An abbot has lamented that “today there are too many monasteries in Switzerland”, and that “in the next 10 years, several of these monasteries will need to close”.

– An almost 50% drop in monks in 16 years

Abbot Urban Federer of the famous Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz, was speaking in an interview with Swiss Church website

“We have been here for 1426 years, and from its beginnings our monastery has been a place of pilgrimage and welcome”, Federer said, praising the tourist and pilgrim drawcard that is the Einsiedeln monastery’s famous Black Madonna.

But times are tough also for the Benedictine religious house, which has experienced a decline among its members from 85 – between ordained monks, brothers and novices in 2004 – to 47 today.

“We are no longer enough to carry out all the work”, Federer lamented, explaining that for that reason “we employ around 200 peeople in our various activities”, which range from the welcome of pilgrims and visitors to various workshops to a school.

– “Up to the 20th century, Catholic families were numerous… this context has disappeared now”

Though Einsiedeln Abbey receives public funding, and Federer is therefore not overly worried about the monastery’s financial future, the abbot did acknowledge the challenges presented by the lack of new vocations.

“Today there are too many monasteries in Switzerland. In the next 10 years, several of these monasteries will need to close”, Federer warned, adding that “this development is caused especially by social change”.

“Up to the beginning of the 20th century, Catholic families were numerous.

“Among the children, one of the boys traditionally became a priest or a monk; one of the girls traditionally became a nun.

“This cultural context has disappeared now”, the abbot lamented.

– The challenge: “How can we meet the expectations of visitors of our time?”

“But it doesn’t matter”, Federer continued, resigned to the dearth of young people interested in joing the priesthood or the religious life all around the world.

“We have to adapt and find new ways to live our monastic vocations in our time…”, the abbot admitted.

That search for “new ways” to live out the Benedictine calling begins in attending to the people who pass by Einsiedeln and to their needs, he added.

“The kind of visitors we receive in the monastery has changed significantly over the last few decades”, Federer explained.

“No longer do many of our guests join us in the morning to participate in Mass as they did in the past.

They head up to Einsiedeln rather in the course of the afternoon, to escape the fog on the plain.

“Once they arrive, they visit the abbey. They enter the church, and take a moment to light a candle. And then what do they do? We don’t really know…

“How can we meet the expectations of visitors of our time?”, the abbot asked.

– The answer: learning to “live with oneself”

The goal, according to Abbot Federer, is for the Einsiedeln monks “to give our answers in the context of the buildings”, and thereby find a new way of living out their Benedictine vocation.

“For people – even unconsciously – sense that there is something special about this place”, he explained.

“St. Benedict did not want us to live outside the monastery. For this reason, the monastery is organised in such a way that we can pray, work, eat and sleep in the same place.

Habitare secum [to live with oneself] is a concrete response that we can give men and women in our time, who are often travelling and cannot be home when someone knocks on the door.

“And let us not forget the importance of silence”, Federer recalled.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.