Friars Visit Oberammergau, Germany, for Passion Play

Jocelyn Thomas Friar News

As 2010 comes to a close, three friars from the Province who led 75 pilgrims to see the Oberammergau Passion play in Germany this year, looked back in awe on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Friars Brian Cullinane, OFM, J. Patrick Kelly, OFM, and Ignatius Smith, OFM, were among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who traveled this year to Oberammergau, a small town in Bavaria, to see the historic Passion Play, performed only every 10 years.

The performance, called Passionsspiele in German, “far exceeded my expectations,” Jim said. “Never in a 1,000 years did I think that I would get to see the Passion play that I’d heard about since I was a child in Catholic grammar school. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.”

From Sept. 17 to 27, Jim, of FrancisCare in Elmwood Park, N.J., and Brian, pastor of Assumption Church, in Wood-Ridge, N.J., traveled to Germany with a group of approximately 30 people.

Soon after the group left, the play held its final performance of the year on Oct. 3. Earlier in the year, a Province group from upstate New York parishes also saw the play.

On June 12, 44 people from three parishes in Sullivan County, N.Y., accompanied Ignatius to Austria, Germany and Switzerland, a trip that ended with tickets to the world-renowned theatrical re-enactment of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

The performance of the Oberammergau Passion play dates from 1634. During the Thirty Years War, the village of Oberammergau was spared the black plague, and the villagers were so grateful to God that they vowed to present a play every 10 years to honor the life of Christ.

A Concelebrated Mass
On Sept. 26, the day that the New Jersey group saw the play, Brian and Jim concelebrated a Mass in German at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, built in the 1700s.

“Six priests were on the altar,” Brian said, “making it almost like a high Mass.”

In June, travelers were from Holy Cross Church in Callicoon, where Ignatius is the pastor, St. Francis Xavier Church, Narrowsburg, and St. Anthony of Padua, Yulan.

“In Austria, the scenery, people and history in Salzburg and Innsbruck were memorable,” said Ignatius. “The group arrived in Oberammergau on June 19 with great anticipation of the famous Passion play on June 20.”

The Passion play, performed in German, lasts roughly six hours with a break for dinner. Hundreds of people from the town of Oberammergau are involved with the production. The venue can seat 4,700 people.

“The acting by the villagers is professional, the music magnificent, the scenery convincing,” said Ignatius. “Our pilgrims enjoyed and were inspired by this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

ober-rAn Outstanding Performance
Although the theater is open-air, Jim said the wind and chill didn’t seem to bother the audience. “The seats were great,” he said. “We were in the 11th and 12th rows. Although covered with a roof, it was about 38 degrees — but the nearly seven-hour production was outstanding nonetheless.”

He added: “That a little town in the quaint hills of Bavaria could — for centuries now — present this play every 10 years to keep a promise of thanks to God for being spared the full-blown plague, is mind-boggling. To do it now, especially in such a complete manner, with the gorgeous almost symphonic music, the costumes, the tableaux, and the extensive dialog is a credit to all in that town.”

“It was neither Hollywood nor Broadway. It was modern and had many sound and lighting systems in use,” Jim said. “It was still — with all of its opulence — a statement of the basic Christian faith of the people. That is what I was there for in the first place.” 

The next time the Oberammergau Passion play will be performed is 2020.

Behind the imgage above are photos of Brian, Jim and Ignatius.

— Jocelyn Thomas is communications director for Holy Name Province.