Heart of Monastic Renewal in Europe: Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria
The oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world has remained unaffected by the vocation crisis in the West, relying on an alliance between its ancestral religious traditions and an openness to today’s world and challenges.
The unfailing vitality of the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, the largest Cistercian monastery in Europe, fascinates as much as it sparks questions. In a Western context of advanced de-Christianization, how does this community, with its hundred or so members at any given time, manage to rise above the challenges of the times like very few others in the Western world to establish itself as a true hub of monastic renewal?
It is a question that Catholic observers have been asking themselves, as vocations are declining massively and monasteries are closing their doors one after the other throughout Europe. In fact, this Cistercian model, which is bearing comparable fruit in some other regions of Europe, seems to convince an ever-growing number of young people, who come every year to swell the ranks of the Heiligenkreuz community and its now-famous faculty of theological studies.
Every year on the Solemnity of the Assumption, a dozen monks take their perpetual or simple vows at the abbey, which also has 21 parishes run by priests of the same community in Austria and Germany.
The Heiligenkreuz (“Holy Cross”) Abbey, founded in 1133 by St. Leopold III, owes its name to the presence of a relic of the True Cross, donated by Leopold V, duke of Austria, in 1188. Its geographical location, in the heart of the Viennese woods, half an hour from Vienna, as well as the exceptional preservation of its medieval architecture, to which Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque components were later added, make it a privileged place for visitors.
But it is a heritage of another kind — spiritual — that seizes the souls of all visitors coming to the abbey, the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world, in a way that its prior describes as supernatural.
“People say that there is something pretty unusual about this place,” Father Johannes Paul Chavanne told the Register. “A lot of people come here and experience healing, finding their way back to the faith and to the sacraments, or uncovering their vocation. That’s the Holy Spirit’s doing, whose presence is particularly rooted in a place of 900 years of uninterrupted monastic life.”
Gregorian Chant and the Priority of God
Three and a half hours a day are devoted to community prayer, in Latin and the vernacular, starting with the vigil at 5:15am, and ending with the Compline at 7:50pm, which the monks always conclude with a Salve Regina sung in the dark, around the altar of the collegiate church.
“It is what monastic life is about: searching for God in our times, within a community,” Father Chavanne said, adding that, in this sense, the liturgy, as one of the greatest ways of seeking God, has always been a central element of his community. “We learn what is truth and love within the liturgy, that celebrates the mysteries of the faith; and in direction with God, to reflect his love and show the priority of God to the rest of the world, the liturgy has to be beautiful.”
In Heiligenkreuz, the liturgy is particularly enhanced by Gregorian chants, which have greatly contributed to the worldwide fame of the abbey. In 2008, in particular, the friars drew the attention of the general public with the album Chant: Music for Paradise, which reached the top of the charts in several countries.
It is precisely the beauty of the community’s Gregorian chants, which can be listened to by the public every day during vespers, that first attracted the young novice Brother Anastasius Erling, who is expected to take his solemn vows next year.
“These beautiful chants were speaking so directly to God, it was something very elevating for my soul,” he told the Register, emphasizing that the youth and dynamism of this community had given him the best foundation for integrating religious life. “Most young people come here thanks to the Gregorian chant, as it is considered something so special nowadays, an instrument that brings them closer to God.”
Promoting Art Beyond Passing Fashions
This Cistercian community, which in its history has always made great room for the artistic world in order to better exalt the beauty of the faith, retains the same boldness today in commissioning works of art to adorn the interior of the monastery.
This is how the community encouraged Father Raphael Statt, an artist trained at the Berlin School of Art who entered the order in 2005, to keep cultivating his many artistic talents, which range from sculpture and mosaics to stained glass and other furnishings for sacred architectural buildings. In recent years, Father Statt was the author of the now-emblematic statue of Benedict XVI that stands at the entrance to the abbey’s faculty, named after the pope emeritus.
It is with this idea that, in every period of history, the propagation of the faith should be maintained and supported by new sound works of art that, in 2019, the monks entrusted young Austrian artist Clemens Fuchs with an extensive project of interior design for the abbey’s Holy Cross Chapel, built in 1980 to house the relic of the True Cross.
The project, which is expected to be completed by September 2023, includes an altarpiece depicting the Triune God, the Virgin Mary, Blessed Maria Sagheddu, patroness of Christian unity, and Hungarian priest and martyr Janos Brenner.
Fuchs, a self-professed Catholic, sees this project as a unique opportunity to remind Mass participants of the extent of God’s love for them and to pictorially reflect his desire to be in communion with mankind, both spiritually and physically.
“That is why all the figures embrace each other in my altarpiece,” Fuchs told the Register. “It is meant to remind [the faithful] that God wants us to be united with him, on earth as in heaven, which means that, through the liturgy, we should always be united as one Church and united with the heavenly Church.”
For him, the more abstract or chaotic images that can be found in contemporary art nowadays could not have reflected this message as powerfully as a more figurative and timeless art.
“I am happy that the community of Heiligenkreuz has allowed me to place these artistic works above the spirit of the time and passing fashions to show the timelessness of God’s beauty and love, as I truly believe it is what people come here to seek.”
Turned Toward the World
The abbey’s college of theological studies, elevated to the status of pontifical university by Benedict XVI upon his visit to the site in 2007, is another central element of its reputation.
Now the largest priestly training institution in the German-speaking world, with its 320 or so students, the Benedict XVI Philosophical-Theological University had to undergo major expansion work to cope with the influx of new students in 2015. Its reputation is strengthened by the presence of two winners of the Ratzinger Prize among his teachers: Father Maximilian Heim, abbot of Heiligenkreuz (2011), and German philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz (2021).
But besides the academic prestige that the abbey enjoys today, it is more generally its valued pastoral dimension combined with the monastic lifestyle that, as emphasized by Father Eugenius Lersch — who spoke with the Register before taking his perpetual vows last Aug. 15 — has allowed Heiligenkreuz to establish itself as an essential spiritual center in Europe.
In fact, the Cistercian monasteries in Austria have in many cases embraced a less hermitic and withdrawn lifestyle than most other communities in Europe in the Middle Age. Such a tendency became widespread in the country with Josephinism in the 18th century, which subjected the Catholic Church in the Habsburg lands to service for the state, and that was considered hostile to contemplative life, dissolving many communities at that time.
From this trial for the Austrian Church came an original form of monastic life, at once anchored in tradition and open to the world and its challenges.
This is, for many, another reason for the exceptional vitality of the abbey, which also attracts, each month, hundreds of young people from all over the country and beyond to its traditional youth vigil.
“Our main concern now is that we don’t have enough space to welcome all the people coming to us, whether it is in our pilgrim house or at the seminary,” Father Chavanne told the Register. “We’ve built a new house for young men who come here to study, and it is already full, too. So we will have to find ways and funds to keep expanding our facilities, so that we can continue to do what God is asking us,” he concluded. “It is not an easy task, but the less we expect from ourselves, the more God can do.”