The Last of the Monks
Germany’s Vanishing Monasteries
Religious orders in Germany are disappearing because so few people want to dedicate their entire lives to God anymore. Some monasteries and convents find novel ways to make money and survive, but even their days are numbered.
By Felix Bohr
September 19, 2019
The clanging of dishes echoes through the refectory, the abbey’s dining area. Monks sit at long wooden tables, silently spooning up their bouillon-and-pancake soup. There is entertainment on offer for the evening meal: One of their fellow monks is reading aloud a book about the first Christians in antique Rome. Back then, they were a sect that lived in small communities, on the edge of society.
The walls of the dimly lit refectory are decorated with painted Bible scenes. The floor is adorned with mosaics. Most of the tables in the space, which is as big as a gymnasium, are unoccupied. In the monks’ neighboring living quarters, the so-called cloister, entire floors are deserted. Many rooms are empty or used as storage spaces. In many cases, their inhabitants died long ago.
There was a time when as many as 300 monks lived here, in the Archabbey of the Benedictines in Beuron, in the southwestern corner of Germany. But that was 90 years ago. Now, that number has shrunk to 39 — and is likely to continue to fall. The monks’ average age is 68. The oldest is 91. Archabbott Tutilo Burger, who has headed the abbey since 2011, has no illusions. “We’ll be around for another 30 years,” says the 53-year-old.
Around 1960, there were still about 110,000 nuns and monks in Germany. Twenty years ago, there were 38,348. Now, there are about 17,900.
Work, Pray, Live
German society is moving away from spirituality, from religion, and especially from the church. This development is felt particularly strongly among religious orders. They are dying out. Everywhere, monasteries and convents are disappearing.
The German Conference of Superiors of Religious Orders (DOK), an association of Catholic congregations, has adopted a novel strategy to try and keep live-in religious communities from dying out: As of recently, women and men of any age can “live, pray, work and learn” in a monastery for three to 12 months as part of a “voluntary year,” as its home page says.
The participants don’t commit to anything. “One can leave at any time,” says Sister Maria Stadler, who organizes the program. She says it is all about making people more familiar with monastic life and all its spiritual aspects. “The day is permeated with prayer. This can provide stability,” says the nun. But there are risks, she adds. Applicants should have a “certain psychological stability.” Far from all activity, she says, one becomes very introspective. There is a lot of time to think. Too much time?
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