As Germany's Catholic Church discusses how to deal with child sex abuse at the hands of its clergy, Tamsin Walker went to visit a new monastery on the German-Polish border that's quietly setting an example.
There's something about monasteries. I remember being taken to their ruins as a child, clambering on the remains of walls whose fates had been sealed by Henry VIII's 16th century dissolutions. And I remember writing mental stories about the pious, minimalistic lives spent within what artist impressions assured me had once been magnificent buildings. I was captivated by the notion of grand but remote premises that accommodated self-sufficient brewers with their own hospitals. In many ways, I still am.
So when I heard about a group of six Cistercian monks who founded a monastery in Neuzelle, a village just 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the German-Polish border earlier this month, I got on a train. Attached to the Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, the priory is housed on the site of a former Catholic monastery in buildings that have stood the tests of time, upheaval and endurance.
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With a flock of just three percent of its population, Brandenburg is one of two states to have the lowest number of Catholics in Germany. That might make it an unlikely place for the foundation of a 21st century monastery, but in matters of religion, this pocket-sized community where a huge cross presides over the threshold, is altogether unlikely.
Locals talk of how the earlier monastery survived abolition during the Reformation to remain active until 1817, of how they personally met the anti-religious grip of East Germany's atheist militancy with a quiet determination to uphold their beliefs, and of how they've carried on nurturing an island-style Catholic community regardless of the trends around them.
The warmest of welcomes
And everyone, from the butcher to the baker, the post office clerk to high school children, seems to embrace this new chapter in the long story of faith in their village. They talk in terms of community, as do the monks, who beside their pastoral duties are there to build a monastery that welcomes people of any or indeed no belief to come and stay, offers them a listening ear, a place to pray or eat together, or just an opportunity to escape from the noise for a couple of days.
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Though the courtyard with steps down to an orangery leading onto the plains of the river Oder is invitingly idyllic, the Catholic Church does not currently seem like the most obvious choice for anyone seeking to escape the noise. Not when yet another sexual abuse scandal is creating so much within.
One of the monks, Father Kilian, welled up slightly when I asked him about the child sex abuse revelations that cast such darkness on the faith to which he has vowed to remain loyal for the term of his life. He described them as an incomprehensible catastrophe that causes him great pain. Though it also hurts him to be blamed by association, he says this airing of the truth is an important step toward cleansing.
That cleansing is set to be a very long process, because there can be no easy way back from such a protracted history of abuse and cover-ups. But maybe the Cistercian monks' self-professed open-door, open-heart approach to building a community could also go some way to rebuilding a faith in their faith. A quiet, remote and small-scale contribution perhaps, but that would surely be in keeping with both Neuzelle and monastic mores.
In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW