Sunday Mass with the Benedictines in Munich

It was a pleasure to be with my brother Benedictines in Munich – St. Bonifaz is a very friendly and welcoming community. (I was on my way from NPM in Louisville to the European hymn society meeting in Timişoara, Romania, about which more later.)

Bonifaz new basilica

The old basilica from the 19th century is in Romanesque style. In Europe it has become a whole field of architecture to adapt huge churches to work for the small communities that now gather in them. In this case a wall was put up to divide off the back 1/3 of the basilica. The altar is in the center, the appointments are modern.


As much as I believe in modern art and architecture for the liturgy, as much as I oppose making the liturgy an escape from the real world, even I resist this “baldachino” of metal bars and shapes. It strikes me as cold, jarring, unattractive. The liturgy should somehow still feel like home, even when it engages modern culture. Maybe the piece would grow on me with time.

Bonifaz 2

The Germans are hymn singers. And not just entrance, prep, communion and closing as we sometimes do. The centuries-old custom is to replace elements of the Mass Ordinary with vernacular paraphrases, sometimes quite loose paraphrases, in strophic form. (In former times the priest said the official Latin text simultaneously. Since Vatican II he sings with the community in German. The paraphrases are loose because the Church prohibited exact translations.)

Liturgiam authenticam (2001) supposedly banned such metrical Mass part paraphrases, but the German-speaking bishops, who are now revising their official hymnal, wouldn’t hear of it. The Vatican wouldn’t back down. Neither would the bishops. As Fr. Tony Ward told me – this was when Msgr. Moroney brought me along to show the second-last draft of the document Sing to the Lord to the Congregation for Divine Worship – the standoff was solved when Pope Benedict heard about it and said, “Well, whatever they do, I sure hope they keep Schubert’s Deutsche Messe – I’ve sung it since youth and it’s my favorite.”

And so we began Mass, a metrical psalm of 16th century Fr. Kaspar Ulenberg from the official hymnal Gotteslob. (Which word, BTW, has three syllables and means “God’s Praise” – not the two syllable rendition of one of our exchange students just arrived in Austria – “got-slob.”) Solemn procession with crucifer and incense. Female acolyte (hmmm, we don’t do that at St. John’s…). Choir of older gentlemen from the “Kolping” pious society. Strophic Gloria in parts – two brief stanzas that took about 45 seconds and at least mentioned “Glory” once or twice. Opening prayer recited.

All three readings for Sunday. That wouldn’t be newsworthy except that when the new lectionary came out, the German-speaking bishops allowed for just two readings on Sundays, I think to make room for Mozart and Haydn Masses with choir and orchestra. But in my experience the monasteries have tended to read all three.

No responsorial psalm – instead, the choir sang a Bavarian sort of religious folk song. In the first line of text I heard Christus – “Christ.” Charming, but…

Longish but highly engaging homily – congregation was attentive. Here and throughout, the people seemed engaged, attentive, outgoing, and glad to be with each other and their God.

Most of the congregation in the pews knelt for the entire Eucharistic Prayer, but many knelt only at the words of institution. Those in chairs stayed standing, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Metrical Sanctus in parts, choir alone. Communion under both forms for all.

Nearly all attendees (except the monks) appeared to be 60 or 70 and older, with a small sprinkling of younger generations, one little girl and one or two guys who looked to be in their 20s.

And so the Lord’s Day was kept, the Word of God preached and the sacrifice of our salvation made present in the holy banquet.



  1. I’ve been struck in Germany be the enthusiastic congregational singing, even in congregations that otherwise seem very reserved and even cold.

    As to the replacement of the psalm with a tussensang (as they call them in Dutch). . . this seems endemic in Northern Europe. And in Dutch-speaking countries they are almost always some Huub-I’m-in-an-existential-crisis-Oosterhuis composition.

    1. The German Benedictine Beuronese congregation has a noble history of Latin chant including propers. But the tradition of replacing propers and/or Ordinary with strophic hymns is also found. In Austria (and I think Bavaria, but I’m not sure), when orchestral music took over in the 18th century, every monastery had some sort of orchestra and it was common to replace the propers with orchestral music. When the efforts to reintroduce Gregorian chant came in the 1920s or so, the traditional musicians stepped up to defend the orchestral tradition and resist chant. Latin chant propers simply don’t fit with a Mozart orchestral Ordinary, ran the argument. By the 1950s, with the liturgical movement and the vernacular movement in full swing, orchestral Ordinary and Latin chant propers had become THE model for the traditionalist musicians.

  2. A very selective impression: one single time in one single place.. I have been there more than once, and there was a responsorial psalm, and nothing “alpine” (whatever that might be), the Sanctus was sung by the congregation, which might not altogether be between age 60 and 70… The pope has more liturgical style and personal taste than the anecdote about about Schubert’s Mass might reveal.
    And so the process of putting out a hymnal for the whole country that includes hymns, and chant, and chantlike things, and newly composed songs etc. is quite complicated, probably a little bit too complicated…
    Like worship in the USA under a musical aspect it deserves a second and porbably broader consideration…

  3. I fear I’m being misunderstood. I did not mean the post to be critical, but simply an accurate impression of my one time there. That’s all. For me, it is all to the good that there is good preaching, a good sense of community, incense on an ordinary Sunday, female acolyte, communion under both forms. While I suppose I’d prefer Latin propers personally, and official text for Mass Ordinary, I intended the post to point out that inculturation is a reality throughout liturgical history and it brings about all sorts of things with local charm and flavor. That’s a good thing in many ways.

    As for aging congregations – I meant to throw no stones. We in the US are not far behind Europe on this count, and scholars and those in pastoral ministry speak of the “lost generation” of 30 and 40 year olds.

    I changed “Alpine” to “Bavarian.” If this is also inaccurate, let me know. At least to my ears, the music sounded typical of the area, unlike what you’d hear hardly anywhere in US culture, and that’s all I meant to say.

    As for the liturgical tastes of Pope Benedict XVI, I think we’re all aware of how high they are!



  4. Was this church rebuilt after WWII? Or did they choose to paint over and destroy that amazing interior?

    I can’t really comment on the liturgy – I don’t know enough about current German liturgical practices and how they have had to adapt to the 1970 missal. I have always found their practice of singing some sort of parallel German texts during low mass interesting, and didn’t know any aspect of that had been allowed to survive after Vatican II.

  5. In Europe it has become a whole field of architecture to adapt huge churches to work for the small communities that now gather in them. In this case a wall was put up to divide off the back 1/3 of the basilica.

    They did this in my urban American parish as the Germans moved out. Now the Church isn’t big enough to hold the Latino/Bengali/Haitian community that has since come to the neighborhood, the money isn’t easily there to restore the Church, and the furniture (altar, pews, etc.) are no longer there.

  6. The church was rebuilt on the smaller scale after WWII. I worshipped there regularly in 1988-89 and found the quality of preaching to be much better than anywhere else in Munich. At that time there were lots of students in the congregation–it seems to me that there was a Sunday evening Mass that I mostly attended and there was lots of diversity, including families with children alongside older people. I don’t remember much about the music (perhaps that was a “low” Mass?), but I loved the space (with the possible exception of the baldachin you mention). I’m allergic to Baroque, which is why the place seemed like such a relief compared to every other church in town; I was back two years ago and had exactly the same reaction, though I wasn’t there for Sunday Mass.

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