Thursday, May 23, 2024

Faith and Culture: Reflections on the Pilgrimage to Oberammergau

I was asked (or maybe I volunteered) to write my perceptions, views and observations of the recent pilgrimage to Italy, Austria and Germany led by Bishop Gainer. Right away, so many thoughts started running through my head on what to include and how to capture all the beauty of this special trip. So I decided to start with a timeline.

My wife and I had moved two years ago to the Harrisburg area because of work, and we had missed the initial offer to go on the trip. Through the grace of God, two spots opened and we were officially added to the list around June of this year. So many questions came to mind: Where were we going exactly? What would we be doing? Was it safe to be in Europe so soon after Covid? Do we even know anyone on the trip, other than the bishop?

We took two buses from the Diocesan Center to Dulles, where we flew to Frankfurt and then on to Milan. Milan was particularly a large concern for us, because it was declared the epicenter of the Covid outbreak that swept across Europe. This sat very high on the concern scale for a few of the group members. Safe to say, the town was very much alive when we arrived, and everyone we met was very friendly. There were some hiccups for a few of the travelers along the way, but I think that without the following prayer that the bishop led us in, we would have missed the true beauty of the experience:

Gracious and all-loving Father, bless us as we travel today on our pilgrimage. May the knowledge of your Son’s presence with us draw us closer to one another and to You. Deepen our bonds of friendship and faith with our fellow pilgrims. Help us to appreciate the richness of the different peoples and cultures that we will encounter and to praise You for the natural beauty of Your creation and for the man-made wonders that we will see.

Remind us to offer gratitude, to our tour guides, bus drivers, and all those who serve us in hotels and at meals.

We responded to Your calling to make this journey; we are Your pilgrims in this life and we are journeying to You and the next life. Give us strength when we get tired. If there are changes to our plans today, if our patience grows short or some meal is not to our liking, remind us that we are pilgrims and not just tourists. If the weather is a perfect September day or rainy, if we encounter inconveniences or if another person annoys us, remind us that we are pilgrims and not just tourists.

O Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, we dedicate ourselves to you for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. You are our hope, Mary, Mother of Mercy and Gate of Heaven. Pray to your Son for us so that we may be filled with selfless charity and deep faith. Ask Jesus, your Son, for those things which we cannot obtain through our own actions and protect us, your children, so that we may travel today in safety and in good health. Amen.

For me, this completely transformed my way of thinking, and helped me to focus on why I was there in the first place. Four of my brother deacons and I were fortunate enough to assist the bishop at these Masses. We were able to freely take as many pictures as we wanted, but please know that these pictures cannot capture the full beauty of the places that we visited. We were able to tour many churches and holy places, and we were able to participate in Mass every day in some of the most ornate as well as some of the simplest-designed churches.

Deacon Jim Doyle reflected: “The churches that we saw in their architecture and their art proclaimed the glory of God and the glory of our faith. The bible, the gospels, and the saints shined onto us in the windows. The ceilings showed us scenes that we ever hope to see in heaven. They contrast with many of the churches in our own country, which are relatively barren of such artistry. They showed how God is praised in all things, and has been for many centuries.”

Oberammergau and the Passion Play were definitely the highlight of the trip. It was rainy and cold that day, and the Passion Play took about six hours to perform. It was performed in an old aircraft hangar that was moved to the location after WWII to protect the audience from the elements. The show was broken into two three-hour sets with dinner between the two sets. The play has essentially been the same as it was performed in the 1600s.

Before we left for the trip, I had decided to reflect on this pilgrimage with the following topics: value, conscience, sexuality, modesty, morality, trust, and respect. Primarily, I was observing these topics in a faith vs. culture perspective and how it’s perceived differently in the United States.

Value: Most of the countries we visited were predominately Catholic, so there was already a greater reverence and acceptance to the Church and the prominent locations that the buildings occupied. For the most part, they were the highest structure and center of the town.

Conscience: We were told prior to the trip to be wary of gypsies and pickpockets. This inner feeling tried to skew my perception of what I was to expect. To tell you the truth, I didn’t encounter any on the trip, and very few homeless individuals, much less than we have in the U.S. I’m really glad that I was able to focus on the rightness of mine and other’s behaviors. I’m humbly blessed for having this opportunity.

Sexuality and modesty kind of go hand-in-hand here. For example, many of the youth we saw walking the streets of both the big cities (Milan and Munich) as well as the small towns (Desenzano and Salzburg) were very modest in their dress, and not just in the churches or during Mass. This modesty in dress partnered well with the way they expressed their inner feelings, attitudes, values and relationships. The most beautiful example I can give here is at the cathedral in Milan. Everyone who wanted to go into the church had to be appropriately (modestly) dressed; if an individual did not meet these expectations, they had the option to purchase a paper gown that they could wear while inside. Not once did I observe anyone who had a problem with this expectation.

Morality: I guess after living in D.C. for 11 years prior to moving to the Harrisburg area, I have become a little jaded (maybe a little more than I should be), but this trip has helped me to reset my moral compass. Unfortunately, it’s too easy with all the negativity in our world today to lose focus and perspective of what is truly important. Even though we were moving around a lot, we were able to take time to slow down and observe the beauty of the people and buildings around us, and even though we didn’t get to see the actual Shroud of Turin or The Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci, it didn’t make the trip any less special. Just having the opportunity to be in the same building where they reside is a blessing in itself.

Trust: As a group, we had to trust each other, our guides and our drivers. This trust created the foundation for our ability to grow as a community and support each other. One specific case is that we arrived at one of our hotels and the rooms were not ready, and the hotel had no staff to help with our bags. Two individuals chose to stay behind and sort all of our bags so that we were able to get to our rooms quickly after a very long travel day. (Thank You Nicole and Rose; you are saints.)

Respect: I was quick to remind myself that I was a guest in another country. I remembered to observe local customs. I had been in Germany 36 years ago, and I did not see a lot of change from the way it was back then. I guess in hindsight that is a good thing. Sometimes too much change is bad.

Before the pilgrimage, we questioned if we would know anyone else on the trip. Yes, at the beginning we only knew two other people, but at the end, we found 84 new friends that walked the journey with us. The journey was arduous at times, but the rewards were so worth the trip. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, if for no other reason than the gelato in Sirmione is to die for.

(Deacon Paul Koester serves at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey.)

About the Pilgrimage

The pilgrimage explored the traditions of the faith in various churches and shrines in Italy, Austria and Germany over the course of 12 days, September 9-20. Highlights included the Passion Play in Oberammergau, daily Masses and Munich’s Oktoberfest. The pilgrimage was a major fundraising event for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg.

Masses were celebrated in the following places:

  • Sant’Alessandro in Zebedia, Piazza Sant’Alessandro (Church of Saint Alexander), Milan
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Ausiliatrice (Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians), Turin
  • Duomo di Santa Maria Maddalena (Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene), Desenzano
  • Santa Maria delle Neve (Saint Mary of the Snows), Sirmione
  • Basilika Wilten, Innsbruck
  • Sankt Peter und Paul (Saint Peter and Paul), Oberammergau
  • Andrakirche (Church of Saint Andrew), Salzburg
  • Asamkirche (Church of Saint John Nepomucene), Munich

(Photos courtesy of pilgrims Gigi Luto, John Radicone and Deacon Paul Koester.)

By Deacon Paul Koester, Special to The Witness

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