St Bartholomew, Frankfurt (Exterior)

Imperial Cathedral of St Bartholomew, Frankfurt am Main, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Imperial Cathedral of St Bartholomew
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date of visit: Saturday, 25 January 2014, 6:00pm

The building

Kaiserdom Sankt Bartholomäus is a Gothic church in the center of Frankfurt, constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries on the foundation of an earlier church. "Cathedral" is an honorary title, as it was never the seat of a bishop. It is the largest church in the diocese, featuring a spire that is 95 meters high. From 1356 onwards, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected in this church as kings in Germany, and from 1562 to 1792, emperors-elect were crowned here. In 1867, St Bartholomew's was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in its present style. During World War II the church suffered severe damage due to Allied bombing; the interior was burned out completely. It was reconstructed in the 1950s.

The church

Every Catholic service in the Diocese of Limburg is somewhat under a shadow as the diocese tries to recover from a horrible scandal that dominated news reports in Germany for several weeks. In 2013 the Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, was accused of lying under oath (for which he has been penalized €20,000) in connection with first-class travel expenses; he is also under fire because of the extravagant costs of renovations to the bishop's residence. The bishops style of leadership has been described as rigidly authoritarian, and he was unpopular long before he became controversial. On 13 October he was temporarily suspended by Pope Francis as Bishop of Limburg.

The neighborhood

Frankfurt is at the center of the Rhine-Main Metropolitan Region, which has a population of 5,600,000, and is Germanys second largest metropolitan area. Since the enlargement of the European Union in 2013, the geographic center of the EU is 40 km (25 mi) east of Frankfurt. Directly adjacent to the cathedral is an archaeological garden displaying excavations of a Roman settlement and a Carolingian royal palatinate, illustrating that the cathedral was built at the oldest part of Frankfurt. In 794, Charlemagne built a royal court at Frankfurt and convened a church council here. The cathedral stands near all of these ancient sites. In the area to the west of the cathedral, the Old City area is being completely rebuilt; several medieval houses that were destroyed during World War II bombing will be reconstructed. This rebuilding project will partially block the view of the cathedral from the direction of the main market place, which has aroused protest.

The cast

His Eminence Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz, was principal celebrant and preacher. Co-celebrating were the Rt Revd Dr Thomas Löhr, Auxiliary Bishop of Limburg, the Revd Dr Johannes zu Eltz, Stadtdekan (city dean), and several other priests whose names were not given. Music was provided by the Frankfurter Cathedral Choir; the Vocalensemble Liebfrauen (Vocal Ensemble of Our Lady, the largest choral group at the Frankfurt Church of Our Lady); the Cappuccinis Choir of St Bernhard; the Choralschola of St Batholomus; and the Frankfurter Cathedral Brass Choir – all under the direction of Herr Stefan Poppe. Also participating were the district cantor, Herr Peter Reulein; and the cantor, Frau Bjanka Ehry. The organ was played by Herr Andreas Boltz.

What was the name of the service?

Karlsamt (literally "Office of Karl"): a mass honoring Charlemagne, who died on 28 January 814. This mass is celebrated annually in Aachen and Frankfurt on or close to the date of his death

How full was the building?

It was packed, with people standing in the aisles. The size of the congregation was estimated to be 1000.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

I entered the church one hour before the service was to begin and all of the pews were filled to capacity. I found a seat on a wooden block, which I shared with a person standing on it behind me, in a side chapel at a back corner of the church. I was able to look into the nave through metal bars, which conveyed the feeling of being in a prison cell. On the other side of the prison bars was a wall of people, standing in the adjacent aisle, blocking my view. At this location the acoustics were not good, so that I was not able to understand every word.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The congregation were quiet. Conversations were subdued. On the other hand, the choir and the brass band were rehearsing, which made the atmosphere festive. One-half hour before the service, an unnamed speaker gave some historic background information about the Karlsamt.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Stadtdekan Johannes zu Eltz greeted the congregation by saying: "The city church rejoices that you celebrate with us." The first words of the liturgical service, spoken by Cardinal Lehmann: "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirirus Sancti."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A pamphlet contained the liturgy and the words of the hymns with musical notes. However, some parts of the liturgy were expected to be spoken and sung from memory.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, brass choir, timpani.

Did anything distract you?

One distraction was that many people left before the end of the service, which lasted almost two hours. After the sermon there seemed to be a steady trickle of visitors heading toward the exit. Another distraction for me personally was that there was so much historical perspective to think about. Before the service, when the congregation were given historical background information, it was mentioned that the Emperor Augustus died in the year 14. I could not help thinking again and again during the service about an irony of history. Augustus was celebrated as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, titles that were bestowed upon another person born during his reign and acknowledged 2000 years later by over two billion people worldwide.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This service was as high-church as it gets. The liturgy of the Karlsamt, completely in Latin, originated in the 15th century, incorporating a 12th century prayer, the Karlssequenz ("Charles sequence"), and a prayer of praise and intercession called the Kaiserlaudes, which was sung beautifully by a female cantor and the choirs. The organ, the brass choir and the timpani provided a sublime accompaniment to the hymns. The procession and recession through the center aisle featured many priests and nuns, as well as representatives from three Catholic orders, dressed in splendor: the German, the Maltese and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The service was carried out efficiently.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The Cardinal Bishop spoke rather quickly, so that his sermon was sometimes difficult to follow due to the poor acoustics. His sober style and academic language were appropriate to the content of his message.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was a lecture about Charlemagne, referred to in Germany as Karl the Great. Cardinal Lehmann emphasized how hard it is to understand and to judge a person who lived 1200 years ago, especially on the basis of contemporary standards. The available documents, which are not objective, do not allow us really to know the true character of Karl. His empire was the basis for todays Europe. He founded monasteries and libraries that preserved and created the cultural and literary foundation of Europe. Although Karl could not read or write, he brought about a unified script within his realm. He initiated reforms, he helped the church to develop, but he used ruthless violence to achieve his goals, including mass executions and forced baptisms. If I heard correctly, Karl and Great was referred to as a cultured barbarian. Karl the Great, as all of us today, are in need of forgiveness.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Several elements of this service were heavenly. As one enters the church, especially in the evening, the red-sandstone walls and columns convey a warm and inviting atmosphere. Before and after the service the massive Gloriosa was rung (29,290 pounds, 2.66 meters high). This bell produces a sound that penetrates to the bone-marrow, as though the Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the Dead were being announced. The cantor (a woman) who led the singing of the liturgical prayers had a sweet, rich voice, which was a joy to listen to. And one final heavenly moment: until the passing of the peace I felt cut off from the congregation due to my isolated location in a side chapel. But when I exchanged the peace of the Lord through my "prison bars", I immediately felt as though I was part of the congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

One of the prayers of this service must have been excruciatingly ironic for those who have suffered from the present crisis in the diocese. The congregation prayed "for our bishop Franz-Peter, the beloved father of faith: may he receive the fullness of life." The momentarily exiled bishop is anything but a "beloved father of faith", and striving for a luxurious "fullness of life" is exactly what he has been accused of.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

When 1000 people are leaving a church at the same time, everyone looks lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – Since I am not a Roman Catholic I could never feel at home here. But I do appreciate the discipline and efficiency of a Catholic worship service.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, indeed. This service gave one a feeling for the long history and continuity of Christianity. The ancient texts of the liturgy were an expression of my faith.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The warmest moment of this service came at the end. In his closing remarks, Cardinal Lehmann reached out to the congregation, thanking them for their celebration of this service and thanking them for enduring the present crisis in the diocese. He greeted the exiled bishop (who was, of course, not present) and expressed the hope that a solution would soon be found that will be beneficial to both the bishop and to the diocese. The congregation applauded his remarks.

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