The Beginnings of Our Ecumenical Commitment

Jesus Christus Pantokrator
Visit of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Justinian on October 10, 1970
Abbot Emmanuel Heufelder
The brewery wing 1955. On this site the St. Nicholas Church was consecrated in 1986.
The old Byzantine Church, furnished in 1955 (today part of the bookstore).
Liturgical service in the old Byzantine Church
Ecumenical encounter with the members of the Protestant Institute for Interconfessional Studies and Research in Germany (from left: R. Frieling, P. Gerhard, Br. Ephraim, E. Geldbach, W. Schöpsdau, P. Emmanuel, P. Irenaeus)

To a very large extent, Abbey Niederaltaich owes its ecumenical mission to the work of Abbot Emmanuel Heufelder (1898-1982). Looking back, he wrote: “The very beginnings of the ecumenical work of Abbey Niederaltaich were rooted in my Novitiate days, although I couldn’t know it. I was studying the Gospel of St. John intensively.” Moved by the high priestly prayer of Christ, even as a young Benedictine monk he took to heart the fervent prayer of the Lord, “that all may be one” (John 17).  During his novitiate in Abbey Schäftlarn (1919/20), Emmanuel at first believed that the passage referred to the monastic community there, but soon his thoughts of unity expanded to include all Christians and all of humanity.

Mindful of the words with which the Savior of mankind pleaded with his Father in the face of death, “that all may be one”, Pope Pius XI began his apostolic letter Equidem verba of March 21, 1924. In it he framed an appeal to the dedicated culturally endowed Benedictines, who through their shared monastic Fathers of the Church had a special affinity and sensitivity for the Eastern Church, to engage in fervent prayer to God for Unity, as well as to engage in works towards this purpose. Pope Pius XI was thinking particularly of the Russian population, which had been overcome with great suffering since the October Revolution of 1917. His desire was to designate for each congregation a particular Abbey with selected monks, who – “through thorough grounding in language, history, character and mindset, but also in theology and liturgy” – were capable of pursuing the work of Unity. In addition they were “to contribute through word and writing to the expansion in the West of the desire for Unity and the awareness of controversial issues between the East and ourselves.” P. Emmanuel later wrote, “I will never forget how this papal invocation struck me inwardly. But it never occurred to me that I, myself, could do something in this direction” (Die beiden Türme, 25 [1974] 2).

In June of 1934 P. Emmanuel was appointed Prior of Niederaltaich, in order to give the Community a viable spiritual direction. The Abbey, after a longer interruption due to Secularization in 1803, had not been refounded until 1918 and was in financial need. The call to Niederaltaich revitalized the history of the Abbey. It had been founded by the Bavarian Duke Odilo to bring culture to the so-called Ostmark (Eastern Territory) and to do missionary work, which the monks had vigorously done over the centuries. For instance a monk who had joined Niederaltaich and was later declared a saint, St. Gunther, went East in the 11th Century. He founded among others the Probstei of Rinchnach and supported his family relative, King Stephan of Hungary, in bringing Christianity to the country and missionizing the Slavs. Where once the Abbey had built pathways to the East over a period of 1,000 years, P. Emmanuel now desired that it build up spiritual pathways to the East: “I saw that the House needed not only material support, but above all a task which would lift it up spiritually. And so I gave it the task of the Pope.” (Ibid.)

After research and initiating contacts, the first “Eastern Church Encounter” took place in Niederaltaich in 1936. In the course of the event Prelate Dr. Petro Werhun, Pastor of the Catholic Ukrainians in Germany and an Oblate of our monastery since 1939 (Oblate name Pachomius, beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 27, 2001) celebrated the first Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite in Niederaltaich in 1936. In July of 1936 the official acknowledgment of the work by the Bavarian General Chapter of Benedictines. In addition, the Abbot Primate and Cardinal Tiserant, Secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, both approved the plans without reservations.

In the same year a Working Paper on the Eastern Orthodox Church was published, as well as an anthology of articles “Der christliche Osten – Geist und Gestalt” (The Christian East – its spirituality and structure) which appeared in 1939. The focus soon widened to include the whole of Christianity, so that contacts were also developed with protestant Christians and the Una Sancta circle. Intensive contacts to Max Josef Metzger were maintained until his arrest and execution by the National Socialists on April 17, 1944. World War II increasingly froze ecumenical activities and took its toll of death among the young brothers and fathers of the Abbey. Br. Benedikt Arnold wrote from the Eastern Front only weeks before he fell: “I believe I must become a seed for the Eastern Orthodox work of our Abbey.”

After the War Emmanuel Heufelder, now as Abbot (1949-1968), began to form a group of monks who would take up the tasks inspired by “Equidem verba”, particularly in regard to the Eastern Church and taking on the Byzantine Rite. He was to do so with the help of two new Russian entrants to the monastery – the later Archimandrite Chrysostomus Blaschkewitz (1946) and Deacon Basilius v. Burmann (1949).

Niederaltaich had set its sights from the very beginning on the promotion of knowledge of the Eastern Church and the longing for Unity here in the West. The heart of the Eastern Church rests in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, in the Praise of God. In order to make the wealth of eastern liturgical and theological tradition more accessible to western Christians, the monks of Niederaltaich have celebrated the Divine Liturgy and the Divine Praises in German using the Byzantine Rite since around 1959. For this purpose a large part of the liturgical texts were translated from the Greek and Church Slavonic and adjusted for singing.

Ever since, Niederaltaich has been a monastery with two church traditions within a single community. Our goal is to carry out our mission of spiritual Ecumenism and to contribute to transmission of the spiritual riches of both traditions through the spirit of prayer, the liturgy and the sanctification of life.