Page 7, 13th March 1987

13th March 1987
Page 7
Page 7, 13th March 1987 — An Austrian self image

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Locations: Dublin, Rome, Vienna


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An Austrian self image

I was in Vienna in 1968, in 1972 and in 1985 and on each

occasion I wrote in the Catholic Herald about my impressions of Austria. I thought the

ecclesiastical, political and national atmosphere in general seemed to be optimistic.

The picture in 1987 is different, the final turning point having occurred the previous year. Cardinal KOnig was Archbishop of Vienna from 1956-1985. He has been a truly remarkable church leader.

It was he who was largely responsible for taking the Church out of party politics. Before the war the OVP (Conservative Party of Austria) was the Catholic Party and the Socialist Party the anti-church party. Now, however, the Church is truly above and apart from party politics.

In 1968 I wrote that it was said of the Cardinal that he was red inside as well as outside. It was journalese, but it was not far off the mark.

The Cardinal was by then very much a man of the people, although curiously his popularity had grown rather from his international stature than his achievements in Austria.

The Austrians are or have become very conscious of their image. Today, for example, they suspect that their image in the • Vatican is poor, but they are unable to explain it. I think they believe that this is so because the successor to Cardinal KOnig, Archbishop Grodr, is not the same as his predecessor.

I have not yet met the new Archbishop so my observations are very much second-hand. It was obvious that Rome had to avoid a copy-book imitation of Cardinal Konig. Archbishop Groer was a Benedictine. He was the National Director in Austria of the Legion of Mary and was responsible for a Marian Shrine, Maria Roggendorf, a very popular centre for pilgrimages.

He apparently still likes occasionally to wear his Benedictine habit and as Archbishop his image is very orthodox and this, mistakenly I believe, is the cause for Austrians thinking they have had a bad image at the Vatican.

Surely it is becoming obvious that everywhere Rome is appointing priests as bishops whom they consider to be orthodox.

Whether this originates from the Pope himself or the curia is less clear. I suspect that in the cae of Archbishop Grodr it is the curia.

Cardinal KOnig in an interview with Newsweek expressed his disappointment that he had not been personally informed of the appointment beforehand.

If the Pope had been responsible he would surely have at least informed Cardinal KOnig. On the other hand, one can speculate that if it was an appointment of the curia, they might have wished to avoid possible representation to the Pope by Cardinal Kftig.

It is said in Vienna that Dr Groer feels himself `berufen' (called) to his new position as Archbishop of Vienna, an approach the Viennese tend to regard as simplistic. But this need not be so.

The Austrians show a lack of confidence in pre-judging their new Archbishop of Vienna, but that is understandable.

Almost at the same time as they lost their Cardinal Archbishop with an international reputation, they were losing their Bundesprasident, the President of Austria Dr Kirchschlager who had held that position for twelve years, the full two terms allowed by the constitution.

Dr Kirchschlager had gained immense respect in Austria. He too was an international figure, though less so than Cardinal KOnig, but his integrity within Austria was and is greatly admired.

When I spoke to Dr Kirchschlager recently he explained that unlike the English constitutional monarch, or the Irish President he was free to speak without government approval. He added that he would continue to do so now that he had retired.

Our sister paper in Ireland, the Irish Catholic, has in fact invited Dr Kirchschlager to speak in Dublin on March 19 on the subject of Church and State relations.

The respect accorded to Dr Kirchschlager as President was to a great extent due to the fact that he did not act as politicians are expected. He always said what he believed, and meant what he had said. He made it abundantly clear that he spoke as a practising Catholic and he never belittled his Faith.

In pre-war days when the Church was aligned to the Conservative Party in Austria the Corpus Christi processions were often disturbed by the more militant elements of the Socialist Party and Dr Kirchschlager, who had been nominated by the Socialist Prime Minister Dr Kreisky as candidate for the Presidency, was the first President to take part in the Corpus Christi procession.

It was Dr Kirchschlager's integrity, which in political circles today seems to be so rare, which made him very popular. His forthcoming lecture in Dublin is keenly anticipated.

I suspect that Dr Kirchschlager would subscribe to what Cardinal Konig had said in 1976: 'What sort of freedom is it and what kind of understanding of democracy that wishes to restrict the influence of the Church to the place of worship and the sacristy?'

About four years ago the internationally known Bundeskanzler (Prime Minister) of Austria Dr Kreisky had also retired after being Prime Minister for over a decade.

Dr Kreisky a Jew, had frequently mediated in Arab affairs and gained the respect of those in the Middle East who were opposed to Israel.

The departure of these three great men from positions of leadership in Austria ended an era, it created a void in the country which in itself is bad enough, but it was followed by the debacle of the election of Dr Waldheim.

The international repercussions of the Waldheim affair again disturbed the Austrians and tarnished that self image abroad, of which they are so conscious.

Worse than that happened. Despite Dr Kreisky's political leadership of more than a decade there was suddenly aroused an anti-semitism which was thought to haN;e been laid to rest.

It is doubtful whether Dr Waldheim would have been elected as President (although it is strongly denied by the Conservative Party, whose candidate Dr Waldheim was) had the disclosures right or wrong, not been levelled at him.

It has been said that Austrians were more anti-semitic than the Germans and alas it must be remembered that Adolf Hitler came from Austria, although it is amusing to recall that in an argument between two foreign envoy's the German levelled the charge at the Austrian that Hitler had been born in Austria, which the Austrian envoy countered by saying that in Austria he had been a painter, it was the Germans who had made him the Fiihrer.

However, Dr Waldheim not only attracted the anti-semitic vote, and certainly also lost some votes on that issue, but many Austrians resented the interference from outside.

Nevertheless Austria's image was tarnished by their new President and they are conscious that he has apparently not yet been invited on any state visits abroad.

Various Catholic laymen and especially the well known broadcaster and President of the Catholic Action, Dr Paul Schulmeister, felt so strongly about the reappearance of antisemitism that in October 1986, on the eve of the Jewish feast Yom Kippur, they organised a meeting in Vienna which was attended by the former President of Austria Dr Kirchschlager, the new Archbishop Dr Grodr and various Jewish dignatories.

Their addresses and discussions have been published in a book: Shalom for Austria; an Exchange of Christian and Jewish Ideas.

Austria today is a disturbed state. It is evident even in differences within the Catholic Hierarchy itself which have surfaced since Cardinal Konig's retirement. On the other hand the unity amongst the leading Catholic laymen and Catholic journalists is an example to other countries.

The Austrians admit to a tendency to moan, there is a typical Viennese expression which describes it well, nVir raunzen'.

The economic situation today is the subject of many a moan which for someone who is not an economist, I find hard to understand since my pound sterling today is worth 20 per cent less than when I visited Vienna 18 months ago.

Austria today needs men like the former President, Dr Kirchschlager who in 1977 said: 'The Church in its wordly existence and the State because of its unique justification both exist for human beings, not to own them but to give them fulfilment and to make living bearable, to give it meaning, and dare we say, to make it beautiful'.

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