Breathing Alpine Air out of Both Lungs

How often Pope John Paul II has reminded us that the Catholic Church must “breathe with both lungs.” By this he means we in the West — with our Latin (or Roman) rite — cannot fail to appreciate the equality and importance of our sister Church in the East, with its Byzantine (or Eastern) rite.

In a small alpine valley in Austria, to the southwest of Vienna, a Catholic community strives to live out the Holy Father's entreaties in this area.

The Kartause community, as it is locally known, comprises three academic institutions — Ave Maria University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, a pontifical institute. The respective Austrian programs of these three schools bring together students, faculty and family members from Roman Catholic and Byzantine (or Greek) Catholic backgrounds in a truly catholic — and Catholic — setting.

Every day during the school year, this community celebrates the ancient Byzantine divine liturgy, Tridentine liturgy and the Mass of Vatican II in Latin, English or German, celebrated ad orientem (facing the people). Music includes Old Slavonic and Gregorian chant along with classical, guitar or a cap-pella choir.

Members of Kartause come from all over the world; their community thrives in a renovated Carthusian monastery dedicated to the enthronement of Mary: the 700-year-old Kartause Mariathron in Gaming, Austria. As recently as 20 years ago, the monastery was deserted and decaying. What a difference a community makes.

Boldly Baroque

Prior to its new life, the Kartause had a colorful (if forgotten) history. Suffice it to say that, by the 15th century, it was the largest Carthusian monastery in the world. The structural core has been preserved and today the original size and stature of this monastery are visible —although the buildings are now used for classes, seminars, conferences, student housing and a hotel/restaurant. The Gothic refrectory and other rooms have been restored to their former glory.

The original monks’ cells have since been converted to private housing and are viewable only from the outside.

The large Kloster Kirche, with its Gothic steeple towering over the complex, took a little more than 10 years to build. Ground was broken in 1330; the dedication followed in 1342. The steeple is a ridged turret with buttresses that support the superstructure. Originally there were two-storied chapels on either side of the steeple, next to the chancel. The North Chapel has since been remodeled and fitted out as the priest house, Haus Bruno. The South Chapel was originally used as the monastery's chapter room. Today, this chapel is used for perpetual Eucharistic adoration during the school year and as a quiet place of prayer, reflection and Mass year-round. Up a circular stairway above the Sacred Heart Chapel is another chapel; this is used for celebration of the Tridentine (Latin-language) Mass.

In 1453, after 100 years of use, the Kloster Kirche ceiling was lowered 20 feet for aesthetic and practical reasons. Three centuries later, the interior was done over in the Baroque style. Look up and you'll see that the dome over the altar depicts four early Church Fathers, while the ceiling frescoes above the center aisle depict the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian order.

At the time of the Church remodeling in 1742, many other rooms of the monastery complex were redone in the Baroque style. A remarkable example is the library, with its frescoes painted by Wenzel Lorenz Reiner from Prague. This renowned artist created a richly reverential atmosphere. The room is a mix of Peutenburg marble, cream walls and colorful frescoes depicting the early Church Fathers. There are also still-life paintings and other decorative elements.

Born-Again Buildings

The monastery suffered a severe setback during the Josephinian era of the late 1700s. Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) ordered that all “unnecessary” religious orders disband. Because the Carthusian charism is one of study and prayer, the Gaming monastery was placed in this category and closed. Many of the furnishings and movable property, including the choir stalls and altar, were transferred to parishes, libraries and private collections throughout Austria. This also led to the eventual decline of the property.

Almost 200 years later, an Austrian architect, Walter Hildebrand, bought the property. The painstaking renovation of the complex began in 1983, a job not yet finished as there are many areas still needing repair. Restoration is ongoing on the facades, windows, roofs and the wall that encircles the Kartause complex. Hildebrand's vision for the Kartause is of a Catholic university combined with a religious community.

A museum shows pictures of the Kartause before, during and after the renovations to date. Also housed in the museum are artifacts (some replicas of originals) showing the amazing history of Carthusian influence in this alpine valley.

Today the once-glorious stature of this complex — a site built by human hands for the glorification of God — is again visible. Kartause Mariathron, once a center of spirituality and scholarship in Austria, is seeing a rebirth of spirituality and scholarship in the hundreds of students, faculty and visitors who pass through these ancient rooms each year.

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from Central, South Carolina.