, in the Ruhr) as well as a fledging house in Sri Lanka.
During the regular Youth Vigil at the monastery, hundreds of young people attend an evening of prayer, with talks, Confession and then Adoration. They come from all over the country – some frequent visitors, some new to the community and attracted by word of mouth or the many fans on Facebook – and stay in sleeping bags or hitch a lift home.
What are the roots of this success? Recent history shows that Heiligenkreuz has been doing well for some time – “not because of our CD”, says Fr Karl Wallner, rector of the college and spokesman for the monastery. “Rather, we did the CD because we were already a strong and youthful community, encouraged by the visit from the Pope.” (Benedict XVI came to Heiligenkreuz as part of an official visit to Austria in September 2007.)
“We do God’s work in normal ways everyone can relate to, without being biased to one temporary tendency or another,”
Fr Karl Wallner says. “Our former abbot [Gerhard Hradil, at 87 now the oldest member of the community] says keeping the Rule of St Benedict and the Ten Commandments is enough for anyone. So we are pretty normal, not ‘traditionalist’ or any other ‘ist’. We are just Catholic, living for God, though we wear funny clothes.”
Sebastian Cody, a British media consultant who has been visiting Heiligenkreuz for decades, says the reforms of the 1960s were a turning point. “I was privileged, as a very young man, to meet the late Abbot Karl Braunsdorfer. He was a Council Father who, when he returned to the monastery in the mid-1960s, had the responsibility to institute reform. And what he set – after no doubt deep soul-searching, faced with the many temptations of that era – sowed the seeds for the later flourishing, although at the time of his death in 1978 he might not have seen all the fruits.”
Braunsdorfer, whose Cause was opened by Cardinal Schönborn in 2008, worked for a revival of the monastic spirit. The liturgy was reformed along the lines laid out by the Second Vatican Council. A new Latin edition of the monastic breviary was made especially for Heiligenkreuz, and Gregorian chant was again given pride of place. The habit was retained. Any visitor will be struck by the dignified liturgy that is at the heart of life in Heiligenkreuz. Monks pray in Latin and the vernacular, three-and-a-half hours together every day, beginning at 5.15am.
At the same time the community gives off a powerful sense of being a vast complex of dynamic enterprise. “Everyone is living the Rule at an intense level, busy yet with a contemplative centre,” says Annabel Cole, a writer from London who first visited in the late 1990s. “When you pray in the abbey it can seem as if time has stood still. Yet the monks going about their day are modern, industrious men.”
One of the monks, Fr Johannes Paul Chavanne, says: “Prayer is the most important part of our daily life. We are, so to speak, professional pray-ers. We are also people of the 21st century. We use computers, mobile phones. We take part in what happens in the world. After all, we have to know what to pray for.”
The community is of a size to accommodate many forms of vocation, from helping tackle the migrant crisis in central Europe to venerating the True Cross (Leopold V donated a large relic to Heiligenkreuz, which means “Holy Cross”, in 1188). Academic research at all levels is a tradition, as is bookbinding and fine art. The Venetian sculptor Giovanni Giuliani was deeply connected to the monastery in the 18th century. The community recently welcomed a late vocation from a leading sculptor from the former East Germany, whose works in stained glass and bronze adorn the new campus.
Two American monks produce English-language blogs, sancrucensis. wordpress.com and cistercium.blogspot.co.uk, and the community has a popular YouTube channel, The Monastic Channel, with many short videos in English. There is even a documentary about the Chant project – Top Ten Monks, made by HBO, the American television network famous for The Sopranos and Game of Thrones.
The monks are still in the recording business, last year issuing an inter-denominational album with Deutsche Grammophon, Chant For Peace, which brings together Jewish and Christian settings of the psalms.
The Benedictine tradition of hospitality is important at Heligenkreuz. For those just seeking silence and an encounter with God there are simple rooms in the guest house, whereas men with a serious interest in the monastic life can stay for some days of “monastic experience”.
For the most energetic, Fr Wallner organises regular “sport weeks”: extensive workouts in the impressive gym which are simultaneously cloistered retreats.
“They find us interesting, cool, exotic,” Fr Wallner says of the monastery’s visitors. “When they see us praying in long robes, singing in Latin – the modern world as they know it, it’s boring for them by comparison.
“People should see that the Church is not dying, but that Christian faith is living. We are a hot spot for spirituality. For many people outside we really are a sign of hope. I think we have to accept that in the deserts of our civilisation Heiligenkreuz is seen as an oasis of strength.”
From 1938 to 1945 the abbey’s existence was threatened and many of the monks were imprisoned. Now Heiligenkreuz is the largest Cistercian monastery in Europe. That’s reason enough to be joyful and hopeful for both monasticism and the new evangelisation in the modern world.
This article first appeared in the March 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here