After waiting three years to see Eastern Europe, our journey began with the announcement of a pilots’ strike by Lufthansa, our designated airline carrier to Prague, the capitol of the Czech Republic. With some creative re-arrangements, our travel agent divided the 29 of us into groups, sending some to Amsterdam via KLM and some to Warsaw via LOT Airlines. With amazement, we all were together at our hotel in Prague by evening the following day; with Fr. Mark arriving on the last flight!
We were blessed to have four priests on our Pilgrimage: our host Fr. Mark O’Donnell, Pastor St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Community of New London, Fr. Roland Cloutier, Fr. Joe Sidera, and Fr. Dennis Mercieri. Our four priests officiated at Mass, gave thoughtful homilies, recited daily prayers, and read Biblical readings on the bus each day, enhancing the religious experience of our journey. Fr. Mark tested our knowledge of the Bible through a series of questions requiring answers. This revealed to him and to all of us that (other than the members of the clergy) we will need some diligent study to prepare for our next Pilgrimage and Fr. Mark’s round of Biblical questions.
The 11 day itinerary featured visits to Prague, Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest, Vienna, and finally Oberammergau. Our first Mass on Sunday was celebrated by Fr. Mark assisted by the other priests at the beautiful Our Lady of Victory Church (Shrine of the Infant of Prague). Following this, we were indeed privileged to attend Holy Mass celebrated each day by a different priest at some beautiful Basilicas, Chapels, including a Monastery Chapel.
In Prague we toured the area of the Prague Castle, home of Czech Princes and Kings since the 9th Century, featuring a complex of palaces, courtyards, with the prominent St. Vitus Cathedral, all covering a hill known as Hradcany. Next to the Town Hall, we were captivated by the Astronomical Clock, completed in 1574, that gives the month, season, zodiac signs, and course of the sun. Moreover, on the hour a door opens and a skeleton appears; reminder of our limited time on earth. Death rings in the hour while quarter hours are marked by the 4 stages of life: child, youth and adult and old age. The apostles pass, and the model of Christ blesses the crowd. During the procession a cock crows 3 times.
In Budapest we climbed 100 stairs up Gellert Hill (named after Bishop Gellert who tried unsuccessfully to convert the Magyars to Christianity; sadly he met his death by being thrown off this hill into the river Danube). From the top of the hill we had many photo-ops, seeing the Danube River dividing the ancient city of Buda from Pest, the modern city together with the panoramic views from above. This area, called the Citadel, was built after the War of Independence 1848-49 to watch over unhappy citizens. Interestingly, the rubric cube and Brahms composition “Hungarian Dances” are products of Budapest.
Later in the week Holy Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of St. Ann in Altotting Germany, the home of the Black Madonna of Altotting, associated with many miracles. Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, was born near here in Bavaria and has visited as Pontiff.
In addition to the Passion Play, one of the highlights was our visit with Msgr. Kevin Randall at the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna. Msgr. Randall is a CT native who has served at St. Joseph Church in New London and is now a member of the diplomatic corps of the Vatican. His assignments have brought his ministry to Peru, Rwanda, Johannesburg South Africa, and now to Vienna. His tour of duty is about 3 years with the purpose of immersing him in different cultures. Msgr. Randall’s magnetic personality and graciousness was evident during our visit. He spent time instructing us on the directives from the Vatican suggesting guidelines for the diplomatic Mission. As a “grace note” to the evening, Msgr. Randall set up some delicious hors d’oeuvres and pastries for our group. We are all proud to know Msgr. Randall, and wish him every success in his new assignments.
In our second night in Vienna, some of us attended a concert featuring the compositions of Strauss and Mozart. Because the passing of Queen Elizabeth of England, the concert master altered the program to play British anthems and national hymns out of respect for a woman who was dearly loved by all. We were pleased to be part of this tribute.
On our way to Oberammergau, our guide Karl provided a thumbnail history of the Passion Play. He related that the 30 year war (1618-1648) caused the bubonic plague or Black Death. At that time it was believed that this was God’s punishment that required one to pray for God’s mercy. Out of this resulted the first Passion Play in 1634. The theater for the play has been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1999 housing 5000 seats.
In the beautiful Bavarian village, high in the mountains of Oberammergau, with its frescoed buildings and wood carvers’ cottages, we attended the Passion Play. There are about 2,000 people living in the village who are members of the cast. There is a full orchestra and about 200 in the choir.
The Passion Play is a very emotional experience. The play is performed in two parts: one from 1-4 pm (events leading to the Passion) and the other from 7-10 pm (the Passion itself). The content of the play had references to the Old as well as the New Testament. The dialog was in German. We were given a booklet with English translations which was a nice help even though we could easily recognize events on the stage. About 5000 attended the performance that will extend until early November.
A couple seated in front of us told us that they have attended the 2000, 2010, and the 2022 performances and that the play has become an enduring religious experience for them. Upon the conclusion, the actors left the stage and did not return even to a resounding applause. Fr. Mark mentioned that this is because they are offering their performance to Almighty God and was not for themselves. We all left the arena in silence consumed with the enormity of what we had just witnessed.
By Thomas Carty