Stift Melk - UNESCO-Welterbe

Reason and Faith

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“Already under the rule of Maria Theresia, a deeply pious and devout woman, many new ideas had taken hold. Her ministers already acted frequently in the spirit of Enlightenment. After Maria Theresia’s death, when her son Joseph II began to rule, the spell was broken: with a vengeance, the ideas of the Enlightenment began to determine every aspect of the State and also its relationship with the Church. Many monasteries were dissolved; pilgrimages and religious processions were abolished; activities associated with feeling and emotion were limited. Everything was supposed to happen in the name of reason.”

Abbot em. Dr. Burkhard Ellegast OSB, excerpt from “Das Stift Melk“ (“Melk Abbey”)

State decrees deeply affected the life in the monastery. Numerous parishes were assigned to Melk abbey as a result of Joseph’s parish reforms, which put a strain on the monastery’s economic and personnel situation. In the new parishes rectories and schools needed to be built and maintained. However, since Melk abbey fulfilled an important duty for the State by providing pastoral care for parishes, it was spared the fate of dissolution.

In 1783 the theological institute in Melk abbey was closed by imperial decree. Young theologians could then only be educated at the Viennese General Seminary, where clerics were taught entirely in the spirit of the Enlightenment. After their studies they came back to their monasteries and often changed the old ways. As of 1769 the new ideas also began to penetrate into the thus far cloistered monastic community of Melk abbey. The government appointed a commendatory abbot to run the monastery’s business operations, whereas the monastic community could elect an “imperial prior” for a 3-year-term to supervise spiritual life.

In 1787 the abbey school was relocated from Melk to St. Pölten, but the monastery was still responsible for the expenses.

After Joseph II’s death some of the regulations were rescinded and under the rule of Emperor Leopold II (1790-1792) the monasteries regained their autonomy. Clerics again studied in the monasteries. In 1804 the abbey school returned to Melk. In the 19th century the Napoleonic Wars and Joseph’s parish reform caused an immense financial burden. For a long time, the Josephian mentality was still perceptible in the monasteries. Only in the 20th century new approaches rebalanced reason and faith.