Sankt Katharinenkirche, Frankfurt am Main, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sankt Katharinenkirche
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date of visit: Wednesday, 31 October 2018, 7:00pm

The building

St Catherine’s Church was constructed 1678-1681. After secularization in 1802 the city of Frankfurt has owned and been responsible for the upkeep of eight inner-city churches, including St Catherine’s. The nave is 161 feet long; the tower is 148 feet high. On the outside there is a mixture of Baroque and Gothic styles. Inside, the nave was originally Baroque; however, in March 1944 the inside was completely burned out after Allied bombing. Reconstruction occurred 1950–1954, and the nave is now simple and modest. The 20th century German stained glass craftsman Charles Crodel designed 17 windows that fit in with the low-key atmosphere of the nave. Three balconies originally featured 83 paintings displaying biblical themes; these were stored safely during World War II but were not returned to the church, nor were the balconies reconstructed. It was felt that the pietistic style of the paintings fit neither the austere atmosphere of the restored sanctuary nor the sober post-war Protestant mentality. However, a limited number are displayed temporarily on a rotating basis.

The church

The original St Catherine’s was a monastery chapel established in 1354. Hartmann Ibach, a student of Martin Luther, gave the first Protestant sermon in Frankfurt at this chapel. In 1590 the convent chapel was torn down so that a larger church could be built, which eventually became too small for the growing Protestant congregation, so that the present St Catherine’s replaced this church. The first woman ever to serve as a pastor in the Evangelische Kirche, Katharina Staritz, was ordained in 1938 in Breslau. Because she integrated Jewish Christians and defied the Nazis, she was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. After the war, she served as a pastor at St Catherine’s in the 1950s, but had the official status of Vikar (curate), as her ordination was not regarded as fully valid. Music plays a big role at St Catherine’s – Georg Philipp Telemann, the musical director of Frankfurt from 1712 to 1721, was responsible for the music in this church. Since 1983 the present organist has offered free 30 minute organ concerts twice a week. Since 2004, ten Bach cantata vespers per year have been put on; it is their goal eventually to perform all of Bach’s cantatas. Providing poor and homeless people with meals and a warm place to rest in winter has been an emphasis of the congregation. St Catherine’s reaches out to people who shop or work in the inner city, offering an oasis of quiet and spiritual refreshment in a bustling area.

The neighborhood

St Catherine’s Church is located on a major plaza of Frankfurt. The Hauptwache (built in 1730), a former guard house of the city militia, is the focal point of this plaza. Adjacent to the church is one end of the Zeil, one of the busiest and most profitable shopping districts in Germany. There are ugly concrete blocks adjacent to the church, which are there to prevent a terrorist from driving a large vehicle into the pedestrian zone.

The cast

The Protestant and Roman Catholic Stadtdekane (city deans) both led the service and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Ecumenical Worship Service on Reformation Day with the Bach Cantata 84: Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (I am content with my good fortune).

How full was the building?

Almost completely full (perhaps 500). This was a central service for all Protestants of Frankfurt.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

It was comfortable if one enjoys sitting for an hour with correct posture because the shape of the pew does not allow slouching.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People arrived quietly; conversation was subdued.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'A hearty welcome to this Reformation Festival service in the Protestant St. Catherine’s Church.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A leaflet contained everything that the congregation needed, including musical notes (although one selection was incomplete). Fortunately, the words of the cantata were printed; otherwise it would have been impossible to understand what was being sung, probably due to the acoustics.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and a seven piece orchestra. In 1990 the Walcker Organ, which was designed for Baroque music, was replaced by an organ built by the Austrian firm of Rieger Orgelbau; it has 54 stops and is suitable for Baroque as well as Romantic works.

Did anything distract you?

When the gospel was announced, one person stood up, looked around, saw that he was the only one standing, and sat back down. He said something to his neighbor to the effect of ‘In my church we stand up for the gospel reading.’ During the sermon there was, of course, the obligatory cell phone going off. And it’s trivial, but I couldn’t help wondering why the Catholic dean wore a white stole although red is the liturgical color for Reformation Day. The Protestant dean wore only black (as is customary among German Protestants), so there was no clash of colors.

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

The service was formal and sober in tone – typically Lutheran. The Bach cantata added lively spirit.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There were two sermons: 5 and 10 minutes respectively.

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

8 — The Catholic dean of Frankfurt preached the first sermon. Each sentence was so dense with content that I could not write quickly enough to get down all of the particulars. He is a remarkably outspoken Catholic leader. At the moment, there is a controversy regarding Ansgar Wucherpfennig, who had been the rector of a Jesuit philosophical-theological college in Frankfurt. The Vatican has withdrawn its permission for him to remain rector because he stated that the Catholic position on homosexuality is not supported by biblical scholarship and that homosexual partners should have access to God’s blessing. This controversy was the background to the first sermon. The Protestant dean preached the second sermon, which to a degree expanded upon the points made in the first sermon but with less density of expression.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

(First sermon) It has been demanded from a Catholic theological professor that he adhere rigorously to Catholic teaching, speaking dogma like a parrot. This demand does not permit intelligent questions to be asked; however, they are necessary if one is to incorporate faith into one’s being and in order to develop a mature, adult theology. Demanding uncritical conformity does not represent true Catholicism and does not express the freedom in Christ proclaimed by the apostle Paul. (Second sermon) There are many types of freedom in a democratic society, for which people fought and for which we can be grateful. Freedom is also endangered in various ways: populist authoritarians, lack of money, bullying, traumatic experiences. Freedom in Christ was expressed by Luther: ‘A Christian is a free lord of all, subject to no one. A Christian is a servant of all, subject to everyone.’ This definition of freedom allows us to say ‘no’ to overburdening and to say ‘yes’ to faithful service. Trust in God is the basis of all freedom.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Bach cantata Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke expresses a cheerful faith in Christ that enables a Christian to be satisfied in any circumstances, regardless of how humble. The cantata conveyed the message that God does not owe us anything; we are not worthy of whatever he grants us. Through his grace we have eternal life, so that all will end well; this everlasting assurance is a source of delight. Through the music of Bach this contentment in Christ came alive and was heart-warming.

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

I am sure that there are artistic people who appreciate the altar area, but it strikes me as grim and depressing. The pulpit looks as though it were made of concrete; the altar is made of black marble, which looked cold. Behind the altar is an austere bronze wall with ascetic depictions of Jesus teaching and praying. The cloth hanging on the pulpit looks as though it were created by a computer grinding out arrangements of dots. Whoever created this ensemble seemed to be saying, ‘In a church you are not supposed to feel warm and comfortable!’

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

It would have been pointless to hang around at the back – people were streaming out of the church, wanting to get back to homes that were not in the immediate neighborhood.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee.

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

7 — The concerts and the Bach cantatas offered in this church are high quality; the faithful support of homeless people is impressive; the organ and its balcony with the pietistic paintings look attractive – but the altar area dampens my spirit.

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

As a Lutheran, I have experienced and endured a multitude of services celebrating the Reformation; in this service an outspoken Roman Catholic delivered the most genuine Reformation sermon I have perhaps ever heard, which makes me glad to be a Christian.

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

After the service I visited the outdoor café on the 7th floor of a nearby department store to take a photo for this report. St Catherine’s, lit up at night with floodlights, surrounded by the bright lights of street lamps, store windows, office buildings and skyscrapers, is a splendid sight, looking like a fortress of faith in a scene dominated by finance and commerce.

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