Spiritan Features

Visit to Vienna’s Abbey of the Holy Cross

Last year I had the honour of staying near Vienna, in Stift Heiligenkreuz (“Abbey of the Holy Cross” in English). Founded in the time of St. Bernard, this is the second-oldest Cistercian monastery in the world and was visited in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. Even though the church-going population of Catholic Austria is less than 10 per cent, the monastery today is full of young monks; it currently has no fewer than six novices and as many postulants. 

Some years ago on my first visit there, I met a monk who was lecturing at the university which is attached to the monastery. It is the world’s largest German-speaking university of Philosophy and Theology. Mostly drawing its lecturers from the monastery, it is a good example of erudite monasticism. I asked the monk how they were able to receive so many new members each year. He said that it all went back to 1919 when Karl Braunstorfer was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 24, soon becoming its novice-director, and Prior before World War II, during which the monastery sheltered many Jews from the Nazis. Abbot Karl later became Archabbot of all their Cistercian monasteries in Austria and, in this capacity, was able to attend all the sessions of Vatican II. He put into effect the recommendations for monastic life made by the Council, and had the Divine Office revised while retaining Latin. The monks attribute the present flourishing of the monastery to his work and intercession. His sanctity was recognised by his community and by those who came in contact with him, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn introduced his cause for beatification in 2008. 

On the 2017 visit the monks invited me to stay with them inside the monastery. I was shown to a cell which was bright and up-to-date with hot and cold water. I was fortunate to meet an English-speaking monk; his British father had worked in the colonial service in Mauritius and the monk knew some Spiritans there. He introduced me to various aspects of Cistercian life, including the very effective youth service. Many of the community are involved, including the leader who was ordained just 3 years ago and who has just completed his Ph. D. at the University of Vienna. Older monks also help.

About 300 young people come once a month, staying overnight in the hostels for the male and female university students. Some of them have never seen the inside of a church before. The programme, culminating in Mass at midnight, begins after supper and includes discussion, lectio divina, prayer and an opportunity for confession in a prayerful atmosphere while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. The monks say that adoration and confession bring youth back to the heart of the Church. 

Some of the young monks who were studying for the priesthood said they were encouraged in their vocation by an older member of the order who is renowned as a spiritual director, and who sometimes spends up to 13 hours a day celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation with young people. He speaks of vocation as a call from God, who calls us out of love to a life of charity. Everyone would like to fashion his own fortunes and fulfil himself. But it is God who calls and so determines life. Vocation is the opposite of self-determination.

My stay in the monastery was a great experience and one that I would be happy to recommend. The Divine Office was beautifully sung. The food was well-prepared, the conversation was good, and I was taken aback at how genuinely charitable the monks were to me. 

Tom Raftery C.S.Sp.