The following comes from a March 24 Catholic Herald article by John Gottfried:
Deep in the woods outside Vienna there is a monastery, Stift Heiligenkreuz, which draws more than 100,000 tourists a year. They come on day trips to visit one of the most beautiful medieval monasteries in the world. They see the Romanesque abbey church and the 13th-century cloister, enjoy lunch at the restaurant and perhaps buy some monastery wine in the small shop.
But Heiligenkreuz is more than a popular attraction. It is living and growing. This one monastery ordains more priests than some archdioceses, although it is perhaps only known in Britain for the million-selling record Chant, which topped the charts in 2008. The oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world, founded in 1133, is now thriving. There are currently more than 90 monks – 30 years ago it was half that – with an average age of under 50. Vocations are booming.
During the regular Youth Vigil at the monastery, hundreds of young people attend an evening of prayer, with talks, Confession and then Adoration. They come from all over the country – some frequent visitors, some new to the community and attracted by word of mouth or the many fans on Facebook – and stay in sleeping bags or hitch a lift home.
What are the roots of this success? Recent history shows that Heiligenkreuz has been doing well for some time – “not because of our CD”, says Fr Karl Wallner, rector of the college and spokesman for the monastery. “Rather, we did the CD because we were already a strong and youthful community, encouraged by the visit from the Pope.” (Benedict XVI came to Heiligenkreuz as part of an official visit to Austria in September 2007.)
“We do God’s work in normal ways everyone can relate to, without being biased to one temporary tendency or another,”
Father Karl Wallner says. “Our former abbot [Gerhard Hradil, at 87 now the oldest member of the community] says keeping the Rule of St Benedict and the Ten Commandments is enough for anyone. So we are pretty normal, not ‘traditionalist’ or any other ‘ist’. We are just Catholic, living for God, though we wear funny clothes.”
Sebastian Cody, a British media consultant who has been visiting Heiligenkreuz for decades, says the reforms of the 1960s were a turning point. “I was privileged, as a very young man, to meet the late Abbot Karl Braunsdorfer. He was a Council Father who, when he returned to the monastery in the mid-1960s, had the responsibility to institute reform. And what he set – after no doubt deep soul-searching, faced with the many temptations of that era – sowed the seeds for the later flourishing, although at the time of his death in 1978 he might not have seen all the fruits.”
Braunsdorfer, whose Cause was opened by Cardinal Schönborn in 2008, worked for a revival of the monastic spirit. The liturgy was reformed along the lines laid out by the Second Vatican Council. A new Latin edition of the monastic breviary was made especially for Heiligenkreuz, and Gregorian chant was again given pride of place. The habit was retained. Any visitor will be struck by the dignified liturgy that is at the heart of life in Heiligenkreuz. Monks pray in Latin and the vernacular, three-and-a-half hours together every day, beginning at 5.15am.
At the same time the community gives off a powerful sense of being a vast complex of dynamic enterprise. “Everyone is living the Rule at an intense level, busy yet with a contemplative centre,” says Annabel Cole, a writer from London who first visited in the late 1990s. “When you pray in the abbey it can seem as if time has stood still. Yet the monks going about their day are modern, industrious men.”
The community is of a size to accommodate many forms of vocation, from helping tackle the migrant crisis in central Europe to venerating the True Cross (Leopold V donated a large relic to Heiligenkreuz, which means “Holy Cross”, in 1188). Academic research at all levels is a tradition, as is bookbinding and fine art. The Venetian sculptor Giovanni Giuliani was deeply connected to the monastery in the 18th century. The community recently welcomed a late vocation from a leading sculptor from the former East Germany, whose works in stained glass and bronze adorn the new campus.
Two American monks produce English-language blogs, sancrucensis.wordpress.com and cistercium.blogspot.co.uk [in English and German], and the community has a popular YouTube channel, The Monastic Channel, with many short videos in English. There is even a documentary about the Chant project – Top Ten Monks, made by HBO, the American television network famous for The Sopranos and Game of Thrones.