Germany’s Best Kept Catholic Secret
by Beverly Stevens
They are everywhere. Vines, stretching for miles – on scalloped terraces rising over the winding Moselle River, ranging across the wide-open spaces in Franconia and the Palatinate, enveloping the mighty Rhine. “How many of you were raised here?” I recently asked a class of German teens. Ninety percent of the 16 year-olds raised their hands. “Okay, so who created these vineyards?”
Forget the scandal of the bishops. Ignore the empty churches. Look, instead, at the land itself, and the story of the Catholic Church in Germany will reveal itself to you.
Stumping the German Students
I gestured out the window to the vines covering miles of gentle slopes down to the Rhine. The students exchanged glances, shrugging.
“The Romans?” ventured one brave boy whose family farms the vineyards here.
“Nope,” I said. “Let’s try this again. Who cut down the trees, hauled away the stumps and prepared all these kilometers of land to grow grapes? I’ll give you a hint. It happened way before electricity and the combustion engine…”
“Who built the wine presses? Developed the science of wine-making? “
The class was stumped.
“It was the Church,” I told them finally, grinning. They looked at the priest whose class I was teaching, utterly flummoxed. Could this be true?
“I can’t believe it,“ the observing German lay teacher was mildly embarrassed. “How can you not know this?” she asked them, shaking her head.
How can this be? The answer, of course, is that they haven’t been taught this. No one – not their parents, nor the Catholic schools they attend — apparently ever bothers to teach what is glaringly apparent.
A Civilization Created by the Church
Nevertheless, facts are facts. Unbeknownst to them, these teenagers inhabit a civilization that was created by the Church. And it wasn’t just vines, or the wine-making. The Church brought engineering, medicine, education – all the blessings of civilization — to Germany. And the Rheingau today is living proof of this.
This 20-mile stretch along the Rhine (‘gau’ is German for ‘coast’) is a landscape painstakingly carved out of the wilderness by generations of monks. Ancient abbeys crown the hilltops. Tiny chapels, still lovingly maintained by anonymous hands, dot the hills.
World-famous Rieslings – a light white grape – were created by the Church’s viniculture here, centuries before Martin Luther ever saw the light of day. The wall-enclosed vineyard of Kloster Eberbach (the ‘Steinberg’) is said to produce one of the most sought-after white wines in the world today.
All of this is the patient work of centuries. The Cistercians were the land-shapers, and their handiwork is visible everywhere. Where once only mosquito-infested swamps thrived, streams flow merrily straight downhill between orderly rows of vines, into the Rhine.
In addition to their impressive wine-making skills, the Benedictines celebrated the ancient liturgy. Carmelites were the contemplatives. Ursuline nuns taught the children. Here in the Rheingau, even the famously austere Jesuits kept vineyards.
But they are all gone, now, except for the Benedictine nuns in St. Hildegard’s Abbey. And all of this is unknown to the weekenders from Frankfurt for wine tastings, or to the tourists who enjoy the Rhine river cruises.
Even the people of the Rheingau, justly proud of their land, are in the dark about their own history.
Why is this?
Kidnapping Catholic Boys
“The Church was hated,” insisted one innkeeper with an amateur interest in local history. We were cozily ensconced in his Michelin-rated restaurant in a 16th century building. “They were rich, and lordly. The people were forced to tithe to them.”
Did the people felt any kinder towards the Hessian government?
“Ach, they weren’t any better. You know those Hessian soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War?” he asked. “The ones who George Washington’s troops murdered in their sleep on Christmas Eve after crossing the Delaware?
“They were Rheingau farm boys, and they were forced off these vineyards – sold like cattle for money –to the British by the local princes to fight in their bloody wars in America. They never had a chance, those poor bastards. The lucky ones ran away from the Redcoats. They deserted, found work and wives and became Americans.”
And the Church didn’t raise its voice in protest against this outrage?
“The government was Protestant,” he shrugged. “Very easy to sell the Catholics’ sons to the Protestant British. And what could the Church do, anyway? Pray?”
An Unknown Past
Why are the local Germans so ignorant of their own history?
“Because we are only taught about the 20th century,” the innkeeper explained, shaking his head. “The terrible years. The hunger. World War I. The Nazi terror. World War II. The bombings. The death. And then the rebuilding, the great accomplishments of the generations after the War.
“We learn almost nothing of the years before the 20th century. It is as if it never existed. Though, as you see, we live in the middle of it, surrounded by the physical evidence of a past that we barely know anything about.
“We think we are so smart, we Germans. But we are ignorant of who we are.”
Germany’s best kept Catholic secret is the country’s own Catholic history. And therein lies, perhaps, the greatest mystery of all to modern Germans.
And that is the question of who they actually are.
“We learn almost nothing of the years before the 20th century. It is as if it never existed. Though, as you see, we live in the middle of it, surrounded by the physical evidence of a past that we barely know ever existed.”