Austrian priests share our concerns
I arrived in Vienna on October 19th 2012 to attend the Annual General Meeting of PFARRER –Initiative (parish priests initiative) I met Fr. Helmüt Schueller, one of the leaders of the Initiative at midday and we proceeded to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the centre of the city. Over coffee Helmüt told me how the Initiative began in 2006. It arose because many priests felt that the Austrian Bishops and the Holy See are not addressing the serious crises which are affecting the Catholic Church right across the globe, but particularly in Austria. Furthermore, Helmüt argues that the Catholic Church shows little respect for the dignity of the baptized and refuses to allow priests and lay people to have any genuine involvement in the decision making processes of the Catholic Church.
In 2008, a number of priests associated with the movement went to Rome. They met with officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). One of the senior officials agreed that none of the positions taken by the movement were heretical. However, a younger official declared that almost everything the movement was looking for was heretical.
Membership of the Initiative is open to all priests, including those who have left active ministry. The number of members now stands at around 500 priests out of a total of 3,000 priests in Austria. As we sipped coffee, Helmüt told me that research conducted by Professor Paul Zulehner shows that more than 75 percent of the priests in Austria actually support the aims of the Initiative. They are often afraid to join, as it may affect their career paths in the Church. It seems that anyone associated with the Initiative will not be nominated as a dean in any of the Austrian dioceses
The leadership of the Initiative believes that there is great need for a Lex Fundamentalis in the Catholic Church which would spell out the rights
of people in the Church as happens in most countries. One is these rights would be the right to participate in decisions made at the level of parishes, diocese and even at the level of the Holy See. The present ecclesial structures show little respect for the rights and dignity of the baptized, either priests or laity. Helmüt claims that collegiality and cooperative ministry is at the heart of the vision of Church promoted by the Second Vatican Council, but the present leadership of the Church, both in Rome and in Austria, has rowed back from this position during the past 50 years. He claimed that we need a Church citizens’ charter with rights and obligations clearly spelt out.
Unfortunately, at the Second Vatican Council the bishops did not have the time to put the structures in place which would mirror this new sense of collaboration at every level in the Catholic Church. The Initiative believes that the window of opportunity for promoting genuine reform of the Catholic Church is very short since the average age of priests in Austria is sixty six.
The Initiative is probably most famous for the Call to Disobedience which it published in 2010. This emerges from the reality that most priests will routinely give communion to couples in second relationships. Priests also regularly invite lay people, men and women to preach at Mass. These and other such pastoral responses are currently against the Canon Law of the Church, yet most priests silently continue with these practices. The Call to Disobedience is challenging them to publically state what they are doing. The Call to Disobedience was supported overwhelmingly by the membership. The members believe that priests should not give blind obedience to ecclesiastical superiors. Proper obedience involves obedience above all to God, then to one’s conscience and finally to
Helmüt admits that very few of the younger priests are members of the Initiative. They tend to be quite conservative theologically and often more interested in liturgy than in working in a cooperative way with laity in the parishes. Many of the young priests received their theological education in conservative institutions rather than in the Theology faculty of Universities. Many of the Austrian bishops, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, favour the more conservative theological institutes and some of the new movements such as Opus Dei, the Legionnaires of Christ etc. Some commentators claim that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is a standard-bearer for the vision of Church espoused by the late Cardinal Martini. None of the priests I met would share this view.
The Initiative has had little contact with the Austrian bishops during the past year. The leadership believes that the Austrian Bishops are afraid of Rome: They are prepared to take orders from Rome, rather than listen to the pastoral needs of the people.
Report on AGM
The General Assembly of the Initiative took place in the City of Linz on Sunday October 21st 2012, from 3pm until 7pm . Fr. Hans Bershorp collected me and together we drove the 180 kilometres to Linz. During much of the earlier part of the journey we were driving through the famous Vienna Woods. As it is autumn, the colours of the leaves were amazing.
When we arrived at Linz almost 100 priests had gathered and, over coffee, were chatting and renewing their friendship. Apart from myself, who was representing the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, there was also a representative from the German priests organization. A representative of We Are Church Austria also attended.
The meeting was run by professional facilitators and began with a prayer. Then the facilitators asked everyone to stand around the walls of the conference room so that everyone could be seen. Everyone was asked to introduce themselves in one or two sentences.
After that the participants were asked to join a small group to discuss a number of questions:
1. Where are we now?
2. In what areas should we concentrate our attention in the immediate future?
3. What concrete initiatives do we need to take?
The answers were collected and displayed on a number of notice boards and similar answers were placed together.
People were then asked to move to another table to discuss the following questions with a different group of people:
1. Why am I here?
2. Why did I come here today?
3. Why am I still a member of the Initiative?
4. Am I willing to take initiatives which might shape the Church in my area during the next few years?
There was a lively discussion around each table and then the participants were asked to write one or two words in response to each of the questions. When the discussion ended, the facilitators asked for feed-back. When someone gave feed-back which was shared by others, these pieces of paper were collected and pinned to a chart with the appropriate heading. This gave people a sense that they were
not alone in their critique of current Church policies and discipline because many others shared these views as well. It also showed that the leadership of the Initiative wants to hear what those at the coal-face are thinking. This contrasts with the institutional Church where orders come from the top, without any dialogue. The assembly continued to reflect on the importance of the Initiative in the pastoral ministry of the priests or deacons, especially when it comes to planning for the future. Members know that many other pastors share their views and that this solidarity is a great support to them, particularly when they are challenged or criticised.
Talking to priests during the coffee break, I got the distinct feeling that the priests did not believe that the Austrian bishops had any serious plans to meet the pastoral needs of the people, as the number of priests diminishes, through death or
retirement. The only initiative which the Bishops are promoting is the clustering of parishes, and both priests and laity are against this.
A number of priests said that members of the Initiative should think long and hard about joining in ‘dialogues’ with bishops and deans when they know that changes are not going to happen. By joining in such dialogues priests are lending their support to ecclesial structures which are not in line with the thinking of Vatican II. As one priest was speaking on this issue, I was reminded of the participation of ACP members with the Visitors which were sent from Rome in 2011. Members of the ACP put a lot of effort into preparing for the various meetings with the visitors. None of this was reflected in the summary of the final document which came from Rome.
At the open forum, a number of priests said that they believe that the
bishops, like Lot’s wife, are continually looking over their shoulders
at what Rome wants rather than acting as genuine pastors whose primary
obligation is to ensure that there are ministers in the Church who
will continue to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments. Many criticized the present way of choosing bishops. Catholics, priests and lay people, should have a role in choosing bishops.
A number repeated the phrase – act, don’t ask! Others spoke of the importance of modeling the view of Church which the Initiative espouses in the parishes where members are serving. Others bemoaned the fact that ecumenism seems to have been relegated to the back burner.
The Initiative encourages priests and people to speak out courageously
about the present dysfunctional structures in the Catholic Church. A
lot of the participants emphasized the need for courage and solidarity.
The business part of the day was conducted between 6pm and 7pm. The financial report was accepted and seven new members were elected to the board.
After the meeting, the leadership met with journalists from both the print and electronic media.