return to Body Theology

Priest Herbalists

A brief introduction to the subject is provided here; for the full story, please visit: Major European Herbs

For about 150 years (ca. 1850-2000), several Catholic priests in central Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria) were involved in a "back to nature" approach and herbal prescribing. Three of them became particularly well-known and have left a legacy of natural health care methods appreciated by many today.

Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) of Bavaria, is recognized as one of the leading contributors to the modern field of natural healing. He advocated exposure to nature: sunlight, baths, fresh air, dips in cold water, eating natural foods, and having a positive mental attitude, as a means of recovering health, and this is an origin of the "spa" movement in central Europe that remains vibrant today. He became convinced of the efficacy of natural healing methods when, at the age of about 21, he suffered from tuberculosis and cured himself, relying especially on the cold water method that he had found described in a small book by a country doctor that was in King's library in Munich. After becoming a priest, he began making recommendations for sick parishioners. [see the Catholic Encyclopedia for more information about Sebastian Kneipp:]

Father Johann Künzle (1857-1945) of Switzerland had learned from Kneipp as well as from other priest-herbalists (such as Father Ludwig, mentioned in his autobiography) and his work stimulated considerable interest in herbalism in Europe during the first half of the 20th Century. His work has led to production of herb formulas used in many countries.

Künzle wrote a small book, Chrut und Uchrut (Herbs and Weeds) that was published in 1911 (and reprinted with additions until 1975). It captured the essence of the culture of natural living and natural healing that was still alive, but struggling. Eventually, more than a million copies of the book were printed in the German language, distributed mainly in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and followed up with translations distributed to several other countries in Europe. Künzle had been first exposed to the medicinal properties of herbs during his high school years by a professor who was a Catholic priest. Künzle's then attended the University of Lowen where he studied theology and philosophy, and entered the seminary at St. Gall, Switzerland. He was ordained a priest in 1881. Künzle pursued herbalism in response to his experience of being a spiritual advisor to parents who were dying and about to leave behind young children. He would sometimes restore the health of his wards by administering or recommending teas, herbal baths, and other preparations. Eventually, his work as herbalist took over his daily life and he devoted himself almost solely to this task, though never leaving behind his devotion to the Catholic faith.

He described his experiences in the introduction to Chrut and Uchrut:

A spiritual adviser, I often had to visit sick fathers and mothers who according to the reports of the local physicians, were dying, leaving behind their little children. In such cases, I gathered up all my knowledge of herbs and was often able to get them back on their feet again. Among others, I was thus able to help a poor Protestant who had been lying in his bed for two years, painfully afflicted with gout and swollen limbs. 'You must get this man out of bed again,' I told myself, and accomplished it after four weeks. Now people said, 'The parson can almost work miracles. He helps disregarding even the difference of faith!' Every evening, groups of working men and women came to me and implored me to help them and I did what I could. When someone reported me to the bishop, who at first did not want to hear anything about my doctoring activity, I sent some of the cured to him to tell the story. This satisfied the bishop, who then gave me permission to continue with my therapy.

He recommended the use of herbs to prevent an ailment from progressing to a stage so serious that the new medical treatments were needed; to treat persons who were not able to get to a doctor due to their remote location; and to try, sometimes successfully, to treat people who failed to respond to the available modern medical therapies. In a Swiss newspaper, this appraisal of him was published:

The priest Johann Künzle set an example of unaffected and direct naturalness for the whole church and the whole Swiss people which perhaps hasn't existed since Francis of Assisi. Caring for neither popularity nor offence, throughout his whole life he exhibited the direct frankness and honesty on which the Kingdom of Heaven could have been built and by which all stupidity and evil on this earth could have been vanquished. He always loved the people, the simplest and the most modest, and every mountain peasant meant as much to him as a cardinal. His egalitarian beliefs were carried out in actions as he was quite capable of saying what he thought in the presence of the Eminence. The Protestant was as near to him as his co-religionist. For him, faith and honesty were healing herbs for human society and he didn't care in which meadow they were found. All this was his nature, his high morality of character. And to that, I take my hat off!

The work of both Kneipp and Künzle influenced the Austrian Hermann-Josef Weidinger (1918-2004), better known as Herbal Priest Weidinger. He had studied European herbalism in his youth and traveled to China as a missionary in 1938, where he learned also of their herbal system; he returned from China in 1953 and soon after entered the Premonstratensian Monastery of Geras. He continued his work as an herbalist and proponent of healthy lifestyle, writing some 40 books on natural health care. Until recently, he and 37 assistants prepared and prescribed herbal remedies in Karlstein, Austria, at the Paracelsus House Nature Cure Center. Weidinger had collaborated with the Austrian artist Adolf Blaim (1942-2004), who had contributed to the restoration of the convent of Altenburg. Blaim painted more than a thousand pictures for Weidinger as illustrations for his books as well as for use by Vereins der Freunde der Heilkräuter (Friends of Medicinal Herbs Association) that was headed by Weidinger after the death of the priest herbalist Karl Rau in 1979; the association has a membership of 30,000.