I’m alone on the bluff above the magnificent Fulda Cathedral. I’m no ghoul – at least, I don’t think I am. But I can’t take my eyes off of the large slab of gray slate that’s bolted to the sandstone blocks of Saint Michael’s chapel. It’s quite the experience. Rows upon rows of skulls are carved in stone – large skulls, small skulls, adolescent, child and infant. The skulls are carved in relief, with such gentle detail that I think that I can distinguish between male and female. On the far right, a stylized angel/monk points heavenward. Saint Michael’s is the oldest Holy Sepulcher church in Germany—and dates back an incredible 1200 years.
I’d spent the morning thirty minutes to the south, in the “Salmuenster half” of the spa town of Bad-Soden Salmuenster, a smallish town of 15,000 permanent residents. It’s Blutsonntag—Blood Sunday. I was early, but Saint Peter and Paul church volunteer Johanna Korn had already been there for hours, tracing a design in fresh blossoms on the cobblestone stair front, a calling she’d inherited as a young girl. “All the flowers are donated from neighbors’ gardens,” says Korn, with a bright smile. The floral designs are dictated by the resident priest, and incorporate crosses and hearts – lovingly crafted in red, white and pink roses on a bed of fresh cut grass. The letters I.H.S. are picked out in red: Ieusus Hominum Salvator—Jesus, Savior of Men.
The Saint Peter and Paul church sponsors four formal religious processions each year – two are shared by every other catholic community large enough to support processions: Christi Himmelsfahrt Ascension Day, and Fronleichnam, celebrating the joy of the Eucharist. The other two, today’s Blutsonntag procession, and a two-day pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Rengersbrunn, in September, are unique to Salmuenster and, like the events commemorated on the Saint Michael’s Chapel slate, date back to successive epidemics of the Black Plague.
The faithful assemble and Pfarrer Dr. Michael Mueller conducts a special mass inside the magnificently restored baroque church. I choose not to intrude on their worship service, but can hear the organ music, and smell the heavy – almost cloying incense. Vans and fire trucks and uniformed officers from the town’s volunteer fire department begin to block off key traffic control points, and maroon-jacketed members of the town’s brass band musikverein assemble in the church square. The mass ends – and over one hundred parishioners, carrying blue, yellow and white banners, crosses and candles—exit church through left and right side doors – reserving the enormous center portals for the priest. The main door opens – and Dr. Mueller appears under a brocade canopy supported by six church faithful, carrying a solid gold monstrance. He blesses the crowd, leads them in the initial hymn, little girls begin spreading petals from their little baskets of flowers, and the procession marches off, tracing the same penitential route they’ve followed since 1555.
I’d never witnessed this particular observance before, but I’ve been close. Last year in November, I stopped in Venice and was visited with the Plague. Not the active virus, but the memories – memories so entrenched in the psyche of la Serenissima, that thankful survivors erected whole cathedrals each grander than its predecessor, and pledged annual celebrations in memory of the divine intervention which saved their world from pestilence and famine.
It wasn’t just Venice. In as many languages as there were kingdoms, duchies and city-states, stricken penitents begged for deliverance. “Save us miserable sinners dear Lord – and we will build a magnificent Cathedral to your eternal glory,” they pleaded, heart broken but still hopeful. “Save us miserable sinners Holy Mother of God – and the entire town will march in procession every year to Marian shrines. Save us miserable sinners and we will hold masses of thanksgiving every year until the end of time.” And to this day, throughout Europe, from the Doudou Ducasse de Mons in Belgium to the Saint Roche processions in Croatia and all parts in between, successive generations of plague survivors remember the desperate dark days.