It is very sad news that Himmerod Abbey in the Rhineland, Germany, is to close. The abbey has had a chequered history over the last near millennium, having seen off various threats from, for example, the French Republic, but is now bowing to the inevitable, given that there are only six resident monks, and that its financial situation is precarious, as this magazine reports. The monks will be dispersed to other monasteries, and as for the building itself, that is being handed over to the diocese of Trier, which might well find difficulty in putting it to good use.
The story of Himmerod is emblematic of many other religious institutions in Europe. In our own country we have seen the closure of the seminary at Ushaw, a truly magnificent building whose future does not yet seem assured. In places like Catholic Italy, it is not unusual to visit monasteries, many of them founded by Saint Benedict, which have perhaps a dozen monks living in a building designed for many hundreds. Quite a few famous monasteries are now conference centres, such as San Giorgio in Venice, or museums, such as the wonderful Charterhouse of Naples. Where Naples and Venice have gone, so surely many will follow.
In a way, this is not to be lamented. When members of a monastic community are reduced to being custodians of a historic building, with little time and energy for anything else, it is perhaps time to move on. After all, monks and other religious are there for mission not maintenance. Nevertheless, it is always sad to think of what once was, and Shakespeare’s line about “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” comes to mind. Indeed, the sadness one feels is also expressed by Wordsworth:
“Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.”
What both poets realise is that change is often to be lamented; Shakespeare’s line is usually taken to be a threnody for the changed landscape of England following the destruction of the monasteries; though Shakespeare was born long after the Dissolution, in 1564, it is clear that the folk memory of the Dissolution lived on for many years. The current decline in religious life, which has continued for many decades now, is perhaps as momentous as the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII.
But those religious houses were destroyed by external factors, by a rapacious King and his compliant and dishonest servants. The fading of religious life today comes about because of internal factors, exemplified by the lack of vocations. This is a far less dramatic crisis, but at the same time a more serious one. Of course, new religious orders are flourishing, and that is a good thing, a sign of hope.
But at the same time it is not to be disputed that the traditional orders are, many of them, heading for extinction. What went wrong? We never quite get a clear answer to that question from the institutional Church, though many of us who have seen the phenomenon from close up have our theories.
One thing is for certain. The Church of the future, particularly in Europe, is going to look very different from the Church of the past. The closure of Himmerod, and the closure of other religious houses, represents a change in the religious landscape. This is a crisis, but at the same time, let us hope, an opportunity.