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When A Modern Young Man Opts For ‘Poverty, Celibacy And Obedience’

Bernd Ruffing, 38, lives with a large group of people, but they’re all men, and they’re all old. His mother is appalled by the situation. But the soon-to-be monk is sure he’s doing the right thing in the right place.

Roman Catholic monks in Prague (FaceMePLS)
Roman Catholic monks in Prague (FaceMePLS)
Miriam Hollstein

SANKT WENDEL - A few Sundays from now, Bernd Ruffing will step up to the altar. He'll be wearing a suit, and he will promise to be faithful. But the 38-year-old won't be promising this to a woman: his pledge will be to God. For eight years, this Catholic has been living in a religious order. In a few weeks, he will have completed his training – and that's when the ceremony will take place, at which Ruffing will take his eternal vows as monk and missionary and thus commit himself to a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience.

A wide street leads to the premises of the missionary society in Sankt Wendel, in the German state of Saarland. On a hill, several buildings are grouped around a brick church. Towards the back of the complex is a school. The complex is home to 96 brothers belonging to the Society of the Divine Word. Their average age is 78. Bernd Ruffing is the youngest among them.

"I never had any kind of call that made me realize I had a vocation," says the large, slim man with youthful features. "I just grew into it." Ruffing is wearing jeans, a red shirt, and Tommy Hilfiger designer glasses.

He has brought cakes to our meeting, baked by his mother and aunt who live in a village six kilometers away. That's where Ruffing grew up, the second child of a quality controller at a steel factory and a housewife. His was a classic, rural Catholic up-bringing, with grace before meals and church on Sunday. In the parish his family belonged to, and where he helped out as an altar boy, one of the priests was from the nearby mission.

After graduating from secondary school, Ruffing got a job in the nursing ward at the mission. He was fascinated by the life of the order – by the tales of life abroad that the Divine Word missionaries told, by their commitment to God and their fellow humans, and by the sense of peace that radiated from most of them.

But he didn't like being so close to home. So he left, first to do community service, then to train as a nurse. He also fell in love a couple of times. "But somehow I never imagined living longer-term in a relationship." From time to time, however, he did imagine becoming a member of the order.

Getting "hooked" on the lifestyle

The finality of the decision, nevertheless, scared him, and so he took his acceptance for advanced nursing training at the University for Applied Sciences in Mainz as a sign that he was destined to pursue another life path. But as he was completing the second half of his studies, he was offered a job at a nursing school in -- of all places -- Sankt Wendel. He was by now 27 years of age. Instead of looking for an apartment of his own, he asked at the mission if he could live with the order for a while -- and moved in on a trial basis. "That's when I got hooked," Ruffing says.

In September 2011, Ruffing returned to Sankt Wendel after completing a three-year internship in Thailand, where he'd worked with patients infected with HIV either through intravenous drug use or prostitution.

The Society of the Divine Word was founded in 1875 by German-born Arnold Janssen in Steyl, in the Netherlands, which is why members of the order are commonly referred to as Steyler missionaries. Janssen wanted to help spread the teachings of Christ to the entire world. Today, the order is the seventh largest Catholic male order in the world, with 6,000 brothers in 70 countries. In Germany there are some 330 brothers at 14 locations.

The task of these missionaries is not to convert others to Christianity, only to show in every day ways that believing in God's love can make a difference.

When Ruffing told his family that he wanted to enter the order, they were appalled. It wasn't that they didn't respect the order, because they did. They just didn't see why their son had to join it. On the evening before he took his first vows, which are valid for a year, his mother was in tears: "Stay the way you are," she begged him. But both of them knew that wasn't possible. Becoming a missionary means leaving your old life behind you.

Choosing mind over matter

Ruffing lives in a 15 square meter room that looks out over a field. Like other members of the community, his day begins at 6.30 a.m. At 7 a.m., members gather in the church to pray, something that they do again shortly after noon and at 6:15 p.m. In between, those who are not retired go to work.

Ruffing, who wrote his dissertation on the aging of order members, works as a caregiver in the home run by the Sankt Wendel community for aged and infirm members of the order from all over Germany and Austria.

He says he sometimes wishes there were more people his age in the community. On the other hand, the order offers many different work options ranging from the order's own media to becoming a scientist. Another positive point is being able to wear what he wants – although that can also have downsides, since his clothes don't identify him as a monk.

His salary goes back to the order. He gets pocket money of 30 euros but has to furnish receipts to show what he spends it on. However, there are extras – theater lovers will be given money to buy tickets, for example, and there's even cigarette money for those who can't kick the habit.

On the subject of celibacy, Ruffing says: "Being celibate doesn't mean you don't relate to people...I can't imagine living on my own, without a community." But living a celibate life isn't always easy. "Crises are part of it, and require conscious decisions' to stay the course.

One of the reasons for doing so is that his chosen life has made Ruffing realize what it feels like to be in the right place, doing the right thing. The first time it happened, he says, "I suddenly felt totally ‘like me.""" After that experience, when people asked him what he did, he replied "monk and missionary" – before that, he had always said "nurse."

Where Ruffing gets sent after he takes his vows will be decided in Rome. He has no guarantee that he'll end up in one of the countries on his preferred list: Thailand, the Philippines or Germany. But it doesn't worry him. He's looking forward to this summer, he says – when, holding a candle in one hand, in the presence of the head of the order, he will pronounce the words: "I, Brother Bernd, vow to live a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience."

Read the original article in German

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