Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Pope Benedict in Austria

by Jeff Ziegler


This essay, which originally appeared in the August-September 2007 issue of Catholic World Report as a lengthier version, centers around the Pope's visit to Austria in 2007 but also provides an interesting summary of the history of Catholicism in Austria.

Publisher & Date

Catholic World Report, August-September 2007

In 16 B.C., the Roman Empire brought the small central European kingdom of Noricum under its dominion. While Noricum officially became a Roman province, the Celts who had ruled the kingdom retained a degree of independence in the centuries that followed.

On September 7, the Roman Pontiff will begin a three-day journey to modern-day Noricum – Austria – to foster the faith of a traditionally Catholic nation marked by a degree of independence from the Holy See at times in its history, including our own. According to the nation’s 2001 census, only 74 percent of the nation’s 8.2 million people are now Catholic, while 5 percent identified themselves as Protestant and 4 percent as Muslim. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report, only 15 percent of Austrians attended services weekly; even in 1938, Time Magazine estimated that no more than 40 percent of Austrians practiced their faith. In 2006, 36,645 Austrians formally withdrew from the Church – down from 44,609 the previous year.

Austria’s Catholic Beginnings

Evidence of the presence of Christianity in Austria dates back to 174, and the Gospel became more widespread in the third century, when Catholics were found among the ranks of the Roman military. At the city of Lorch in 304, during the savage persecution of the Emperor Diocletian, the high-ranking military officer St. Florian refused to execute a group of fellow Christians; at the command of the governor, he was thrown into a river after he was scourged and flayed and a stone was chained around his neck. During the chaos that attended the collapse of the Roman Empire, the priest and monk St. Severinus (c. 410 – c. 482) traveled from Africa to preach the Gospel along the banks of the Danube. In the words of the 2004 edition of the Roman Martyrology,he “defended the unarmed, made savage men mild, converted infidels, founded monasteries, and instructed the uncouth in religion.”

Two hundred fifty years later, the hierarchy began to take root when the Bavarian Duke Theodo II prevailed upon the St. Rupert, then bishop of Worms (Germany), to minister as bishop and abbot in what is now Salzburg; by the time of his death around the year 718, his church and monastery had become a center of missionary activity. In 739, St. Boniface, papal legate in Germany, formally established the Diocese of Salzburg, which in time came to be known as the German Rome, with its archbishops having the title of Primate of Germany (in the sense of German-speaking lands).

St. Virgilius, an Irish monk, missionary, and astronomer who had gained the favor of Charlemagne’s father, traveled to Salzburg and became abbot; St. Boniface denounced St. Virgilius to the pope, accusing him of heresy because of his views on the roundness of the earth. After St. Boniface’s martyrdom, however, St. Virgilius became bishop of Salzburg, constructed a cathedral in honor of St. Rupert, and successfully evangelized what is now the southern province of Carinthia before his death in 784. Four years later, Noricum became part of Charlemagne’s empire, more firmly establishing Catholicism in the nation.

During the following century, Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs, preached the Gospel in eastern Austria around Vienna. Irish monks and Scottish missionaries also assisted in the work of evangelization. In 1012, an Irish pilgrim who spoke no German was falsely accused of being a spy, tortured, and sentenced to death by hanging at Stockerau, thirteen miles from Vienna. St. Colman’s martyrdom helped bring about the conversion of the region when his tomb became the site of miracles.


In St. Colman’s time, Vienna was a small city with one parish church. A millennium later, it is the capital of a nation and one of Europe’s largest cities with 2.3 million inhabitants. On Friday, September 7, Pope Benedict is scheduled to arrive at Vienna’s airport late in the morning and gather for prayers with the faithful in the city center at 12:45. Pope Benedict will lead the prayer at the Kirche am Hof, which dates from 1386. Originally a Carmelite church, it was later entrusted to the Jesuits and is now a Croatian parish.

The growth of Vienna began in the 1100s and was accompanied by the flourishing of monastic life; by the middle of the following century, Vienna had become the most important city on the Danube. From 1273 to 1918, the fortunes of the city were intertwined with the fortunes of the Hapsburg dynasty, and Vienna became one of the world’s most important cities as the duchy of Austria developed into an empire. The Hapsburgs lived in Hofburg Imperial Palace, where Pope Benedict will meet with civil officials and the diplomatic corps on Friday evening.

In 1469, nearly two centuries after the rise of the Hapsburgs, Vienna finally became a diocese. In 1529, citizens defended the city against the Muslim Turks during the Siege of Vienna, and later in the century St. Peter Canisius and his fellow Jesuits labored there and elsewhere to prevent Austria from becoming Protestant.

The pivotal Battle of Vienna on September 11 and 12, 1683, marked the beginning of the end of Turkish military expansion in Europe. All had appeared lost for the Viennese, and King Louis XIV of France refused Pope Innocent XI’s summons to assist Austria. King John III Sobieski of Poland, however, led 30,000 cavalry from Krakow and, though vastly outnumbered, defeated the Turks, saying in the end, “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit” – I came, I saw, God conquered. In gratitude for the Blessed Mother’s intercession, Pope Innocent declared September 12 the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary throughout the Church. While this commemoration was dropped from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, it remained a feast day in Austria by the decision of the nation’s bishops. Pope John Paul II restored the feast to the universal calendar in 2003, and on September 12, 2006, after celebrating the Mass of the Most Holy Name of Mary, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his famous Regensburg address, which was followed by violent reaction in the Muslim world.

As Austria gained political and cultural prestige, Vienna became an archdiocese in 1722. The Church, however, suffered greatly under the reign of Emperor Joseph II (sole ruler from 1780-90), whose attempts to create a national church came to be called Josephinism. The emperor permitted no direct communication between the Austrian bishops and Rome, forbade the issuing of pastoral letters without his approval, and placed seminary education in the hands of the state. Believing contemplative life was useless, he suppressed hundreds of monasteries; however, he also built parishes in rural areas, decreeing that a parish should be within an hour’s walk of everyone. Contemplative monks thus became parish priests in areas that previously had no parishes. Processions, solemn exposition in the monstrance, and the saying of the Rosary in churches were forbidden.

Pope Pius VI visited Vienna in 1782 to protest the emperor’s actions, but his protests proved useless. (Pope Benedict’s prayer with the faithful early in the afternoon of September 7 will take place on the spot where Pope Pius delivered his Easter blessing that year.) To avoid the loss to the Church of the entire empire, which then included Sicily, the pope did not excommunicate the emperor, and in the uneasy modus vivendi that ensued, the emperor was permitted to appoint some bishops, while the pope had to obtain the emperor’s approval for others. The ravages of Josephinism were countered by the extraordinary activity of St. Klemens Maria Hofbauer (1751-1820), a Redemptorist priest who became known as the second founder of his order and the Apostle of Vienna. Nevertheless, the spirit of the revolutions of 1848 and the anti-Catholic feeling in the German world in the 1860s and 1870s presented further grave challenges for the Church. In 1897, an Austrian political leader founded the Los von Rom(Free from Rome) movement that urged Austrians to abandon Catholicism for the sake of greater union with Germany. Some 75,000 Austrian Catholics renounced their faith in the years before the beginning of World War I in 1914.

The Twentieth Century

With the conclusion of World War I in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was among the losing Central Powers, ceased to exist, and Austria became a small republic with the borders it has today. Reigning for only two years, the last emperor, Charles I (1887-1922), was beatified by Pope John Paul in 2004. Deeply devoted to the Sacred Heart and the Holy Eucharist, this father of eight sought to implement Catholic social teaching in his domestic policies and Pope Benedict XV’s peace proposals in foreign relations. He died in exile in Portugal, reduced to poverty, forgiving his enemies, and suffering without complaint.

Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, a New Testament exegete who served as rector of the University of Vienna and social minister in the Austrian government from 1929 to 1930, was named Archbishop of Vienna in 1932. At the 1934 Requiem Mass for Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, whom Nazis had assassinated in an attempted coup, Cardinal Innitzer denounced the “crime of a heathenish political group” and said that “those who after these events are still supporting the Nazis are excluding themselves from civilization.”

The pages of Time Magazine present a remarkable glimpse into the life of the Church in Austria during the fateful year of 1938. Before the March 13 AnschlussNazi Germany’s annexation of Austria – it was widely predicted that Cardinal Innitzer would be arrested. As Hitler was welcomed with cheers in Vienna, however, Cardinal Innitzer said, “Thank God there has been no bloodshed” while the Nazi swastika flag was raised at his residence and the cathedral bells were rung. Soon, the Nazis announced an April plebiscite in which Jews would not be permitted to vote; Austrians were to vote on the question “Do you approve of the reunification of Austria with Germany as accomplished on March 13, and do you vote for the list of our Führer Adolf Hitler?” In a pastoral letter, the Austrian bishops expressed support for the Anschluss,and Cardinal Innitzer closed his accompanying cover letter with a handwritten “Heil Hitler!”

Time reported that “the very powerful radio transmitter of the Papal State went on the air in German with a broadcast heard all over Greater Germany and taken by most listeners to be a condemnation of Cardinal Innitzer for having yielded to force, combined with an injunction to Catholics that in the plebiscite they should vote according to their consciences rather than Innitzer.” Vatican Radio denounced the “worthlessness and faithlessness” of “shepherds’ actions” that manifest “an exaggerated carefulness of tactics” and “a weak adaptation to established or foreseen facts … The damage is greatest when constituted guardians of sacred ethics are seized by the spirit of that false Catholicism and bow down before the mighty and successful of the day.”

Pope Pius XI summoned Cardinal Innitzer to Rome for an explanation, and on April 5 Cardinal Pacelli conducted a “very stormy” interview. Cardinal Innitzer then met with the heroic Munster Bishop Clemens August Count von Galen, whom Pope Benedict beatified in 2005, before having a two-hour meeting with the pope. At the end of the meeting, Cardinal Innitzer in essence retracted the bishops’ pastoral letter; in a statement published in L’Osservatore Romano but not in Austria, he declared that the letter “did not intend to be an approval of what was, or is, irreconcilable with the law of God and the freedom and rights of the Catholic Church. Besides, that declaration must not be interpreted by the State and by the party as an obligation of conscience, nor must it be employed for propaganda purposes.” When Cardinal Innitzer returned to Vienna, though, he had the swastika flag raised at the cathedral, and on April 10, under the watchful eyes of the Nazis – the ballot was not secret – 99.7 percent of Austrians approved the Anschluss. Cardinal Innitzer made a Nazi salute as he voted “yes,” and the American Protestant magazine Christian Century speculated that he was making a bid to head an independent German church accountable only to Hitler.

In August 1938, Time detected a breach between the Austrian bishops and the German bishops, whom the magazine described as “mostly anti-Nazi,” though anti-Nazi Catholics found encouragement in a homily by Archbishop Sigismund Waitz of Salzburg. In September, Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis’ chief racial theorist, was quoted as saying, “That the Catholic Church and also the Confessional Church in their present form must disappear from the life of our people is my full conviction, and I believe I am entitled to say that this is also our Führer’s viewpoint … Reasonable men, like Cardinal Innitzer – although I would not even trust him out of sight – will, under pressure of established circumstances, find themselves compelled to submit, more and more, to National Socialist leadership.”

By October, though, Cardinal Innitzer adopted a different stance. He protested the abolition of Catholic education and the adoption of Nazi marriage laws and delivered an anti-Nazi sermon in which he urged the 10,000 in attendance to “give outward testimony” to the faith. An anti-Nazi demonstration ensued. The following evening, Nazi groups, throwing stones through windows, looted his residence and killed a priest by throwing him out a second-story window. Starting a bonfire next to the cathedral, they burned a crucifix, a painting of Our Lady, and a photograph of the cardinal. On the wall of the cardinal’s residence they wrote, “Away with the priests! To Dachau with Innitzer!” Nazi Commissioner Josef Bürckel denounced Cardinal Innitzer before a crowd of 100,000, calling him a friend of the Jews as the crowd roared, “Hang the black dog!” That evening, a mob gathered again outside his cathedral and residence, chanting, “Innitzer to Dachau!”

The Nazi government then shut down seminaries and monasteries and arrested parish priests. In “protective custody” for much of the following month, Cardinal Innitzer backtracked. Accused of being insufficiently supportive of the Nazi invasion of his native Sudetenland, Cardinal Innitzer wrote, “I expressed my thanks to the Führer and ordered thanksgiving services and the ringing of bells for the whole of the Ostmark [Austria].” In essence retracting his anti-Nazi homily, he added, “I protest against the mortifying reproach that I placed myself in deliberate opposition to the Führer and the nation during those great days of the German people.”

In the summer of 1939, Cardinal Innitzer was pelted with eggs and potatoes following Mass at a parish church. The crowd grabbed his clothes, knocked his biretta off his head with an umbrella, and shouted, “Give the black Cardinal a one-way ticket to Dachau! Innitzer preaches peace and means war! Down with the political priest!” The cardinal stopped displaying the papal flag on his automobile, changed the license plate number, and ordered priests and religious to wear secular garb in public. According to Time, the American Catholic journal Commonweal praised Cardinal Innitzer’s attempts at conciliation and called the incident at the parish “one of the few classic tragedies in our melodramatic age.”

Not every Austrian followed Cardinal Innitzer’s attempts at conciliation, however. On June 1, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorized a decree clearing the way for the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter (1907-43), an Austrian farmer who, against the urging of his wife, his parish priest, and his bishop, refused to serve in the Nazi army and suffered martyrdom by beheading; he will be beatified in the Upper Austrian capital of Linz on October 26. In a 1997 beatification homily in Vienna, Pope John Paul paid tribute to Blessed Restituta Kafka: “Because of her courage and fearlessness, she did not wish to be silent even in the face of the National Socialist regime. Challenging the political authority’s prohibitions, Sister Restituta had crucifixes hung in all the hospital rooms. On Ash Wednesday 1942 she was taken away by the Gestapo.” In his book Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Crossroad, 2000),Faith & Reason Institute President Robert Royal recounts other instances of heroism by Austrian Catholics.

Like Germany, postwar Austria was occupied by both Allied and Soviet troops in 1945. Even though Soviet troops embarked on a campaign of “theft, rape, kidnapping, and murder” (in the words of current St. Pölten cathedral rector Fr. Norbert Burmettler), Cardinal Innitzer adopted a similar attitude of conciliation towards the Communists. In January 1950, Pope Pius XII appointed a thirty-nine-year-old fervent anti-Communist Viennese priest, Msgr. Franz Jachym, as coadjutor archbishop. During the midst of the consecration ceremony at Vienna’s cathedral, one of the most dramatic incidents in Austria’s ecclesial history took place. After the papal letter of appointment was read and Msgr. Jachym answered seventeen ritual questions, he made a startling announcement in Latin and German. In the words of Time:

‘After meditating through the entire night,’ he proclaimed, ‘I do not feel able to undertake the bishop’s office. You will, as priests, understand -- I feel not worthy enough.’ Then, while his fellow clergymen and the congregation watched in amazed silence, the distraught monsignor, still clad in bishop’s robes, hurried through a side door to his car, which was waiting with the motor running.

Pope Pius XII ordered both Cardinal Innitzer and Msgr. Jachym to Rome, made clear he sided with Msgr. Jachym in his approach to Communism, and reportedly reminded Cardinal Innitzer that a cardinal’s robes signify a willingness to undergo martyrdom. The Holy Father then directed the consecration to take place, and Cardinal Innitzer consecrated Msgr. Jachym coadjutor archbishop at a May ceremony in Rome.

October 1955 marked the end of an era in Austria. On October 9, Cardinal Innitzer died at the age of seventy-nine. Coadjutor Archbishop Jachym, however, did not become Archbishop of Vienna upon Cardinal Innitzer’s death. Instead, in a 1956 decision that continues to have major ramifications on the life of the Church in Austria, Pope Pius XII named Bishop Franz König, Coadjutor Bishop of St. Pölten, as Archbishop of Vienna. On the same day, he appointed Archbishop Jachym, who remained coadjutor, as auxiliary bishop of Vienna. He served in this capacity until his death in 1984.

On October 26, 1955, Austria officially regained its independence after Soviet and other foreign troops peacefully left the nation. The Soviets’ decision followed a Rosary crusade inspired by the message of Our Lady of Fatima; in the end, 500,000 Austrians were part of the crusade to pray the Rosary daily.


The Rosary crusade began with a priest’s pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Mariazell in 1946. On Saturday, September 8, Pope Benedict, too, will make a pilgrimage to Mariazell to celebrate the shrine’s 850th anniversary; the basilica there is dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose feast is September 8. At 10:30, he is scheduled to celebrate Mass outside the Mariazell Basilica, and at 4:45, he will lead clergy, seminarians, and religious in Vespers.

In 1157, after the Benedictine Abbey of St. Lambrecht had acquired additional land, Abbot Otker entrusted the care of souls there to the monk Magnus. With the abbot’s permission, Magnus took with him a small Marian image carved out of linden wood. When a massive rock on the road blocked Magnus’s journey, he sought the Blessed Virgin’s intercession, and the rock split in two. When Magnus arrived at his destination, he placed the image on a tree trunk and built a cell around it. In time, “Mary’s cell” – Mariazell – became a place of pilgrimage, and the Marian image came to be known as Magna Mater Austriae (the Great Mother of Austria). The healing of Margrave Heinrich von Mahren and his wife led to the building of a Romanesque chapel there in 1200. The present Gothic structure dates from 1365, following a military victory attributed to the Virgin’s intercession by King Louis I of Hungary. The current expanded Baroque structure was completed between 1644 and 1683; Emperor Joseph II banned pilgrimages there in 1787.

Pope St. Pius X named the shrine a minor basilica in 1907, its 750th anniversary year, and the following year the papal nuncio crowned the image of Our Lady. In 1983, during the first of his three apostolic journeys to Austria, Pope John Paul II entrusted the Austrian nation to Our Lady there, and Cardinal Ratzinger preached at Mariazell in 2004. One million pilgrims, many from Central and Eastern Europe, now make their way to the town of 1,700 every year.

The Stephansdom

On Sunday, September 9, Pope Benedict will return to Vienna to celebrate Mass at the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) at 10:00. The musical setting for the Mass will be Franz Joseph Haydn’s Mariazellermesse (the Mariazell Mass, or Mass No. 6 in C Major, also known as the Missa Cellensis), which the great Austrian composer wrote for choir, organ, and orchestra in 1782, the year Pope Pius VI visited Vienna. At the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Benedict will lead the Angelus and deliver a short address in the cathedral plaza where Nazis called for Cardinal Innitzer’s imprisonment nearly seven decades ago.

Construction of the Stephansdom – originally Vienna’s second parish – began in 1137, and the following century a late Romanesque structure was built. The transformation of the Romanesque parish into one of the world’s great Gothic cathedrals began in 1304 and concluded in 1511.

The present condition of the Church in Austria, which Pope Benedict will likely confront in his homily at the Stephansdom, is largely the product of Cardinal Franz König, Cardinal Innitzer’s successor as Archbishop of Vienna from 1956 to 1985. The son of a farmer, Cardinal König was a linguist – he was fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, and Latin and could read several ancient languages – who became an authority on Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. In trouble with the Nazis because of his ministry to youth, he also ministered to prisoners of war at Allied-run POW camps.

A prominent figure at the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal König served as President of the Secretariat for Non-Believers (later the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers) from 1965 to 1980 and President-Delegate of the 1974 Synod of Bishops, which was devoted to evangelization. An ecumenist and a major participant in the Vatican’s nonconfrontational engagement with Communism (or Ostpolitik)under Blessed John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, Cardinal König went on frequent diplomatic missions in Eastern Europe. He is frequently described as the major influence behind the second 1978 conclave’s election of Pope John Paul II, whom he knew as Archbishop of Krakow.

Cardinal König also developed a reputation as one of the world’s leading “progressive” prelates and spearheaded the Austrian bishops’ tepid reception of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control. While periodic abstinence was the “most proper means” of avoiding conception, the bishops said, couples who “for ethical reasons” use artificial contraception “need not necessarily feel that they have separated themselves from God’s love.” Cardinal König later commented, “My impression was that he [Pope Paul VI] did not really understand or did not realize that the result would be so many, many problems for families and for the Church.” In 1970, on behalf of the Austrian bishops, he requested permission from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship to allow the laity to preach homilies; the answer from Rome the following year was “no.”

The apostolic nuncio in Austria between 1976 and 1984 was Archbishop Mario Cagna, a priest of the Diocese of Casale Monferrato, Italy. Archbishop Cagna (1911-86) served as the Vatican’s representative in Japan and Yugoslavia before his service in Austria.

In 2004, two Italian scholars published a biography of Archbishop Cagna that included the text of the “Cagna Report,” a lengthy analysis of the Church in Austria that the archbishop wrote to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli in January 1985. The report, which was discovered in the archives of Archbishop Cagna’s home diocese, is a nuanced but damning indictment of Austrian religious instruction, theological faculties, diocesan seminaries, religious orders, feminist inroads, the Catholic media, and the pastoral care of the family. “The main problem remains Vienna,” wrote the archbishop: “Vienna needs a bishop who can nourish the flame and reignite it in the hearts of the people.” He concluded:

Austria is a mission territory … In the face of the current situation one should not give oneself the illusion that a quick recovery is on the way. A recovery will take years, and courageous, holy bishops, who with patience and determination and without delay, change the structures, replace the officials, revive the seminaries, encourage the good priests, correct the weak and errant ones, reduce the bureaucracy, tenaciously proclaim sound doctrine, and everywhere strengthen the identification with the pope and his teaching office.

In September 1985, Cardinal König retired at the age of eighty; in the years before his death in 2004, he criticized the “centralism” of the Roman Curia and took issue with Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique of the work of Fr. Jacques Dupuis. Cardinal Ratzinger issued a forceful public response.

In July 1986, Pope John Paul II shocked many with the appointment of Fr. Hans Hermann Groër as Cardinal König’s successor. A priest of the Archdiocese of Vienna from his ordination in1942 until 1977, Fr. Groër entered the Benedictine order at the age of fifty-seven and became prior of the shrine of Maria Roggendorf. Known for his work with the Legion of Mary, Fr. Groër organized popular monthly pilgrimages that emphasized traditional devotions. Remembered even today with fondness by numerous faithful priests, religious, and laity in Austria, Cardinal Groër proved himself to be the sort of bishop proposed by Archbishop Cagna. Three subsequent episcopal appointments proved to be particularly forthright defenders of Catholic teaching: Archbishop Georg Eder of Salzburg (1989-2002) was criticized in the international media for his comments on homosexuality and for offering Mass ad orientem; Salzburg Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Laun (1995 – present) became known for his pro-life activism; and Bishop Kurt Krenn (Vienna auxiliary bishop, 1987-91; Bishop of Sankt Pölten, 1991-2004) fostered Tridentine Mass communities and became known for his bluntness. He said in 2002, for example, that “Islam is not stronger, just more fanatical. And it is not the true religion, anyway. We know we are the true religion and we approach the conflict with Islam from this conviction.”

On March 27, 1995, after Cardinal Groër condemned homosexual activity in a Lenten pastoral letter, a thirty-seven-year-old former seminarian, Joseph Hartmann, accused the cardinal, “who was my father, mother, confessor, and lover,” of a four-year liaison that began when the seminarian was nineteen. Other former seminarians from the time period, came forward with similar accusations, and accusations of pedophilia were joined to accusations of homosexuality.

Two weeks later, Pope John Paul named Vienna Auxiliary Bishop Christoph Schönborn, the Dominican general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as coadjutor archbishop. In September, he succeeded the seventy-five-year-old Cardinal Groër as archbishop. A dozen years later, faithful Catholics in Austria remain divided over whether Cardinal Groër, who issued a denial viewed as ambiguous, was an abuser or a victim of a smear campaign. As previously reported in CWR, the Austrian bishops told Pope John Paul in 1998 that they had reached a consensus of moral certainty of Cardinal Groër’s guilt, while Bishop Krenn defended him to the end, saying, “The liars should shut their faces.”

In June 1995 – while Cardinal Groër was still Archbishop of Vienna – 500,000 Austrians signed a petition calling for lay involvement in the election of bishops, optional clerical celibacy, and changes in Catholic teaching on contraception and the ordination of women. In 1998, the Dialogue for Austria – something akin to the 1976 Call to Action meeting in Detroit – took place. Members of the laity, twenty-seven of them members of the dissenting organization We Are Church, conversed with the bishops. 75 percent of delegates voted for the ordination of married men and a change in Catholic teaching on contraception; 87 percent called for Communion for those remarried outside the Church; and 89 percent requested lay involvement in the election of bishops. However, as John Allen reported in the National Catholic Reporter in 2005, We Are Church has lost much steam in Austria over the past several years.

Cardinal Schönborn has directed the Church’s efforts towards evangelization by continuing initiatives begun by Cardinal Groër, promoting new movements and initiatives (for example, a city mission praised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005), and engaging the secularist culture, as attested by his critique of Darwinism in the pages of the New York Times. Father Alkuin Schachenmayr, a Cistercian at Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) Abbey in the Archdiocese of Vienna, told CWR that one of Cardinal Schönborn’s most successful initiatives is the “Long Night of the Churches,” in which “people can visit the churches late into the night, hear concerts, get tours, make confessions, and pray in general.”

In doing so, Cardinal Schönborn has helped turn the Church’s attention away from internal problems. A young man preparing for the priesthood in the archdiocese told CWR that the cardinal “sees that liberal Catholicism is dying of its own accord because it is not of God, and therefore fruitless and passing. It does not seem necessary to seek conflict with a movement which is, as it were, biologically doomed.”

Pope John Paul’s third and final apostolic journey to Austria in 1998 fostered increased goodwill towards the Church. Brother Edmund Waldstein, also a Cistercian monk at Heiligenkreuz Abbey, told CWR, “At the end of the trip, the Austrian president wept as he bade farewell to the Holy Father; it was a sign of how much the whole country was moved.” At the same time, not much has changed for the average Austrian parishioner according to Roland Noé of the independent Austrian Catholic news agency Katholische Nachrichten ( He told CWR, “You find in Austria many parishes where there is much activism but fewer parishes where there is much prayer. That’s the big problem … You will find people who always will get graces with a visit of the pope … but the situation of the Church (structure, etc.) has not really improved.”

The Church in Austria then enjoyed relative calm until 2004, when Bishop Krenn resigned following his slow response to a scandal at his seminary. As CWR reported at the time (“Photographic Evidence,” Aug.-Sept. 2004), tens of thousands of images of pornography, much of it child pornography, were found on seminary computers, and the seminary rector and vice rector were photographed in what appeared to be homosexual actions with seminarians.

In November 2005, less than seven months after his installation as Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI received the Austrian bishops on their quinquennial ad limina visit to Rome. The Holy Father offered a remarkably blunt assessment of the situation of the Church there (see sidebar).

Pope Benedict’s words appear to have had an effect in the Diocese of Linz, which had become notorious for liturgical abuses under Bishop Maximilian Aichern (1982-2005). While Father Schachenmayr says that even now “there are regularly problems with Communion being given to Protestant pastors,” Jutta Lang Graf – a leader in the Austrian youth pro-life work for several years – told CWR that Bishop Aichern’s replacement, the Salesian Bishop Ludwig Schwarz, has “zealously distributed” the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to youth. In Salzburg, Archbishop Alois Kothgasser, the more circumspect successor to Archbishop Eder, recently refused the state’s highest honor because the governor of Salzburg is pro-abortion.


At 4:30 in the afternoon of Sunday, September 9, Pope Benedict will pay a brief visit to the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz. Founded in 1133 by St. Leopold (1073-1136), margrave of Austria and father of eighteen, Heiligenkreuz is the world’s second oldest extant Cistercian abbey.

Heiligenkreuz’s age is not the only reason for the papal visit. Father Schachenmayr told CWR that “Heiligenkreuz is known for a pronounced fidelity to the teachings of the Magisterium and the heritage of Catholic spirituality … The ‘new’ liturgy is in Latin … We sing Gregorian Chant every day and take many efforts to make the Divine Office as dignified as possible.” In addition, vocations are booming: with seventy-five monks, “Heiligenkreuz is at its highest number of monks since the Baroque era.” The abbey is also home to a seminary with 160 students. This January, Pope Benedict raised the seminary to the dignity of a pontifical athenaeum.

Brother Waldstein concurs: he sees the pope’s visit as “a way of thanking Heiligenkreuz for its fidelity through a difficult time, encouraging it to continue along its path, and pointing it out to the Austrian Church at large as an example to be imitated.”

After his visit to Heiligenkreuz, Pope Benedict will travel to the Vienna Konzerthaus (Concerthouse), constructed in 1913 on the eve of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to meet with dignitaries from the Church and civil society. Having confronted some of the same anti-Roman tendencies that Pope Pius VI encountered in Austria 225 years earlier, he will then return to Rome.

Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina.

Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Bishops of Austria on Their Ad Limina Visit Saturday, November 5, 2005

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