Written by John Watters
We arrived at Roggenburg Abbey for dinner, and the next morning – on Pentacost Sunday – we attended Mass.
As stunning as Munich’s Asam Kirche had been, I found the baroque church at Roggenburg even more so. Where Asam Kirche was small and intimate and dimly lit through two or three smallish stained-glass windows, the church at Roggenburg features soaring columns and pure white walls, with 20-foot windows letting in abundant natural light. Frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings, along with statues of angels and saints by the score. All around, gilt filigree, gleaming in the light, forms graceful curves that lend a sense of motion and carry the eyes inexorably upward toward the ceiling (and the heavens). It is quite visually overwhelming. Behind the congregation, in the balcony, sits the church’s magnificent organ, and its sound is more than the equal of its appearance. We were treated to exquisite and powerful music from a choir accompanied on that organ by Fr. Stefan Klinger, recent visitor to De Pere and one of the best organists in Germany. His performance, some of it ethereal and improvised, some of it structured and powerful, combined with the church’s architecture to make the Mass one of the most beautiful in my experience. During an especially stirring part of the music, I recalled Fr. Jim Neilson’s remarks during the Cornerstone Seminar that the position of the organ above and behind the congregation was meant to propel one emotionally forward, toward the altar, and the cross, and thence upward. It undeniably had that exact effect.
Later, after Mass, Fr. Stefan gave us a private tour of the Abbey, and he began by discussing a few of the noteworthy elements of the church itself. It happens that many of the statues and frescoes in the church contain little “Easter eggs,” to borrow a phrase from movies and video games – wry hidden commentaries on religious and political issues and figures. And sometimes on more whimsical things than that – the artist who restored and repainted the ceiling frescoes in the early 1900s, a Munich native, included in one of the magnificent scenes a wooden beer barrel with a nondescript “HB” on it – the initials of Munich’s Hofbrauhaus. It was a century-old bit of “product placement” in most unlikely place.
The remainder of the abbey tour was equally rewarding, but my most memorable takeaway from the day occurred earlier, during that memorable Mass. Toward the end, as the music swelled and the light seemed to reflect off every gilt surface, the celebrant stood behind the altar in front of a gleaming monstrance, and all of the sounds and sights and majesty made for a moment of impossible beauty.
Then I remembered again the monstrance made of tin we saw at Dachau the day before, the centerpiece of a celebration held in the most spartan conditions, with gaunt prisoners gathered on wooden benches in crude barracks. And I had two thoughts: first, how utterly different the two celebrations were; second, how much the same.