Anticipate the Oberammergau Passion Play through the unique perspective of Father Eric
By Nora Kenney
Father Eric Augenstein will accompany a group of pilgrims to Germany in July 2020 to experience a centuries-old tradition that only happens once every ten years: the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, established in 1634.
Father Eric is the pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in Indianapolis. He is also the vocations director of the diocese, a position he has held since 2013. This will be his second time experiencing the play.
“I actually went to the passion play in Oberammergau in 2010. I had the opportunity to go with a group through St. Meinrad seminary where I had been in seminary,” Father Eric said. “They were taking a group of alumni and friends to the passion play in 2010 so my classmates and I decided to go then, and I had such a great experience there that I thought if I ever had the opportunity to go again and accompany another group as a chaplain, then I’d jump at the opportunity. So here it is!”
Although Father Eric is of German descent, he said it is the unique history of the play and not the ancestral connection that drew him.
“My family has German heritage from about 175 years ago, but really what interested me more was the history of the passion play and the experience of the passion play itself,” he reflected.
The play came about in the first half of the seventeenth century, when the bubonic plague was ravaging Bavaria, where the town of Oberammergau is located. The townspeople, terrified of the plague, made a vow with God: if He would spare them of the plague, they would produce a play every ten years, from that point forward, depicting the life and death of Christ.
God delivered His end of the bargain. Previous to the vow, the death rate had risen sharply from 1/1000 people per year, to 20/1000 in the month of March 1633 alone. After the vow, the rate dipped back to one person in the month of July 1633. So, the townspeople reciprocated and the first play was produced in 1634. It’s been performed every ten years since then—with repeated performances taking place over five-month periods—during years ending with zero.
The 2010 season of the Oberammergau Passion Play, which Father Eric attended, included 102 performances from May 15 – October 3, 2010, and involved over 2,000 townspeople serving as performers, musicians, and stage technicians.
“The passion play is so much a part of the city of Oberammergau and the people of that city, that you really get to experience not just the play itself but the culture and the people. It’s a whole experience: going to Mass the morning of the play and being in the town and getting to know the culture of Bavaria and the wood-carving history. It’s a whole broad experience that’s more than just the passion play itself.”
Father Eric added that the play also offers a unique way for pilgrims to grow in intimacy with God’s word.
“The trip enables people to reflect on Scripture and read Scripture in new ways that are made possible by doing something like experiencing the Passion play,” he said. “So in this trip in particular, being able to take the Passion narrative from the Gospel and reflecting on it, and seeing a story that is so familiar to us presented in a new way, it often gives you a new appreciation and understanding of Scripture.”
He said that in his own faith life, he’s been reflecting on the image of blood and water flowing from the side of Christ, and is looking forward to seeing this moment dramatized in Oberammergau.
“That image of Jesus giving birth to the Church through his suffering and death—that we are bathed in blood and water that flows from His side—it’s an image that can powerfully speak to who we are as individuals and as a Church in relationship with Jesus,” he said.
This is not Father Eric’s first time leading a pilgrimage as chaplain. He said he’s served on over a dozen pilgrimages, in places like the Holy Land, Italy, and France. He’s also led groups to World Youth Day on three separate occasions. Throughout these experiences he’s had the opportunity to see pilgrims have personal encounters with Jesus through celebration of the sacraments in new places that are part of the broader universal Catholic Church.
“For many of us, our spiritual lives can sometimes become stagnant where we’re at. So being able to go somewhere else where there’s a culture and history and tradition of spiritual practices, or a witness of piety, that pilgrimage is an opportunity for us to rekindle our faith or to grow it in a different direction that sometimes is challenging to do in our daily lives.”
To experience the meeting of Bavarian culture and Church history that Oberammergau can offer, sign up for the Passion Play pilgrimage through Verso Ministries.