Encountering the Fourth Pillar of the ITI. Annual Pilgrimage to Stift Heiligenkreuz

Stift Heiligenkreuz, or the Abbey of the Holy Cross, is the oldest continuously-occupied Cistercian monastery in the world, having been founded in 1133 by St Leopold III of Austria. It is also home to the largest relic of the True Cross in Europe, north of the Alps. For centuries, the Abbey has been a spiritual center in the region, and the ITI is greatly privileged to be close to Heiligenkreuz - both in proximity and in relationship. Trumau, including its Schloss or castle where the International Theological Institute has been situated since 2009, was established in 1139 by Heiligenkreuz, and the parish church of Trumau has been run by monks from the Abbey since.

It has been an ITI tradition since its Gaming days to take an annual pilgrimage at the start of the academic year. Originally, the pilgrimage was to Mariazell, but since moving to Trumau in 2009, ITI students have been making a pilgrimage every year to Heiligenkreuz for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September. This year was no exception, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and regulations. A small group of students who had returned for the new semester, scheduled to start in October instead of the usual September, walked the 24km route through the fields and vineyards of the Lower Austrian countryside on 14 September, the feast of the Holy Cross.

When more students returned for the new semester, it seemed as if a pilgrimage to Heiligenkreuz was off the table, since the feast had already passed and there were just too many uncertainties with the regulations. Divine inspiration struck the ITI Chaplain, Fr Juraj Terek, and he decided that it would be fitting for there to be a pilgrimage to Heiligenkreuz nevertheless, especially since it had become such an integral part of the start of the year for students old and new. The pilgrimage had always been an opportunity for new students to meet the old, for stories to be told, for songs to be sung, and for all to encounter the fourth pillar of the ITI: a rich Catholic community that lives and prays together in the same place and its close vicinity.

So off they set, early in the morning of Sunday 4 October, in far cooler weather than what the seasoned pilgrims were used to. With spirits high, the ITI family - including some faculty, staff, and their children - prayerfully walked out of Trumau through the fields. At the traditional first checkpoint on a bridge in Traiskirchen, Fr Martin Mayerhofer, the assistant chaplain and professor, proclaimed the Sunday Gospel so that all would have it in mind for the rest of the pilgrimage. The pilgrims continued on their way, praying the rosary as they went.

The long walk started to take its toll as the group slowly spread out along the path, but Dr. Andrei Gotia faithfully held the backline, making sure no man, woman, or child, was left behind. Eventually, respite came for the pilgrims in the form of Heuriger benches at the start of the Genussmeile just off Pfaffstätten, where everyone enjoyed a short break and some snacks. The next leg of the journey was an experience of the beauty of the Lower Austrian wine region, as the pilgrims walked through vineyards and fields, making friends and singing songs. They eventually stopped for lunch at the Theresienwarte off Baden, with many ascending the 210m tower for a spectacular view of the Baden region, and a well-deserved meal and rest.

The final leg of the journey brought the pilgrims through a forest for what felt like hours, but they persevered and eventually made it through to the other side, where a beautiful field awaited them for a short break before they pressed on towards Heiligenkreuz for Mass. Upon arriving at Heiligenkreuz, Fr. Liju Porathur celebrated Mass for the pilgrims in the Kreuzkirche, and P. Stephan Neulinger from the Abbey blessed the pilgrims with the relic of the True Cross. Thanks to a delay with the bus, the tired but happy pilgrims were able to visit the Abbey restaurant and sample some of the monastic beers, before returning to Trumau, where they were treated to some soul-warming chili con carne, courtesy of Angela Neumann and her minions.

Gabriel Innerst, a first-year student in the Bachelor of Catholic Liberal Arts program recounted, "The chance to move around the group and get to know new people was great, and it really helped me to feel like a part of the community." Kailey Fischer, a student of the Master of Marriage and Family program and third-time pilgrim, reflected, "I always appreciate the symbolism of making this pilgrimage together as a school at the beginning of the school year. It is a lighthearted, joy-filled experience, and yet somehow carries the weight of walking into the unknown of whatever this year will bring. To meet the new students, reconnect with returning students, and consecrate our entire year to Our Lady is always blessed."

“Blessed” is indeed a fitting way to describe the pilgrimage, and trusting in God's providence, a fitting way to describe the new academic year as well.