Bavaria’s ‘Spiritual Heart’ Is Still Pumping in Altötting

Jonathan Liedl

Jonathan Liedl is a senior editor for the Register. His background includes state Catholic conference work, three years of seminary formation, and tutoring at a university Christian study center. Liedl holds a B.A. in Political Science and Arabic Studies (Univ. of Notre Dame), an M.A. in Catholic Studies (Univ. of St. Thomas), and is currently completing an M.A. in Theology at the Saint Paul Seminary. He lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Follow him on Twitter at @JLLiedl.

Known as the ‘Lourdes of Germany,’ the Marian shrine is not just a symbol of the region’s Catholic past but is also at the heart of its renewal.

The statue of Our Lady of Altötting stands in the Gnadenkappell in Bavaria, Germany
The statue of Our Lady of Altötting stands in the Gnadenkappell in Bavaria, Germany (photo: Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register)

Perhaps no other place in Bavaria is more indicative of the region’s deep Catholic roots than the Marian shrine of Altötting. But the popular place of pilgrimage isn’t only a relic of Germany’s Catholic past — it’s also an integral part of ongoing efforts to revive the faith today.

Home to a Black Madonna, a dark wooden statue of Our Lady and child originating in the 1300s, Altötting’s Gnadenkappell (chapel of grace) has been a place of pilgrimage since 1489 when a mother laid her dead son before the Virgin, asked for the Blessed Mother’s intercession and saw him miraculously brought back to life.

Throughout the following centuries, the faithful have flocked to venerate the Black Virgin and ask for her aid. Signs of answered prayers adorn the Gnadenkappell’s exterior in the form of more than 2,0000 painted wooden signs or votive tablets. Many depict the Blessed Mother’s miraculous intervention in moments of crisis, such as a motorcycle accident or a child falling under a cart pulled by oxen. Gratitude to Our Lady for help in conceiving a child is also a popular category. Some votive offerings even express gratitude for the help provided in more mundane circumstances, such as “overcoming a difficult work situation.”

These tangible signs of the Marian miracles worked here, some dating back to the 19th century, some as recent as last year, have earned Altötting a reputation as “the Lourdes of Germany.” The significance of the shrine in Bavarian culture is also underscored by another peculiar presence — the literal hearts of the kings of Bavaria.

Pilgrimages to the shrine are especially popular during the Easter season when large groups from the local Diocese of Passau and nearby Bavarian dioceses like Augsburg and Regensburg travel to the shrine on foot. Individual pilgrimages, sometimes breaking up different legs of the journey over several weeks, are also practiced. Many cite a visit to Altötting as being decisive in the discernment of their vocation.

Joseph Ratzinger and Altötting

Perhaps the most famous devotee of Altötting was Joseph Ratzinger. The future pope grew up in the area and visited the shrine often as a child, describing these visits as “among my most early and beautiful memories.” Upon becoming Pope Benedict XVI, the Bavarian native and former archbishop of Munich returned to Altötting in 2006 to pray to the Patroness of Bavaria. He even offered his episcopal ring to Our Lady of Altötting; it has been incorporated into her golden scepter and is still visible today.

Pilgrimage to Altötting has perhaps dwindled as Catholicism in Bavaria, while still predominant, is increasingly reduced to a mere cultural identity, without the associated practices and beliefs. In the Diocese of Passau, for instance, while more than 75% of the locals identify as Catholics, only 5% go to Mass on Sundays, down from 12% in 2018.

But Our Lady of Altötting and her shrine continue to be at the heart of efforts to revive the Catholic faith in Bavaria and all of Germany. Under the direction of Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, the traditional pilgrimage site has become the home of an annual Eucharistic gathering called Adoratio. The fourth Adoratio Congress will take place in Altötting from June 9-11, the first in-person since 2019 due to COVID-related restrictions.

The three-day event will draw together Catholics from across Bavaria and even other parts of Germany to praise the Eucharistic Lord in the company of Our Lady of Altötting. German prelates like Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg will celebrate Mass at the congress, while prominent German lay leaders like Sophia Kubi and Nina Heereman are expected to give catechetical talks.

For many faithful German Catholics, who feel like an increasing minority even within their own Church, the opportunity to be together in prayer and fellowship will be an invaluable source of strength and renewal. The first Adoratio Congress drew more than 2,000 German Catholics, and organizers are hoping, even more, will join this June.

And while the future of Catholicism in Germany may certainly appear bleak on a human level, if a miraculous renewal is to take place, there is no better place for it to start than in Altötting.

Stock Photo ID: 2105151293 – Altoetting Church
The Gnadenkappell, with its green roof and spire, stands in Chapel Square in Altötting, Bavaria, Germany.(Photo: Sina Ettmer Photography)Copyright (c) 2022 Sina Ettmer Photography/Shutterstock. No use without permission.
Liedl - Altoetting Shrine
Pilgrims pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of Altötting in Germany