Beuron Monastery in Germany

‘Stay and pray’ programs, student housing… Monasteries try new strategies to halt decline

With the aging of their members and the drop in vocations, monasteries and convents are dying.

Is it time to prepare the funeral for religious life and religious houses? Or will they reinvent themselves for the 21st century?

Driving the news

Spiegel Online looked into the situation of the Benedictine Archabbey of Beuron, in the southwest of Germany.

Ninety years ago, 300 monks lived there.

Now it’s just 39, and the average age of the monks is 68.

The decline is the same all over Germany.

Sixty years ago, there were about 110,000 monks and nuns in the country.

Now, there are about 17,900, reflecting Germans’ shift away from religion and especially, from the Church.

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Go deeper

One novel strategy to arrest the decline of monasteries and convents is the German Conference of Superiors of Religious Orders’ “live, pray, work and learn” program.

Women and men, of any age, can spend 3-12 months in a religious house.

There’s no commitment, explained program organiser Sister Maria Stadler: just the promise of the “stability” that comes with the routine of monastic prayer.

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But people seem reluctant to renounce the pleasures of secular life even for a little while.

In Austria, where the Church runs a similar program, just thirty people have taken up the offer to date.

Just two went on to become full members of religious communities.

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Why it matters

Even the tourism and craft industries by which monasteries and convents have long been able to sustain themselves are flagging.

The Beuron monastery, for example, leased out 84 hectares (210 acres) of its land in 1996, due to a lack of labourers to cultivate it.

It also shuttered its butcher and tailor shops.

Today, the Beuron monastery is more akin to an old persons’ home, a fact that does nothing to attract new vocations.

“When I am in a Mass, I often think, wait a few more years, then the choir stalls across will be empty”, lamented Father Sebastian, at 42 one of the youngest Beuron monks.

Not even an annual visitors’ program featuring mindfulness exercises or Christian Zen meditation is enough to drum up interest.

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But still, Father Sebastian has hope.

“It’s important that people can count on us, no matter if we are 100, 50 or 20 monks”, he reflected.

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What’s next

Still, monks just being there for their communities is getting harder and harder.

Especially since real-estate developers are circling, looking to capitalise on empty monasteries and convents now eyed as properties “with character”.

Spiegel Online spoke to Remigia Ternes, the superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph, in Trier, who has already fielded an offer from a developer looking to cash in on the 11,500 square metres of her city-centre convent.

Sister Remigia said she hung up the phone on the caller.

“For us, it’s about maintaining this piece of earth, and not just being tossed on the market somehow”, she explained.

That’s why the thirteen remaining Sisters of St. Joseph, down from a high of 168, are looking to reinvent themselves after 130 years of history.

“Lamenting and complaining won’t help us any”, said Sister Remigia.

She explained that the Sisters have set up a foundation to manage the Trier convent, to ensure the order’s decades of social work continue after the nuns’ death.

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Sister Remigia also said a convent wing has been turned into student housing, which 28 international students currently occupy.

It’s just one way religious life and houses are changing to meet new human and social realities.

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