Spiritual blessings from an earthly pilgrimage to Oberammergau

Pilgrims praying before the Marian statue at Mariazell, Austria. Vancouver Catholics who went to Oberammergau for the once-a-decade performance of the Passion Play were encouraged by priests not to keep their experiences to themselves. Below, they share what they learned about themselves and their faith. (Photo by Terry O’Neill - The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

By Terry O’Neill, The B.C. Catholic

[Overammergau – Canadian Catholic News] – “Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey towards heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2691

If every pilgrimage is a journey, not only of a pilgrim to a physical destination but also – and more importantly – of a pilgrim’s heart to a place closer to God, our August pilgrimage through Austria and Germany to Oberammergau was certainly all that and more for my fellow pilgrims and me.

Led by Father James Hughes of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Port Coquitlam, BC, and Father Mark McGuckin of St. Francis de Sales, Burnaby, BC, our trip took about 30 pilgrims (about half of whom were from Father Mark’s former parish in Port Moody) to such Marian pilgrimage destinations as Mariazell in Austria and Altotting in Germany.

Our trip’s climax came in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, where we witnessed an epic, five-hour production of the Passion Play, which villagers have been staging every decade for almost 400 years in thanks to God for deliverance from the Plague.

This deeply moving spectacle was certainly a highlight – surely the greatest production of the greatest story every told – but many of us also experienced more-personal moments of spiritual richness at other times during our pilgrimage.

Pilgrims at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna. (Submitted photo – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

With daily Rosaries on our tour bus, daily Masses in historic churches and chapels, and inspiring hymn-singing supported by the organ playing of Fr. James Hughes’ sister Sheilagh, conditions were certainly right for such moments.

As our pilgrimage ended, our priests encouraged us not to keep these moments to ourselves, but to share them with our fellow Catholics and others so they could be inspired by what we learned about ourselves and our faith.

Several pilgrims have agreed to do so for this story. Some have asked that their full names not be used. Here are their stories:

Jennifer of St. Patrick Parish, Vancouver: “I had many moments of awe during our pilgrimage, with one taking place at the Parish Church of St. Martin in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, near Oberammergau. After Mass, a group of local young adults asked if any of us wished to join them in praying the Rosary for peace in Ukraine.

“After a brief discussion, our new friends led the Rosary in German and we responded in English. Everyone could follow along despite the language differences as we all knew the rhythm of the Rosary. I was deeply moved as we prayed with our German brothers and sisters in different languages. We really are one family united in our love of God. As a result of the pilgrimage and our daily Masses during it, I continued going to daily Mass upon my return home.”

Brenda Krivuzoff, Principal St. Mary Elementary, Vancouver: “I had several moments of change during the pilgrimage. During the Passion Play, when Jesus entered Jerusalem as great multitudes of people shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ I felt as though I was seeing him myself. The children, animals, and costumes made it so realistic. I wondered, ‘How we can make the Passion easier for school-aged children to understand and experience?’ It’s one of my personal goals for the school year. It was a privilege to share the Passion Play with our group.

Kathlyn, St. Joseph Parish, Port Moody: “The pilgrimage was enlightening for me on many levels. As a classical pianist, I enjoyed contemplating how the Catholic faith inspired legendary sacred music, particularly the oratorios and Masses composed by Haydn and Mozart. In my mind, the structural elements within their music that produce dramatic contrasts in colour and mood reflect the external and internal struggles and triumphs that we each face along our spiritual journeys. Opportunities to learn from and grow with my fellow pilgrims by sharing in their lived experiences helped me strengthen my own faith, motivate my own journey, and draw closer to our Lord. “

John Kai, St. Joseph Parish, Port Moody: “There were many things that I loved about our pilgrimage that included witnessing the faith of our fellow pilgrims as well as the faith of the people of yesteryear who built those wonderful and awesome buildings and other structures in faith and gratitude to our Lord and God almighty. One personal highlight was seeing and witnessing the appreciation and gratitude of a small group of prayer warriors who witnessed our faith as pilgrims in their church in Garmish-Partenkirchen, when we agreed to their request and joined them in praying a decade of the Rosary for peace in Ukraine.”

Neva Grout, Principal, Our Lady of Mercy Elementary, Burnaby: “My moment of grace took place in a modest Baroque pilgrimage church in Passau, Germany, adjacent to St. Paul’s Monastery. During our walking tour of Passau, the guide talked about Mariahilf, the miracle pilgrimage church and the monastery; however, it was not scheduled for us to visit. Noticing our disappointment, our guide made arrangements to visit Mariahilf.

“I was touched by grace in a side room in front of the statue of Mary and Jesus. Sitting there quietly praying, I filled out a prayer card for a personal intention and lit a candle. That’s when I experienced reality in a different way. I believe it to be a higher state than normal everyday life. Everything around me disappeared. I had no awareness of time, sound, or my environment. I was hyper-focused on Mary. There was a moment of grace, a recognition that something greater exists, and for a moment I was a part of it. I felt a calming, a knowing, that Mary knew everything. I experienced her gentle, loving, calm energy and demeanour. I felt the power of unconditional love, agape, and I knew that everything would be okay.

“Literally translated, Mariahilf, means Mary’s Help otherwise known as Our Lady of Mercy – the name of the school at which I have the honour of working.”

Married pilgrims receiving a blessing in the church at Nonnberg Abbey, Austria, where Baron Georg von Trapp married Maria in 1927. (Submitted photo – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

Alex Fantillo, St. Joseph Parish, Port Moody: “When you learn over the years to be truly open to the Holy Spirit, for me this is when my heart is moved in a spiritual way. You will know this when you are overcome with unexpected joy, in my case with tears and a loving heartache moving in the purest joy, like when your child is born, or like falling in love. For me it happened at the halfway point of our pilgrimage, when I was sitting in a church by myself in front of a life-sized statue of blessed Mary who was kneeling on the ground holding the lifeless body of Jesus. Mary’s hand was across the pierced side of Jesus. I was drawn to put my hand on Mary’s hand. And, wow, my unexpected spiritual pilgrimage moment was complete, no other words needed to be spoken. For a moment I was transported in time and was honoured to be allowed to feel the true love of the Mother of God. The experience was humbling.

“ML” from St. John the Apostle Parish, Vancouver: “What I found inspiring and encouraging during this pilgrimage was seeing that faith and love is very much alive!! Our priests and fellow pilgrims proved that to me – the care, the love among us, even between and among those of us who started out as strangers to one another, was very rewarding to feel and experience. The light of Christ in each of us was evident.

“I believe the challenge of sharing the good news is nothing new to this group; they already proved they share the good news by how everyone acted on this pilgrimage. My prayer is that we all continue being the light of the Gospel to all those in our lives and those that our Lord send our way.”

Genevieve Lisaingo, St. Joseph Parusg, Port Moody: “It has been a very enriching pilgrimage, indeed. Every day we got to learn about the lives and miracles of different saints and the different facets of Our Lady and her healing grace. However, I was overwhelmed by the beauty, opulence, and rich history of the different churches we visited. It almost felt like a surreal world, and I was the one looking in and felt disconnected at times.

“So, when I arrived home and went to my regular Sunday Mass, it felt so good. I just breathed in the love of St. Joseph and never loved my parish as I did at that moment.”

Terry and Mary O’Neill at a chapel erected at the site of the church where Silent Night was first performed, in the town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. (Submitted photo – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

An answered prayer

As for me, my moment took place on the gloriously sunny morning of Thursday, Aug. 25, at the Ettal Abbey Church in Bavaria.

We were on the 12th day of our pilgrimage and my stomach had been churning and my mind racing over the fact that, late the previous night, I had discovered that I had lost an important travel document.

At Mass that morning in the abbey’s “winter chapel,” I prayed for deliverance of any sort. I prayed that the document be found in the safe of our previous hotel. I prayed that I would be able to deal with the loss and still be on hand that afternoon to attend the climax of our pilgrimage, the epic Passion Play production at Oberammergau. I prayed that I wouldn’t end up being stranded in Munich. I prayed for help.

As Mass ended, our guide informed us that we would be allowed to approach a small statue of Mary – one that, the afternoon before, we could view only from afar. The statue, which has long been the focus of prayer and pilgrimage, was brought to Ettal by Holy Roman emperor Louis IV in 1330, when the abbey was founded. The monks of the abbey call it “Mary the Fundatrix Ettalensis,” the Foundress of Ettal.

Still consumed by my worries, I entered the main church, directly in front of the statue. As I looked up and glanced at it, I suddenly felt my spirits lift and my worries lessen. I felt lighter. And I also felt astonished, because I hadn’t even started to pray there, but my prayers were already answered. And I knew in my heart that, come what may, everything would work out.

In the end, we never did find the lost document, but through the support of my wife, Mary, our amazing guide, Herbert, and the incredibly helpful staff of the Canadian consulate in Munich, I was able to obtain a replacement document – yes, it was a passport – within the narrow day-and-a-half window before our scheduled departure.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a miracle, but it sure felt like one. The experience left me grateful for the support I received, humbled by the lessons I learned, and uplifted and inspired by the knowledge that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, God can and does answer heartfelt prayers.