Priests of the Catholic Bethlehem mission in Immensee, central Switzerland, who return for a summer holiday after years abroad, provide poignant and valuable insights into the changes in Swiss society. Some of the most noticeable trends: the spread of xenophobia and electronic gadgetry.
The culture shock that missionaries used to experience when arriving for their rare summer holidays in Switzerland is less marked than a decade ago.
Cheaper air fares and the need for further education mean priests now take shorter, but more frequent home leaves - an arrangement which replaced a rigid rule that they spend seven years abroad before earning a five-month home stay.
The clergymen, who often work in the poorest regions of the last developed countries in Africa and Latin America, are a good barometer for the changes occurring in a developed country like Switzerland - changes that often pass unnoticed by full-time residents.
Two such priests, Alois Graf and Franz Wirz, who work in Mozambique and Zimbabwe respectively, returned in July after lengthy absences and immediately noticed the way computers, electronic gadgets and mobile phones have taken over not just office work but everyday life.
Gottfried Vonwyl, who is 70 and has been a mission priest in Taiwan for more than 20 years, said he was used to modern technology. What worried him more was "the spread of xenophobia in Switzerland".
"It used to be in old and right-wing people, but I am shocked now to see a certain hatred of foreigners and a disrespect for their fundamental rights even in young people, who otherwise don't seem to be committed ideologically," he told swissinfo.
Worldwide missionary work
150 Bethlehem missionaries are currently working in 12 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Two thirds are priests and brethren, the rest lay volunteers of both sexes who sign on for a minimum of three years.
The Bethlehem Mission Immensee (BMI), which looks back on a 100 year history, revised its guiding principles in the 1960s and again in 1998. Preaching the gospel is still considered one of three pillars upon which the mission rests. But most members say that the other two - helping disadvantaged and disenfranchised people, and furthering cooperation between different cultures and religions - are their main motivation.
"I had a problem buying a train ticket the other day", says Graf, who is 66. "I can handle buttons alright, but now the tellers have screens that you merely have to touch - I felt a bit lost."
Wirz, who is 65, had a similar experience, but was more disturbed by what followed: "I asked a person how that machine worked, but all I got back was a snappy remark asking if I couldn't read the instructions."
Graf and Wirz both mention the increase in company cutbacks, and the matter-of-fact way they are treated in newspapers, as a cause of concern. When told that employment is higher than ever in Switzerland despite the cutbacks, Wirz replies: "What troubles me is that it has become entirely acceptable that the big fish swallow the small, and that there is no consideration of the people who lose out".
Religious "heartlessness" in Switzerland
All three priests also note a certain "heartlessness" in the way religion is practised in Switzerland. In the African congregations where they work, church services are lively events, during which stories are told and exchanged. "But here, people come to church with great expectations, which stifles proceedings and inhibits everyone present," says Wirz.
Apart from educational courses at Immensee, Bethlehem missionaries on home leave have a busy schedule visiting Catholic congregations in their home regions which support their work. It is then that they are often confronted with what they consider an antiquated image of missionary work.
During one such visit recently, Graf was asked by a young woman if he was "still converting the savages". "I told her, first, that the people she was talking of are no savages, and second, that we are not converting," says Graf with a slight hint of impatience.
Graf was involved in relief work when his Mozambican district of 110,000 inhabitants was flooded and people's livelihoods destroyed, following the ravages of cyclone "Eline" in March last year. "Our supporters in Switzerland allowed us to transport enough maize 600 kilometres from the north to the villages that were hit by the disaster," he says.
Zimbabwe, which was Rhodesia until independence in 1980, has been the BMI's main focus in Africa since the 1930s. Bethlehem missionaries established hospitals and helped build dams and bridges in rural areas. Many of the latter-day leaders of the country's liberation movements went to Bethlehem mission schools.
"You cannot preach the gospel without taking into account the social needs of a people," says Wirz. But he is also adamant that missionary work is equally distinct from development aid such as technical cooperation provided by government agencies.
"Our work is holistic," Vonwyl says. "We are intent on bringing 'the good news', even though the bible isn't the only way to go about the task." Unlike contracted development workers, missionaries live for long periods among the ordinary members of their congregations and in circumstances not dissimilar from theirs. They also speak the local language.
Numerous potential conflicts
If Bethlehem missionaries are criticised in their host countries, it is usually for being too progressive. The sources of potential conflicts with local bishops are numerous, especially in Africa where the Catholic church is generally considered conservative.
"For Africa, it's a great tragedy that Rome insists priests must be celibate," one of the priests interviewed said. "An African who has no wife and children is only half, and to make up for that social stigma priests and bishops have become used to parade their authority. It can make them very dogmatic."
The courses held at Immensee bring home to those on leave what their main problem is - most of their members are old. Recruitment of missionaries has more or less come to a standstill since rural and mountainous areas in Switzerland's Catholic heartland have become prosperous, and families less numerous.
Missionaries hope that lay members of their organisation, who have played a growing role in recent years in missions in Africa and Latin America, will save the organisation from extinction. Last year two previously separate administrations for religious and lay missionaries were brought under one umbrella - the Bethlehem Mission Immensee - for that purpose.
"I am sure the type of missionary work where priests and brethren are at its helm will come to an end", says Graf, "but I'm equally convinced that our mission will carry on into the future".
by Markus Haefliger