The Oberammergau Passion Play

Nestled among a collection of Bishop Grimes’ sermons, in a folder labeled ‘Varia’ is the first in a number of items he collected, relating to the Oberammergau Passion Play.

As a result of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), poverty and disease was widespread in central Europe and thousands died as a result of the plague.  In the small village of Oberammergau, near the Austrian border, there were 80 deaths. During this time of suffering the citizens of Oberammergau made a sacred pledge that every 10 years they would perform a “Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ” if God would protect them from the plague. Legend has it that after the vow was made, there was not even one further case of Plague in the village and those town members that already were afflicted recovered.

The first performance was during Pentecost in 1634 and every 10 years since, the villagers of Oberammergau have continued to honour their pledge (with the exception of 1940 when the play was cancelled due to World War II).

This tradition has continued over the centuries with only residents of Oberammergau permitted to take part. The participants devote a year of their lives to re-enact the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

All of the people taking part in the Passion play or as it is known in German “Passionsspiel” are ordinary people. All the main speaking parts have always been filled by actors who were born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years.

In 1890 Bishop JJ Grimes SM attended the Oberammergau Passion Play. On Tuesday 12 September 1893, +Grimes gave a public lecture at the Tuam Street Hall, the proceeds of which went to the Mount Magdala Institute. His lecture was illustrated with Lantern Slides of the Passion Play, with musical accompaniment by a select choir and orchestra.

Bishop Grimes began his talk confessing ‘that he went to Oberammergau, not with a certain misgiving or apprehension that it was not quite the right thig to go. It seemed a sort of sacrilegious irreverence for an ordinary human being to personate the Saviour, above all to personate him on the stage’.

But his ‘fears and prejudices’ were dispelled from the first scene.

The spirit of reverence animated all the performances, and made an indelible mark on the mind of Bishop Grimes.

“Never had I been more profoundly impressed and when I left that huge though simple theatre, I felt that the history of Our Lord’s Passion had been stamped on my mind in a series of vivid pictures which could not easily be effaced.”

Bishop Grimes’ lecture provided listeners in Christchurch vivid details of the Oberammergau hinterland, the history of the Passion Play, and with wonderful attention to detail, he described the various tableaux and scenes of the play. He praised the main actor Joseph Mair, saying ‘it were impossible to portray the majestic air and solemn reverence with which the chief part in all these incidents was enacted by [him].’

Bishop Grimes sat for eight hours, with the audience of five thousand persons, spellbound at the deep religiousness of the Passion Play’s performance.  Indeed he described the hours spent in the open-air theatre at Oberammergau as the brightest of his life. 

The Press reporting on his lecture in Christchurch described the occasion ‘as if privilege of actually witnessing the stirring events of the play had been granted’ to his audience.

The Oberammergau Passion Play continues to be held every ten years with the next performance to be held in May through to October 2020.


Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives [Archives Reference: 2017.16 Collection of Bishop Grimes’ Sermons and Lectures]


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