The statue of the Black Madonna in the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz (Switzerland) is a significant draw for pilgrims, both from Switzerland and abroad. The abbey church and the conventual buildings date from the 18th century and were raised on the site of a convent founded in 934 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In an interview with Swiss news agency cath.ch, Abbot Urban Federer has no illusions about its future.
“We have been here for 1426 years, and from its beginnings our monastery has been a place of pilgrimage and welcome.” In 2004, the community had 61 ordained monks, 21 brothers and 3 novices. Today it has 47 members, between 30 and 92 years of age, whose time is divided among Divine Office, the welcome of pilgrims and visitors, spiritual accompaniment, around ten workshops, and their school. Yet, laments Abbot Urban Federer, “we are no longer enough to carry out all the work,” and so “we employ around 200 persons in our various activities.” There are 350 students in the secondary school, and approximately 10% are boarding students. The Abbot mentions that the abbey receives financial support from the canton of Schwyz, which makes the future easier to consider from a material point of view.
But from the spiritual point of view of the community, we must be realistic, Abbot Federer adds. “Today there are too many monasteries in Switzerland. In the next 10 years, several of these monasteries will need to close. 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. But it doesn’t matter,” he says, resigned. “We have to adapt and find new ways to live our monastic vocations in our time…” The drop in vocations is serious and concerning; it must lead to a profound analysis of what went wrong, not in terms of the cultural context, but in light of the Faith and the whole Benedictine tradition.
“The kind of visitors we receive in the monastery has changed significantly over the last few decades,” Abbot Federer notes. “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 wonders. Through their numerous renovation projects, the monks hope to find a satisfactory answer to these existential questions: “The goal must remain to give our answers in the context of the buildings. For people—even unconsciously—sense that there is something special about this place.”
“St. Benedict did not want us to live outside the monastery. For this reasons, the monastery is organized 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.”
Built in the Baroque style, the abbey church of Einsiedeln was dedicated in May 1735. Its interior is startlingly large and richly decorated. The Lady Chapel at the entrance of the nave enshrines the statue of the Black Madonna to which a special devotion exists. The water from the Chapel’s spring was redirected to the centre of the church square in 1749.