Practicing In the Timeless Presence of God

The Abbot of Mariawald Speaks

They rise at 3:00 am for Mass. They work and study and pray. They are vegetarians.

The Cistercian Rule is considered one of the strictest in the Church, and  the Order has left their mark on Germany for centuries. (See here for more on how these monks literally engineered the German landscape.)

The Abbey at Mariawald was established in 1486, six years before Christopher Columbus set sail for America. The monastery is picturesquely located among rolling green fields and forests near Germany’s French and Belgian borders.

Here, the strict rule of the Trappists is once again in effect, by special permission of Pope Benedict XVI. The monks celebrate the traditional Latin Mass in their ancient Rite.

In February, Abbot Josef Vollberg OCSO of Mariawald sat down to talk with Regina Magazine about his Abbey, their strict Rule, and how today German Catholics are turning up at the monks’ door seeking Confession, the Mass and the life of a Cistercian monk.

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Q. Abbot Josef, tell us about your monastery.
A. The first Cistercians came on here to Mariawald (‘Mary’s Forest’) on 4 April 1486. There was a pilgrimage movement here for the veneration of a famous Pietà. The monks were forced to leave the monastery three times in its history. First, for almost 60 years as a result of the French Revolution, then again in the Kulturkampf under Bismarck in the 19th century and finally they were forced out by the Nazis.
But again and again God granted a fresh start. In its heyday around 1900, there were about 100 monks in here in the monastery.


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Q. What is the Abbey’s situation today?
A. I myself have been a monk in Mariawald since 1986; that is, exactly 500 years after its founding. Currently our Community is comprised of 14 monks. Eleven live here in Mariawald, two live outside as hermits, and one has worked as a priest in the Sisters’ Abbey “Maria Peace.” After a private audience in the summer of 2008, Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI granted permission for the return of the abbey to the older rules of the Order and to the celebration of Holy Mass in the Usus antiquior. To implement these reforms it took some time of course, because something lost cannot be immediately restored. Since 2009, we celebrate the Holy Mass regularly with the books that were in effect in 1963. Since then, we have been contacted again and again by men who want to get to know our way and who want to take possible steps towards profession. Ten of these were accepted after a long examination; that is an average of two per year. However, seven of these left the monastery, after a shorter or longer time. The reason was often – in contrast to what we saw in their assessment – that they did feel they could grow sufficiently in order to meet the requirements of our strict rule. Of the remaining three, one has already taken the final profession.


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Q. How have you been received by your neighbors?
A. The Eifel, which is the name of this beautiful mountain area in which our abbey is located, was originally a Catholic area. It is not difficult to have contact with Catholics and Mariawald is known for our reform far beyond the region. The High Mass on Sunday is usually well attended, although the monastery is situated in a very lonely spot. Of course, in the nearby towns and villages, there is the opportunity to participate in worship, naturally in the Novus Ordo Mass. There are obviously a considerable number of believers who appreciate the traditional rite so much that they take a long journey to Mariawald for this Mass.


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Q. Can you describe a day in the life of a monk at Mariawald?
A. The day of a monk in Mariawald begins at 2:30 in the morning, because at 3:00 am we have Mass. The prayer penetrates the darkness, leading out of the night to the light of the returning Christ. After the vigils — the first prayer times — follow Lauds and Prime, and the days’ times, Terce, Sext, and Nones , and finally Vespers and Compline at 19.15 clock, the night prayer. The highlight of day is the morning celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The monk is offered with Christ to the Heavenly Father as a victim, he fulfills his vow, and at the same time, the monk provides through this sacrifice and his prayer a service for the whole world. The time between these services, a Trappist spends with mental and physical labor, such as studying, spiritual reading, gardening or housework. In addition to possible mid-day rest time, monks only have just under seven hours for sleep at night. The food is simple and meatless.


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Q. Do Catholics visit your monastery for the Sacraments?
A. Since we are not parish, we are limited to providing the sacraments of Eucharist and Confession. It’s amazing how many people, especially men, come to Mariawald to confess. Therefore, in addition to our regularly scheduled confession times every week, Catholics may almost always ask for the Prior to hear their confessions. I believe that our worshipers reflect the structure of the nearby population, perhaps more than is usually the case otherwise in the communities. In Mariawald, our worshipers are not only the elderly and they are not almost exclusively women. Here we also have men between 20 and 40, and even a few children.  Why do they all come? Maybe they see that the reverence towards God, and participation in the mystery of the sacrificial victim of Jesus and salvation can be experienced with greater propriety here than in some forms of error of the Novus Ordo. These people do not want to be distracted by entertainment; they subjectively love the withdrawn severity of the rite. They treasure the full withdrawing in silence and immersion in the rhythm of the Gregorian devotion.


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Q. How did you become a monk?
A. As a boy, I was indeed an altar server, but I never thought to go later to a monastery — moreover, to the strict Trappists who get up in the middle of the night to pray. I was more interested in television and fitness training and many other things. I thought maybe I would be a pilot or sailor. I had thoughts of emigrating to Canada. What a contrast to my current life behind high convent walls! A rather unpleasant experience during my time as a soldier of the Bundeswehr (German Army) led me to want to learn more about our Catholic faith. While at a soldier’s Mass one of my colleagues made fun of the sacred celebration. And though my faith was very weak at that time, I felt injured at his mockery. I began to concern myself more with spiritual things. Throughout my studies, I then realized that my chosen subject – business studies – didn’t really interest me. I turned to psychology and philosophy and eventually read literature about the Bible and the Catholic Church. I began to regularly attend Mass and go to confession, which was not previously the case. Finally, I stopped my studies at the university. After two years of searching, prayer and struggle, I finally found my way in 1986 to Mariawald. Twelve years later, I began the study of theology, which I completed in 2005 at the University of the Cistercians of the Holy Cross (Austria). In 2006 I was ordained a priest, and two years later was elected as Abbot of Mariawald. I trust that it was part of my vocation to inquire in that same year of Pope Benedict for the privilege of placing the Abbey at Mariawald again under the traditional rule of the Cistercians and to be able to celebrate the liturgy in their time-honored form. The mockery of my soldier comrades may have all this set in motion. And who knows what my path would have been, had not my grandmother always prayed that one of her descendants should be called to the priesthood?


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