19Jul Fr. Helmut Schüller preaches reform in the USA

Fr. Helmut Schüller should be on summer vacation right now.

Instead, the Austrian priest, who gained international attention in 2011 for his “Call to Disobedience,” has chosen to spend his time off from parish ministry offering a presentation titled “The Catholic Tipping Point: Conversations” in 15 U.S. cities.

The tour kicked off Tuesday night at Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, a historic community in Greenwich Village with affiliations to the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church.

Tuesday night, however, the space was filled with 230 reform-minded Catholics who braved dangerously high heat and humidity to hear Schüller’s vision for church reform and a renewed priesthood.

Schüller is quick to note he is only one priest among a large community of clergy and lay supporters who are calling on the institutional church for desperately needed reforms.

Studies suggest that for every 100 Catholic priests who retire, only 30 are available to replace them. To date, the hierarchy’s response to this crisis has been to close and merge parishes rather than to open ordination to all who are willing and able to serve.

In 2006, Schüller and a group of fellow clergy members founded the Austrian Priests’ Initiative as a way to go public with their concerns about the shrinking priesthood, the merging of parishes and the inordinate pressures being placed on the dwindling number of parish priests.

Since the launching of the “Call to Disobedience,” Schüller has been clear that the Austrian Priests’ Initiative does not believe in disobedience for the sake of contradiction. Rather, they promote a “graduated obedience,” first to God, then to their consciences and, finally, to church order.

At least 425 of Austria’s 3,800 priests have endorsed the Austrian Priests’ Initiative’s call, and the organization estimates that 70 percent of Austrian Catholics agree with their platform.

“Because as priests, we are members of the hierarchy, the hierarchy became nervous,” Schüller told the crowd. But he insists the movement “was initiated out of deep sorrow for the future of parish communities.”

Schüller, who previously served as president of Caritas Austria, was appointed vicar general in 1995 by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn but served simultaneously as a church pastor.

Both roles, he said, have given him insight into the current state of the institutional church. As vicar general, he learned that the structure of the church “does not allow too much space for reform or questions,” while as pastor of a parish, he realized that, once he retires, “I will leave my community to an uncertain future.”

Schüller said his gravest concern is that the priest shortage is depriving baptized Catholics of access to the Eucharist, which is the “spiritual center of our communities. It is the bread of heaven, and we must have it together,” he said.

The faithful are further deprived by the parish mergers that result from the shortage of clergy. “This is the greatest burden for priests,” Schüller told the crowd. “They have the impression that they cannot fulfill their service anymore. They are forced to hurry from one base to the other.” He said the most painful statement priests hear from parishioners is, “I know, Father, that you haven’t got much time.” “This is horrible,” Schüller insists, “because this is the center of our ministry.” If a priest is forced to give the impression he cannot be present to his community, “it is the end of his ministry,” he said.

The realities of parish life, Schüller said, demonstrate an urgent need to open the priesthood to anyone who has the gifts to lead, inspire and create trust, especially women. “We are supposed to be promoting the biblical message that men and women are made in the image of God,” Schüller said. “How can we promote this message without representing it in our structures? This is not a question of the demands of modern society, but question of our original message. We must rediscover this common image for God.”

In Austria, reform-minded parishes have been intentional about practicing reform in the framework of their own communities. This includes allowing laypeople to offer homilies and lead communion services when parish priests are away. Catholics who are divorced and remarried outside the church are permitted to take Communion, as are Protestants. Gay and lesbian couples are also welcome in the community and to the eucharistic table.

“Eucharist must not be an instrument of sanctions,” Schüller said. “The highest symbol of Communion is acceptance.” As priests, Schüller said, “we have power, which means we are responsible to use that power.” Church reform movements must not be left to the laity alone, he said. “We must be companions to these movements.”

As Schüller travels the country during the next three weeks, he will also have closed meetings with priests to hear their concerns and encourage them to band together among themselves and the laity. Schüller would especially like reform-minded communities to find solidarity with one another. One of the goals of the “Catholic Tipping Point” tour is to build up an international network of reform groups. Ten progressive Catholic organizations, including FutureChurch, Call to Action, DignityUSA, and Voice of the Faithful, are sponsoring the tour. One of Schüller’s deepest hopes is that the institutional church will create a system of fundamental rights for all of the baptized. “We should speak not about laypeople, but ‘church citizens,’ ” he told the audience. “The word ‘lay’ suggests ‘without competence or experience.’ ”

“The Christian understanding of human beings is that they have rights and responsibilities and a special dignity that must be respected,” Schüller said. “Therefore, they are entitled to participate in the church’s decision-making.”

“Full participation of church citizens is a question of respect for human beings,” he said. “Democracy was a step forward in modern society, yet our church fought against it for centuries.”

The lack of fundamental rights in the church, Schüller said, was the basis for the “Call to Disobedience.” “We have both the suspicion and the experience that our obedience is being abused by church leaders in order to keep down church reform,” he said.

“It is problematic to give obedience to leaders who are not accountable for what they are doing with their power,” he added.

For someone who has been associated with disobedience, Schüller’s style is remarkably mild and soft-spoken. Nevertheless, this did not keep the Vatican from stripping him in 2012 of his title of monsignor, a title he received in 1991.

“It was not the tragedy of my life,” Schüller quipped during the question-and-answer period. Because Schüller is most interested in learning about the struggles of reform-minded Catholics in the United States, his 30-minute presentation was followed by almost one hour of dialogue with attendees.

A Roman Catholic Womanpriest (RCWP), Gabriella Velardi Ward, asked Schüller what he and the Austrian Priests’ Initiative thought of their movement, which began in Europe. Schüller said while his organization respects RCWP and sees it as a courageous movement, their desire is to see the whole church open up to the ordination of women, not just a small segment. “We see ourselves as walking the walk and living the change we want to see. We are going through the back door so that one day, women can go through the front door,” Velardi Ward replied. Schüller, engaging in the kind of respectful listening he wants from the hierarchy, responded, “Then maybe we should respect you as a prophetic movement.”

Another audience member asked whether this discussion is relevant to the Roman Catholic church beyond Europe and the United States. “We have been told that the church in Europe and the U.S. is a sick church or a diminishing church,” and the church in Africa and Latin and South America is proof that a conservative church is successful, Schüller said. “But the questions that our modern society is confronting will eventually arise in these parts of the world, too, and in some places, especially megacities, they already have.”

Schüller sees the church in Europe and the United States as a “laboratory of the future” where the church can engage with the questions and challenges of modern society.

Finally, the question likely on the minds of many arose: Does Schüller feel hopeful about Pope Francis? “There is a feeling of relief, I think, about the new pope,” he said. But the question remains, “Can he make these gestures into systemic changes, or will he be sidelined by the Vatican system?”

“Real change will happen when he starts to practice collegiality through new synods and decentralized papal power,” Schüller said. “Hope is there. Let’s see if he can continue what he is doing as an individual for the whole system.”

Schüller’s next stop on the “Tipping Point” tour will be in Boston, where Cardinal Sean O’Malley barred him from speaking on Catholic grounds. Reflecting on the incident, Schüller concluded, “There are bishops in this country who have forbidden that I can speak to people like you. It is not sad that I should be forbidden to speak. What is sad is that you should be forbidden to listen.”

9 Responses

  1. Wanderer

    “We should speak not about laypeople, but ‘church citizens,’ ” he told the audience. “The word ‘lay’ suggests ‘without competence or experience.’ ”

    He speaks of priests having power – and yes they have done, do. And that can be abused in many different ways – by the ‘reformers’ too.

    When are any of you though – traditional, liberal, reformed or whatever else, going to really start helping the ‘lay’ understand passages like this one: empower ‘us’. Give that ‘spiritual milk’ given to the ‘newborn’ in Christ.

    I hear a lot about reforming the ordained priesthood more than anything.

    Help ‘us’ grow up spiritually. That’s not meant as a critique – more an observation.

  2. Mary O Vallely

    “Real change will happen when he starts to practice collegiality through new synods and decentralized papal power,” Schüller said.
    We will have to wait and see and pray that it may be so.
    … “It is not sad that I should be forbidden to speak. What is sad is that you should be forbidden to listen.”
    It is up to each one of us to make our own decisions and choices, not to allow ourselves to be sidelined, dismissed or discouraged and I appeal to priests especially in the northern dioceses to support the ACP, particularly the meeting in Ballygawley on September 25th and the open meeting for all in Dublin in November. We must learn from each other,support and encourage each other -yes and even chastise each other from time to time as Eddie does so well with good honest,northern bluntness. :-) It does seem so ridiculous that in 2013 we are forbidden to listen or to discuss certain issues so let’s not waste time in weeping but in bonding together and in mutual support.

  3. Eddie Finnegan

    Helmut and Kevin, there’s not a damn thing wrong with ‘Lay’ and ‘Laity’. It connects us back with the ancient Greeks’ ‘ho Laós’ long before Homer or, as those early Attic democrats would have it, ‘ho Leós’. “Akoúete, Leói” the leader or herald would say: “Hear O People” – not the narrower ‘politai’, ‘citizens’.
    Who wants to be “church citizens”, in Helmut’s phrase, when the real goal is to be People of God, Pobal Dé, Gottes Volk – unless he has Augustine’s “Civitas Dei” in mind? Rather than surrendering to saecular connotations of inexperienced incompetence, wouldn’t it be better for Catholics to re-invest our original meaning into Lay and Laity? If one small group of mainly Western humanity can take an insipid jejune little adjective like ‘gay’ and turn it into a badge of dignity and pride for the gaiety of nations within a generation, think what 2 billion Catholics (allegedly) could do for the much abused ‘lay’ and ‘laity’, if they only understood its origins and their own. Helmut, I’m afraid you’re becoming too politically or citizenly correct.
    [Anyway, what’s 425 Austrians out of 3,800 priests, compared with our own Garibaldi-style 1,000 (i Mille) from a similar total? Come to think of it, has anyone ever seen 425 of our Thousand in one place at the same time? Just wondering!]

  4. Paddy Ferry

    I think the most important stat. that recent research into the attitude of Catholic believers in Austria has given us is that 80% approx. of Austria Catholics support the aims of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative.
    Mary, like you I hope our priests from the northern dioceses turn out in large numbers in September in Ballygawley; I hope, especially, from our most northernly county in the Diocese of Raphoe.
    I am already looking forward to hearing Robeert Michens on November 15th in Dublin and meeting, again, old friends from our Regency meeting last year. Hope you are coming this year, Eddie.

  5. Soline Humbert

    Perhaps Helmut Schuller had in mind St Paul in Ephesians 2:19″You are fellow citizens (συμπολῖται)with the saints”?

  6. Eddie Finnegan

    Indeed, Soline, you are probably right. “Fellow citizens with the saints”, for gentiles of the Hellenic world in an era of comparative innocence, must have had a more welcoming and exciting ring to it than “church citizens” can ever have today. Them was the days when catechumens were fast-tracked to sainthood by Baptism: nobody had to get himself elected pope, spend a third of his life globe-trotting and setting up saint factories, then hope he’d have a spontaneous crowd at his funeral with spontaneously printed banners demanding “Santo subito”. They say there were even a few women among the saints of Ephesus and other exotic places back then. Can this be true?

  7. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Being ‘lay’ or being part of the ‘laity’ may have been a good thing back in ancient Greece, but as Eddie @3 points out words evolve over time and being part of the laity now is not as good as it was then. When the Catholic Church wants to punish offending clergy or withdraw their clerical status, the clergy are laicized and banished to the ranks of the laity.

  8. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I’ve really had it with the “preaching”. It might be my biggest problem with the strategy behind this type of reform. Priests preach and people listen. But for God sakes, what can we do collectively that will make a difference? Don’t say talk to someone about it. Shout it from the hilltops – will that make a difference? No. If you are going to elect leaders to the front lines of these associations, you better be ready to do a little more than preach. This conversation has been had for long enough now. Does anyone agree? If the majority of the Catholic faithful would react positively to these reforms, what can be done to engage them? This is more than just an awareness campaign – there has to be more than that going on. I might seem a tad impatient but it seems to me that you’ve all been told that what you possess now is a great army, possibly the greatest ever assembled for such a cause and comparatively you are firing warning shots in the air above you. When are you going to start really showing your heavy artillery?

  9. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    “Catholic parishioners revolt against sexual predators but will it kill the Church?” Read more on http://www.irishcentral.com (July 25, 2013).

    I had the opportunity of hearing Austrian Fr Schuller speak last night in Chicago in the auditorium of my former high school, St Scholastica Academy for young women. He spoke of the courage of Fr Tony Flannery and all of the Irish priests who have formed an association in Ireland, where priests can share their concerns about the church which they love and the need for changes in several areas.

    I deeply admire the courage of all of you priests in uniting with one another, in finding your voices, and in helping others to find their voices. I am also grateful that you graciously welcome the voices of women onto your website. It seems like under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, dialogue was prevented and we were all just talked at by the magisterium. Hopefully, with Pope Francis, dialogue will be allowed to return and some helpful changes can take place. Thank you all for your open mindedness.

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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