Today the Holy Father visits Altötting, which for over a Millennium has been the spiritual centre of Bavaria. Although it is little known outside of Germany, it is listed as one of the ‘Shrines of Europe,’ together with Lourdes (France), Loreto (Italy), Fatima (Portugal), Czestochowa (Poland) and Mariazell (Austria).
Pope Benedict, who today follows in the footsteps of Pius VI (1782) and John Paul II (1980), was born a few miles away in the little village of Marktl-am-Inn. Writing shortly before his election as Supreme Pontiff, he said that ‘pilgrimages together with my parents and siblings to this place of grace form a part of my earliest and most treasured memories.’ As a child, the Holy Father was especially impressed by the Gnadenkapelle, ‘with its mysterious darkness, the preciously dressed black Madonna surrounded by offerings, [and] the quiet prayer of so many people.’ He also delighted in the stalls selling souvenirs and devotional objects, ‘which stood before me like many wonderful promises, even if my parents lacked the means to buy a lot of things from them.’
The Gnadenkapelle is said to stand on the site of a Roman Temple, later Christianised by St Rupert – indeed, tradition identifies this as the site of the baptism of Duke Theodo in 680. Certainly in the eighth century Altötting was a centre of the Bavarian court and the following century Duke Carloman founded a monastery there in honour of the Blessed Virgin.
The miraculous image of Our Lady, darkened by the centuries and vested in jewel-studded robes, probably dates from about 1330, though it may be a copy of a much older statue. In 1489 a grief-stricken mother brought her three-year-old child to the Black Madonna after drowning in the River Inn and prayed fervently for a miracle. The child was brought back to life. Shortly afterwards another child, this time crushed by a farm wagon, was also healed. The fame of Our Lady’s miracles spread and the shrine soon attracted crowds of pilgrims. It soon became rich and the shrine’s Treasury has an impressive collection of votive gifts, including the famous Goldenes Rößl (Golden Horse), made by French goldsmiths around 1404.
Altötting maintained its princely connections. In 1623 Duke Maximilian I declared the Black Madonna as ‘Patron of Bavaria’ and a letter of personal consecration, written in his own blood, is kept near the statue. Near the miraculous statue stands a silver sculpture of another Duke, Maximilian Joseph, who had been cured of a childhood illness through the intercession of Our Lady. Since 1561, the hearts of the Bavarian ruling dynasty have been placed in silver urns in the chapel sub umbra Magnae Mariae, ‘in the shadow of the great Mary.’ The last of the 24 hearts to have been placed here was that of Crown Princess Maria Antonia in 1953.
Altötting is also famous as the home of St Conrad of Parzham (1818-94), a Capuchin lay brother and mystic at the town’s friary. For more than 40 years Conrad worked as doorkeeper, meeting pilgrims, obtaining supplies, dispensing alms, and giving spiritual advice. He also worked with abandoned children. In particular he was noted for his gifts of prophesy and of reading people's hearts, rather like Padre Pio. He was, however, a man of few words and, according to one witness, ‘his bearing was always recollected. His glance was turned inward, toward God dwelling in his heart, with whom he was always in contact.’
Conrad died on 21st April 1894 and was canonised by Pius XI in 1934, the first German saint since the Reformation. Pope Benedict was present at the celebrations in Altötting at the time of the canonisation. ‘It was unimaginable at the time in our area,’ he wrote, ‘that a Christian household could be without a figure of the holy porter. We knew of his unwavering patience and also knew that he could look out from his cell up to the sanctuary and that this look, in which his whole life was gathered, conveyed the goodness that allowed him to become holy.’
Altötting, the ‘Lourdes of Bavaria,’ is a flourishing centre of Marian devotion in the twenty-first century. As many as 60,000 pilgrims arrive there by foot at Pentecost and solemn celebrations are especially centred around the month of May and the Feast of the Assumption, when a candlelit procession makes its way around the Kapellplatz. This fine square provides a large space for processions and open-air devotions, with the shrine and the collegiate church off SS Philip and James in the centre.
The most poignant reminder of the intercession of Our Lady of Altötting is provided by the 2,000 votive paintings that cover the outside walls of the chapel. These are but a small selection of the 50,000 votive tablets that have been presented to the shrine over the years. Many of them bear the words Maria Hilf! (‘Mary, help!’) and they vividly portray the many different ways in which Our Lady has assisted her children: recoveries from serious illness, escapes from life-threatening accidents, even soldiers who have safely returned from war.
Inspired by over 500 years of prayerful witness at Altötting, let us, in the words of Pope Benedict, not fail to ‘pray to Mary, Mother of the Lord, so that she will enable us to feel her love as a woman and a mother, in which we can understand all of the depth of Christ's mystery.’