The Work of Schönstatt

Michael Johannes Marmann


The author of this article is the Superior General of the Schönstatt Fathers and at the same time Moderator of the Presiding Council of the entire Schönstatt Movement. He outlines significant aspects of this ecclesial Movement which was born at the beginning of the twentieth century with a strong prophetic spirit, and which is still very relevant.


Schönstatt is the oldest of the Movements. Its beginnings go back to 1912. When the First World War broke out in 1914 it had already become a work which only today, in the context of the new Movements, can be understood and classified adequately as a new influx of life. Things were very different then, before the Council, and therefore very difficult to understand according to modern parameters. However, Fr. Kentenich forecast many subsequent developments and worked to build his foundation in preparation for them. Many statements made by Popes in recent times are to be found in prophetic texts from Kentenich which go back to the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.

In a lifetime of misunderstanding, Kentenich once declared: no one ever really understood me. He often spoke of his lot, of the destiny of the prophets. Against this background, his three and a half years in Dachau concentration camp and the fourteen years he was separated from his foundation is emblematic of this destiny. The latter of these was requested by the Church authority and accepted by him with faith and in obedience.

It was from his hands as an educator that a work or better still a full-grown organism was born that spread all over the world. At the moment it is present in over 80 countries and embraces 20 new communities, among which is the Institute of the Sisters of Mary, various branches for priests and a good number of groups of women, men, young people and above all a movement for families which is growing all the time. Everything that had proven valid in the history of the Church would find its right of citizenship in this foundation of immense dimensions.

The Focolare Movement is
Opus Mariae, the Work of Mary. Fr. Kentenich very early defined the Schönstatt Movement as a Work and Instrument in the hands of Mary. In 1935, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, he said that all his work was due to the Mother of the Lord.

Through his foundation he wanted to show for the future of the Church just how much Mary can do for the world. Mary, the servant of the Lord knew how to lose and offer much, indeed everything, in order to win many, to win all. Here, I present Schönstatt, especially in the context of the theme of this Congress: evangelization.

Schönstatt was born through working with young people. In the minor seminary of the Pallotine Fathers of Vallendar along the Reno river, not far from Koblenz, the spiritual director, Fr. Joseph Kentenich, educated young people in a spirit of initiative and autonomy. Among other things he founded a missionary association to achieve this. He wanted to nurture and direct the missionary zeal of those who were entrusted to him, towards a concrete goal. These were all young people who wanted to become priests and presumably missionaries in the African Cameroon. This is why the Schönstatt programme has been linked with evangelization from the beginning. The founder of Schönstatt was, however, very much aware that this could be realized only through an adequate formation especially since they, like him, were faced with the upheaval which characterised that era.

So Schönstatt was an apostolic Movement from the very beginning, indeed, a Movement of educators and education. An important talk, the so-called foundation document, helps us understand the extent to which the young members wanted to be formed as instruments of God and instruments of Mary, who has always been seen in the dynamic role as educator and in a missionary prospective. As Pope Paul VI said later, and as the present Pope continues to emphasise, also recently again in the apostolic letter,
Novo millennio ineunte: for Schönstatt Mary has always been the “star of the new evangelization”.

The Mother of God is the true founder of Schönstatt . What Fr. Kentenich achieved as educator, father and founder, was always carried out in profound union with her, as her docile instrument, in a very profound union. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the act of founding, which took place through Fr. Kentenich, is in reality the action of Mary. She consented to make her home in that little chapel [the Schönstatt sanctuary], uniting her intercession with that place and making it a point of departure for her action, drawing people to herself to educate them and send them out on mission as authentic instruments.

As a result an essential element of the Schönstatt spirituality (throughout history the only one born in Germany) consists in what the founder called – even in the difficult situation in the concentration camp in Dachau – “the piety of the instrument”. This is a spirituality in which the human person, the individual in community – a person formed in a mature community – grows at the same pace as their commitment to the evangelical renewal of the Church in the world.

In this second point we reflect on the originality of the apostolate, as it is understood by Schönstatt : it gives a central place, as I have already mentioned, to people who are formed and inserted in a profound communion. It is clear that mature Christians can have a great apostolic influence by the way they live, by their ‘good example’, as we used to say in the past. Fr. Kentenich understood very early that, in our society where the mass phenomenon is growing, an individual can be a missionary cell only if they are mature and formed, and united to a community in the most perfect unity possible. Otherwise our action will not enjoy enduring results.

For this reason the finality of the charism of Schönstatt as a movement for education is evengelization. It is here perhaps that the Schönstatt Movement differs from other movements – one doesn’t focus on the merely religious or Christian dimension but we always aim at linking the development of our gifts and natural talents with the action of grace. So we focus on how earthly-natural-human realities are linked to the divine. Likewise, this little chapel [the sanctuary of Schönstatt ] – to which Mary is united and which, through her covenant with people, becomes a point of departure to form suitable instruments – has become a place of mission, a Cenacle.

The apostolate of human beings has an historical dimension. The way that things developed in Schönstatt has had a strong influence on the form its evangelization has taken. This has had much to do with the spirituality of faith in divine providence. The God of life indicates open doors to us. He helps us understand where we should commit ourselves concretely. Those who are linked with Schönstatt through the covenant of love with Mary, look with great openness at their own time and through the events and transformations taking place, they are enabled to recognise the voice of God. In this way they are open to be continually inspired, in their apostolic commitments, by God himself. Though not subject to time, the Gospel must be translated and proclaimed in every age, and that is possible through real and living contact with the events of one’s own time in which the God of life and history acts.

I would also like to underline two other characteristics. It wasn’t that Fr. Kentenich had an idea and created an organisation, but rather he wanted to be at the service of life. And so he focussed on experiences in the concrete reality of the foundation. So an organism was born, in which the members developed in close links to persons, places and ideas. This organism today too has an apostolic irradiation. If you want to understand what Schönstatt is, or for what Schönstatt wants to be, you have to look beyond written or spoken words and see the life as it is lived. Mary is like the soul of this organism: we promote a Marian church by trying ourselves to be this church ourselves.

And the second point I want to mention here is our relationship with the Church. Fr Kentenich, as architect of his Work embedded the Movement in the Church in various ways and with different levels of commitment of the members. So much so that the individual groups in parishes where they live and work are called to consider themselves as an organ, as an instrument in the hands of the parish pastor. I underline this aspect in a particular way here, before so many priests. In conformity with the missionary ethos of the founder, they are ready to respond generously to the requests and invitations of the parish pastor to whom is entrusted the apostolate of the parish.

What is the message that Schönstatt brings as its characteristic perspective in the proclamation of the Gospel? I would like to name three aspects. The first is covenant. Schönstatt underlines the whole reality of covenant in the Old and the New Testaments before everything else. God is the God of the Covenant, the merciful Father, who cares for his children. This corresponds to the primary content of evangelization which the Holy Father – as Chiara has reminded us – pointed out when he said: “Man is loved by God”. The covenant of love with Mary is the beginning: Mary brings us eminently to Christ, who is the face of the Father turned towards us. The ‘cross of unity’ is a symbol of this, which represents the Good Shepherd who offers his life together with Mary to God the Father. Mary, with the active role she had in the plan of salvation, is always the companion and help of Christ in every time, in every place, in every expression of life. A second element – as I have already said – is faith in the plan of divine providence, the God of life. We are convinced that God intervenes, he indicates missionary directions to us, but he also guides and accompanies us. With the passage of time, through the reality of our life and the inspirations of our soul we become apostles who find open doors to enter (like Paul before he visited Europe), through which God himself brings us into contact with people.

Finally, the image of God which Schönstatt underlines. United with Mary, we see and experience God as very close and personal to us. He is truly Father, who cares for his children – as the Lord affirms in the Sermon on the Mount. He has traced the plan of my life according to his wisdom and love, he provides for everything with love, even the dark and painful moments of my destiny, and realises everything with love.

These always consist of a double reality. On the one hand, they are a place of grace, that is, a sanctuary where God and the Mother of God act and, on the other hand, they are a place of education, a house of retreat for the Movement, where the human instruments work. These houses are very important to us as they offer a home to people. We are convinced that in order to proclaim our faith, for every effort in evangelisation, it is necessary to have a place, a place where we feel linked together, where we feel at home, where we are happy like the apostles on Tabor, but also a place from which we are sent out again like the apostles from the Cenacle. For this reason we speak of the grace of having a home, given to us by our Mother and Educator. Another gift of the sanctuary is the grace of interior transformation, which forms and transforms people into authentic mature Christians. After all I have said it’s possible to understand the meaning of this second grace linked to our chapels, our sanctuaries. There is a special grace there, which Fr. Kentenich, from his concrete experience as founder, called the grace of apostolic fruitfulness. Practically speaking this means something like the success of our missionary efforts, a gift which is particularly promising, given the present situation of the disintegration of the Church in Europe.

God acts. Fr. Kentenich speaks of the irruption of divine power. But people must also act – as partners in covenant with God. In our covenant spirituality we say: nothing without you, God; nothing without us. Everyone is a missionary, even the sick and the old who are unable to move. By offering prayer and sacrifice they participate in the apostolic work of the whole movement, working with Mary. Using a phrase that might easily be misunderstood, but which is very popular among us we speak of “a contribution to the capital of grace”. Everyone works together so that a river of grace will flow from the sanctuary.

Fr. Kentenich (1885-1968), let himself be guided during his long life. He didn’t have an
a priori defined plan. The mission and responsibility that God had entrusted to him had to develop over time and in history. He always recognised the dependence of his foundation on Mary, as an instrument in the hands of Mary, the Mother Thrice Admirable. He saw it as the fulfilment of the mission that She had entrusted to him. Mary, with her way of thinking, her attitude and her potentialities must give her yes again today. In this age of crisis we need to think again and make a new beginning, at every level and in every environment. For this reason Schönstatt evangelises as a whole, as a Movement of ideas, of life and of grace.

Fr. Kentenich became very aware of many principles which have universal value and concrete relevance. One of the most important was: “the greatest possible freedom – bind oneself only as far as it is necessary – with the most greatest degree of spiritual formation.” To reach the greatest freedom by linking oneself voluntarily with places, persons and ideas, demands a lot of sensitivity. It is necessary to work as a movement at creating “atmosphere”. It also involves knowing how to motivate (formation of the spirit). Only in this way can a living organism take shape as a community with many branches, which does not have a central authority and where the members are linked at most through a contract.

In each country the Movement needs the inspiration of a central group of animators, the so called “centres”. These groups are made up of members of the institute and of the federative communities, that prepare them for the various commitments and assist in carrying them out. The commitment of the internal staff for formation is linked, according to a creative polarity, with the needs of the apostolate on the ground as it is developed and called for by Bishops (and parish pastors) (see 2nd point above). Naturally, a fruitful polarity derives from this with Catholic Action in its different expressions in the universal Church. Fr. Kentenich saw three ways in which this polarity could be realised. Depending on the situation, the members of the Movement could act within Catholic Action, or, in a relationship of reciprocal communion alongside Catholic Action, or, in its place - where Catholic Action doesn’t exist.

One of the most important principles of life is the so called principle of polarity. Our founder derived this from his vision of the God’s government of the world. According to this principle, Fr. Kentenich wanted communities and institutions to develop in a reciprocal proximity that would be charged with energy. Schönstatt can continue to be living and creative only if this occurs.

The Movement cannot exist and bear fruit, if it is not God who “does everything”. In their striving towards sanctity and the adventure of faith both the individual members and the community experience the providential power of the living God who strengthens and sustains them. If on the one hand God goes in search of the human person and needs their co-operation as a free partner; on the other hand He guides and fills each one with his gifts. This abandonment to God and to his loving guidance is concretised in the places around which the Movement gathers: the Sanctuaries, which are therefore Schönstatt’s distinctive characteristic.

To conclude I would like to speak of an action, which has given great joy everywhere and which has spread widely: the so called “Pilgrim Madonna”. Joāo Pozzobom, father of seven children in Sancta Maria in the south of Brazil, felt impelled and called, in 1950. to bring the image of the Madonna into people’s houses. From this was born a movement which at present involves more than two million people in various countries and continents. This is its significance: Mary, Mother and Educator of individuals and families, visits the homes and meets the people who gather there, with their social and religious problems, and awakens in them a new openness to the will of God. It works very simply: someone takes responsibility for bringing the image of the Madonna to 15 or 30 houses, so that it’s brought to a different house each day or second day. And this is repeated month by month. Mary is shown to all and as a result she brings people to Christ and also, in a new way, to one another. A glimpse of the birth of a Marian Church which is being growing from below.

This missionary initiative adapts in different ways to the various places and links with the way of life, the habits and the customs of the individual cultures. In this way a basic educative principle is stressed: it’s a question of linking nature and grace, of reaching a polar and yet harmonious relationship between natural, cultural and family conditions and the action of grace in the covenant of love with Mary, who brings us in Christ to experience God the Father, full of love, who wants to make us instruments of his plans. Schönstatt ’s difficult but ever new task is to help the Church take on a Marian face. This involves giving primacy to being over action, to life and service over every form of power, to mercy over judgement, and to love over everything else. All of this is part of the reality of the Church of the future so that the Church will become the place of Mary’s fiat, of her Magnificat, of her
stabat under the cross and of the Pentecost event.