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Schoenstatt Shrine

The word “Shrine”(Latin scrinium, ‘chest’) originally applied to reliquaries came also to be applied to sacred images or places of pilgrimage, often with a small structure to shelter the sacred image. The original or mother shrine of Schoenstatt is in this latter tradition. What makes it unique is its covenant spirituality with the Blessed Mother. Today it is a small, intimate, sacred space with the holy picture of the Mother Thrice Admirable of Schoenstatt (mother of the redeemer, mother of the faithful and mother of the church), with a beautiful carved wooden altar, beautiful wooden pews, statues, stained glass windows, and a variety of beautiful sacred symbols each filled with rich meaning important to the Movement’s history and spirituality.   The three spiritual graces associated with the Shrine are: 1) A Spiritual Home, 2) Inner Spiritual Transformation, and 3) Apostolic Fruitfulness.

In the beginning, when the Chapel was first consecrated to the exclusive use of a small group of boys in a Pallottine high school seminary as the chapel of their Marian sodality, things were not so elegant and refined.   It was a previously abandoned cemetery chapel dedicated to St. Michael, later used as a tool shed, and then modestly renovated for the boys during the previous summer break from school. It was tiny, with seating for perhaps 25. It still had a dirt floor and a rickety old altar. It did not even contain a picture of the Blessed Mother, but only a statue of St. Michael stationed above the altar. The statue was donated by the Pallottine Provincial, Fr. Michael Kolb, as his personal gift to the boys and in honor of his patron saint.  

It was a time of great uncertainty and peril.   August 1, 1914 Germany had declared war on Russia. What was then called ‘the Great War’, which today we call World War I, was already in the midst of its killing throes. Over 9 million combatants from many nations would die, including boys from the high school (minor) Pallottine seminary. What had previously been a magnificent new building for the minor seminary on the bluff overlooking the Vallendar valley, was now a military hospital filled with hundreds of wounded soldiers.  

On October 18, 1914, slightly two months after the beginning of the war, on the first Sunday after the resumption of classes, about 50 boys met with Fr. Kentenich, their spiritual director.   It was their first meeting in the new school year in the refurbished sodality chapel. They did not know what to expect.   Only later would this day come to be known as the founding day of the International Schoenstatt Family Movement. Throughout the months of August and September, and into early October, 29-year-old Father Kentenich faced a difficult task. He was struggling, thoughtfully, prayerfully to discern what to say, what vision of the future to share with his beloved boys in these brutal, dire circumstances. He knew it would have to be something great and bold, something that could continue to inspire and continue actively to support their youthful idealism that he had worked so hard as their spiritual director to affirm, nurture and strengthen.

He knew that many of his beloved boys were going to die in this terrible war. His principle concern was that they not die in vain. It was imperative that he shares a truly transcendent vision of the future with them, a vision fully in accord with the highest ideals of Christian faith.   It must have an enduring, ultimate purpose, something much greater and more important than simply “dying for the best interests of one’s own nation”however these so-called “best interests”might be defined by often brutal and corrupt leaders. His boys had to be spiritually and morally educated for a much greater task than this.

He carefully wrote out his talk, something unusual for him, and committed it to memory.   Much of it was inspired by what he had learned during the summer about Bortolo Longo, a noted Italian jurist, formerly a materialist and unbeliever, a lay and married man, turned advocate of the Rosary. In October of 1872, while walking on the ruins of Pompei, a city of corruption and death, reflecting on how he could make up for his sins and regain peace of heart, Bortolo Longo heard an inner voice of good will. “’If you want to find peace then spread devotion to my Rosary; for whoever promotes the Rosary can never perish.’   He fell to his knees in tears and sobs and prayed.”Then he rose up and established a famous place of pilgrimage to our Lady and home of a care-center for the children of criminals. “From this voluntary dying-to-self there arose, like a phoenix from the ashes a whole world full of life which powerfully overshadowed the previous life of the neighboring city of death.A pilgrim place and city for poor children came into existence, which gave early life to thousands of poor and supernatural life to millions throughout the world.”

In his October 18 talk to the boys, now called the founding document of Schoenstatt, Fr. Kentenich envisions for them the possibility of the old, tiny, abandoned cemetery chapel of St. Michael, in the small German valley of Vallendar, with its humble inhabitants, and a small unknown band of passionate, idealistic students, becoming like the Valle di Pompei, a pilgrim site, a true spiritual home for all who come, a place of light, of life, of apostolic transformation and fruitfulness generated by the covenant of love with the Blessed Mother, that all the surrounding violence and darkness of war could not vanquish.

He reminds the boys of a pivotal moment in St. Peter’s relation to the Lord, and then challenges them with the possibility of a similar pivotal moment now offered them in the midst of a world torn by war. “When St. Peter saw the glory of God on Tabor, he called out with delight: ‘It is good for us to be here. Let us build three tents here.”(Mt 17:14). These words come to my mind again and again. And I have often asked myself: Would it then not be possible that our little sodality chapel become for us, at the same time, the Tabor on which the glory of Mary would be revealed? Undoubtedly we could not accomplish a greater apostolic deed nor leave our successors a more precious legacy than to urge our Lady and our Queen to erect her throne here in a special way, to distribute her treasures, and to work miracles of grace. You gather what I am aiming at: I would like to make this place a place of pilgrimage, a place of grace for our house and the whole German province, and perhaps even further afield. All who come here to pray shall experience the glory of Mary and confess it is good for us to be here.”

Fr. Kentenich was not primarily seeking external, physically observable miracles, but the greatest miracle of all. This is the miracle of conversion, the deepest moral and spiritual transformation of the inner person. All external, physical transformations will ultimately pass away. Only the interior transformations of mind, heart, and soul can be eternal. Only here does one encounter the treasure where moth and rust cannot corrupt and thieves cannot break in and steal.

Many of the boys responded heroically to this new and great vision of the future of their Marian sodality chapel, and freely offered the sacrifice of their lives to the achievement of this goal. The covenant spirituality they lived with one another and their fellow soldiers drew many to Schoenstatt after the war.   The witness of their strong, vibrant covenant spirituality in the hospitals where they were sent when severely wounded so influenced some of the nurses that they too turned to Schoenstatt after the war and some became founding members of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary.

For nearly thirty years there was only one Shrine, the original Mother Shrine in Schoenstatt, Germany. In the course of time, in the ever-expanding circle of physical and spiritual outreach of Schoenstatt communities around the globe, we see the necessary practical adaptations and changes for Schoenstatt’s covenant spirituality effectively to be shared on a global scale. In 1943 the first daughter or filial shrine, built after the pattern of the original, was constructed in Uruguay. Then, gradually, Schoenstatt Shrines of various kinds, all sharing fully in the graces and life stream of the original Shrine, began popping up around the globe.  

Initially this new development was very much attacked. Orthodox Schoenstatt people thought you can’t copy a special place of grace. You cannot do this. It was sacrilege. And it needed the authority of the founder, Fr. Kentenich, looking in exactly and carefully to determine the extent of the justification of this development. He promoted it. Now there is not only the original Mother Shrine in Germany, there are over 150 filial or daughter shrines around the world.   When Fr. Kentenich was living In Milwaukee during his exile, a tradition developed of Schoenstatt home shrines, then room shrines, and later, even car shrines. Then Juan Pozobon in Brazil developed the Pilgrim Mother Shrine. That is also a wonderful thing. Between the shrines, which are stable places, there comes now the Blessed Mother and the Blessed Mother is not confined to one place. She goes out to people. She comes to them regularly. She comes again and again. She is, to use a phrase of Pope Francis, a missionary apostle seeking missionary disciples. The Mother is not distant and removed so that she sits on her throne and you can come and bow down and genuflect. She is the one who goes out to visit and blesses the houses until they are ready and then they become shrines.

Father Kentenich then began to think about this remarkable and spontaneous development of various types of Schoenstatt shrines around the world in terms of the concept of “the construction site shrine”.   That was his final term, “Construction Site Shrine”.   This means the Blessed Mother has a whole construction program with shrines. It starts with the Original Shrine, goes to the Filial Shrine, goes to the Home Shrine, then the Pilgrim Shrine and then you get a combination of all this in the Heart Shrine, the Living Shrine.

This means that right after the Blessed Mother has shrines, visible shrines, the visible shrine is secondary. Primary is the living or heart shrine.This is the real construction task. I myself must become a shrine. All shrines are of no value if they do not mean I become a living shrine, a temple of the triune God. Becoming a living shrine is called in Schoenstatt spirituality the task of Everyday Sanctity. This is the central task of covenant spirituality, living out the Great Commandment of the love of God and love of neighbor holistically, physically and spiritually, with heart and mind and soul in all the contexts of our daily lives.

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