An eternal learner and optimist

The "rocking" Benedictine: On the death of Notker Wolf

Sankt Ottilien - Notker Wolf never retired. He continued to write books, made a podcast and even learnt Arabic during lockdown. Death struck the polyglot and well-travelled Benedictine on the road. A portrait.

Published  on 03.04.2024 at 12:56  – by Barbara Just (KNA)

"Life is and remains a risk", Notker Wolf was aware of this. He tackled problems with trust in God, travelled to distant countries and never let them get him down. "Smile at life. And yet don't take it too lightly," was his recommendation. Now the long-serving Benedictine abbot primate (2000-2016) has died unexpectedly at the age of 83 - while travelling back from Italy to his home monastery of Sankt Ottilien in Upper Bavaria.

He was repeatedly asked the question: "Why do you look so happy?" He was a friend of clear words, he once confessed, and loved to put things in a nutshell. And some of the things you encounter every day can only be endured with humour. But discipline is also part of it. Wolf revealed to the Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur (KNA) that he regularly does morning exercises. At five o'clock in the morning, he stretches for a few minutes. Not because he feels an "irrepressible desire" to do so. But "this bit of exercise helps me through the whole day, I feel better and am in a better mood".

Performance in Deep Purple's support band

Music also kept him fit. He enjoyed playing the flute and sometimes the electric guitar. With "Feed-Back", a formation of former pupils of the Ordensgymnasium in Sankt Ottilien, he had legendary performances, once even opening for Deep Purple. The monk had no fear of contact.

The son of a tailor, Werner Wolf was born in Bad Grönenbach in the Allgäu region in 1940. The family were good Catholics, but not overly devout. The boy was an altar boy, but he had his awakening experience in the attic, as Heidemarie Winter's biography of him says. There, the secondary school pupil found a mission booklet. The reports awakened his longing for freedom.

View of the Archabbey of St Ottilien.
Bild: ©fix2web/

The Archabbey of St Ottilien.

His health was not good as a small child. When he fell ill with rickets, the doctor told his mother that she could "write off" her son. With the help of the local priest, the good pupil nevertheless made it to the Missionary Benedictine grammar school in Sankt Ottilien. After graduating in 1961, he joined the order. When he took on a new name, a confrere commented: "For God's sake, the fifth Notker already." Four candidates had previously left the archabbey.

He completed his studies in philosophy at the Pontifical College of Sant'Anselmo in Rome and enrolled in theology and natural sciences in Munich. He was ordained a priest in 1968. Two years later, Wolf taught natural philosophy at Sant'Anselmo, followed by a doctorate with a thesis on the Stoa's cyclical model of the world. When a new archabbot was sought in Ottilien in 1977, the 37-year-old young man was chosen. It was important to him to overcome the traditionally harsh drill and surveillance in order to create a monastery free of fear. The freedom and dignity of the individual should be respected.

300,000 kilometres around the world every year

Wolf said of himself that he made decisions when he had to. When, after 23 years in Ottilien, he moved to Rome to head the Benedictine order, he did the same. Every year, he travelled 300,000 kilometres around the world to visit fellow monks. He even travelled to North Korea and China. He managed to set up hospitals in both countries. Strange food was sometimes served to him, including meat from dogs and snakes. "They can be terribly tough."

Wolf spoke several languages fluently, most recently even learning Arabic during lockdown. He was often invited to give lectures and talks. He saw the synodal path taken by the Catholic Church in Germany as the right one: "In my opinion, a process like this should be going on all the time." Even St Benedict recommended to his confreres: "Do nothing without advice, then you need not regret anything afterwards." Above all, the younger ones should be listened to.

by Barbara Just (KNA)