After a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Dave and Lino Rulli from SiriusXM’s The Catholic Channel recently led a pilgrimage of 85 listeners to Oberammergau, Germany.
The small Bavarian town has performed a world-renowned passion play roughly every 10 years since 1634. “Just before that, the Bubonic plague was ravaging Europe. Here in a little mountain town, typically you wouldn’t have to worry about something like that because you’re somewhat isolated,” Father Dave says, but explains how a visitor brought the disease. “When people started getting sick, they made a vow to God that every 10 years they would perform this passion play. As soon as they made the vow, nobody else got sick, and the people that were sick recovered.”
Before visiting Oberammergau for the passion play, Father Dave and Lino first bring pilgrims to other notable religious sites in Germany, including the Cologne Cathedral. It is the largest twin-spire church in the world, has the world’s biggest church facade, and houses relics of The Wise Men.
Father Dave notes how some critics of the Church often demean the “grandiose” nature of large Cathedrals, but “there are ways in which we humans can only come in contact with the divine through something like this.” Considering the history this Cathedral has endured, including World War II, Father Dave reminds us that, “Even when all else is turned to rubble, God still remains in the midst of our lives. And we can think and imagine that, but this is a tangible representation.”
Next, they visit Augsburg, Germany where they view a painting that has inspired a recently popular Marian devotion. St. Peter am Perlach houses the artwork called “Mary, Untier of Knots,” painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner in the 1700s. It depicts Our Lady untangling a ribbon snarled with knots, Lino explained the symbolism within the work saying how, “The Blessed Virgin Mary undid or untied what Eve did with original sin.” The devotion has gained publicity in recent years, thanks to Pope Francis. While he was still a Cardinal in Argentina, a nun sent him a card depicting this image, and he publicized it first in his own country and later around the world. The image helps many see how Mary continues to intercede for us and to help us “untie the knots of our lives.”
The final pilgrimage highlight is to Oberammergau, where they attend the passion play. “Centuries ago, when people were illiterate…a passion play, much like art and stained glass, was how you learned about Christianity,” Lino says. “So a passion play is to remind you what Jesus did in Jerusalem, then his death and resurrection.” The performance fills most of the day, and includes connections to the Old Testament and other stories of the Bible. Father Dave reflects how this is similar to the Easter Vigil when we tell more of salvation history than just the Lord’s Passion.
They marvel at the large cast in the play and orchestra, as well as the unique stipulations surrounding the actors. Because of the vow the townspeople made with God, Father Dave notes that they adhere to a strict rule that the actors “have to be people that live in this town, and you have to at least live here for 10 years. It’s not like you can move here the summer before and start rehearsing.”
These unique elements and fascinating backstory create an experience that Father Dave, Lino and the pilgrims will remember for years to come.