Roman Catholic Church lures back flock

Prior Basil Höfliger stands in front of the Baroque monastery (swissinfo) swissinfo (Dale Bechtel)

The Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln has given the centuries old pilgrimage tradition a new twist in an effort to bring disenchanted Roman Catholics back into the fold.

This content was published on July 12, 2003 - 09:55

About 150 “pilgrims” followed the call to the monastery for a three-day gathering this past week. swissinfo spoke to some of the participants.

"I was raised as a Catholic and that is something I feel inside and I can't change it," said Verena Huber, who is uneasy at being called a pilgrim.

"Even when I declared myself an atheist, I was still comfortable when I entered a Catholic church. It was probably because I was brought up as a Catholic, I don't know."

Huber formally left the Church 20 years ago as a teenager. When she was six years of age, she lost a sister, and her father died when she was 12. These events made her lose her faith.

Now with three children of her own, she is looking for a way back to God and the Church, since she wants her offspring "to be at home in a religion".

The unique pilgrimage at Einsiedeln gave her that chance.

At loggerheads

Titled "At loggerheads with the Church", the event was the brainchild of the Einsiedeln abbot, Martin Werlen.

Werlen said he was inspired by the biblical story of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost.

"There are many people who are struggling with the Church," explained Werlen. "They sometimes go to church but don't approach us with their problems. This pilgrimage is our invitation to them, so we can address their needs."

Pilgrims have journeyed to Einsiedeln for centuries to worship before a wooden statue, the "Black Madonna" (see related story).

This three-day pilgrimage was of a very different nature.

It included a series of talks by prominent members of the Swiss Roman Catholic clergy, musical performances by guest choirs from abroad, guided hikes in the rolling hills around the monastery and wine tastings.

Lost sheep

To find the Church's lost sheep, the abbot looked to modern marketing techniques for inspiration.

He forged a unique partnership with Einsiedeln's business community and found high profile sponsors, including the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

Working together, they held a series of news conferences in the months leading up to the event to spread the word and raise the profile of the Church, which has been tarnished by child abuse allegations.

The Einsiedeln event was sold as an all-inclusive package including accommodation at the town's hotels.

Boost to local economy

It has made believers again of the townspeople who largely depend on the monastery for their economic well-being, which has been in decline for many years.

Hotel bookings have dropped by around 60 per cent over the past two decades since the average length of stay of a pilgrim or tourist has gone from a couple of days to a couple of hours.

But monastery and town officials were at pains to stress that the event had a religious aim, and not an economic one.

"The publicity campaign was necessary to reach out to the people whose relationship with the church had soured," argued Prior Basil Höfliger, who said the event would have gone ahead even with just a handful of pilgrims.

"We wanted people to attend who were at odds with the clergy - from the priesthood right up to the Pope," the prior said.

Common quest

"Essentially, we expected participants who are searching for something in their lives, and that is what we monks are doing at the monastery as well.

"St Benedict said a person joins a monastery to search for God and that's all the saint requires of us, so in a way we and these pilgrims are involved in the same quest."

When the discussions came to an end on Saturday, Huber said she was very impressed with what she described as a "wonderful experience" and that it represented for her a big step toward rejoining the church.

Still not entirely convinced by the Roman Catholic Church structure, she said "it cannot be changed from the outside. You have to go inside".

"I think 20 years ago a pilgrimage like this could never have happened. The clergy has become more open, and they want to know why people leave the Church, or why they won't return," she added.

"Twenty years ago they didn't care if someone left. When I wrote my letter withdrawing from the Church, my priest didn't ask me for my reasons. I got no response at all."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Einsiedeln

Key facts

Einsiedeln is the most important pilgrimage site in Switzerland.
The alternative pilgrimage, “At loggerheads with the Church” took place from July 9 to 12 at the town’s monastery.
Pilgrims normally journey to Einsiedeln to worship the “Black Madonna” statue at the cathedral.
Einsiedeln is also a popular stop on the trans-European St James pilgrimage trail.

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In brief

The abbot of Einsiedeln decided to organise an alternative pilgrimage to the monastery tailor-made for people who have lost touch with the Church.

The pilgrimage was also designed to change the perception people have of the monastery.

It counts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but few stay longer than a couple of hours, or seek contact with any of the monks.

Until mid-September, the monastery is exhibiting a show on votive objects donated to the church.

The exhibit is located in a former horse stable. The Einsiedeln horse, "Cavalli della Madonna", is still bred at the monastery.

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