12 September 2007

Pope Benedict in Austria

Pope Benedict XVI ended a three-day pilgrimage to Austria on Sunday, telling Catholics to keep Sundays holy and to dedicate themselves to volunteer work to spread "the Christian image of God." With those themes, Benedict homed in on two aspects of Christian life that Austrians are particularly adept at. Despite disaffection with the once-powerful church here, Austria remains one of Europe's last countries to ban most commercial activity on Sundays, and it is a leading force in social charity work.After two rain-drenched days, the sun came out Sunday as the pope finished holy Mass at Vienna's landmark St. Stephen's Cathedral, a Gothic and Baroque church that survived heavy damage in World War II bombing.Its distinctive roof in blue, green and gold geometric-patterned tiles dominates the skyline of Old Vienna.The Mass was filled with the music of Haydn performed by orchestra and chorus and echoing out of doors in the plaza and cobblestone streets, where thousands of faithful gathered and chanted the pope's name."Without the Lord and without the day that belongs to him, life does not flourish," the pope said in his homily, seated under the cathedral's gilded 17th century high altar.Western societies, he complained, have turned Sundays into part of a weekend of leisure. Leisure is necessary, he said, "especially amid the mad rush of the modern world."But without an "encounter" with God, he said, Sunday "becomes wasted time that neither strengthens nor builds us up." Austrian business groups have been pressuring the government to allow them to open shops on Sundays, a move the Roman Catholic Church has been fighting.Taking advantage of the improved weather, the pope then walked several yards from the church to Stephansplatz, where he stood to deliver the Angelus greeting.A strong gust of wind suddenly whipped his white skullcap from his head, sending aides scurrying after it. Another gust lifted and wrapped his long red cape around his head, briefly veiling his face."The wind has spoken for itself," the pope said to laughter.Organizers had expected as many as 40,000 people to crowd into central Vienna to see the pope, but police said fewer than 20,000 were there, filling the area around the cathedral but only the beginning of the famous Graben walkway.Several middle-aged men and women stood to one side of the Graben with hand-painted signs calling for reforms in the church: "Brother pope, learn from our sister churches. Women to the priesthood!""This is a very meaningful visit," the group's leader, Hans Peter Hurka. "However, more discussions instead of speeches were needed."Later Sunday, the pope toured Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a 12th century Cistercian monastery on the outskirts of Vienna that includes a theological academy.There, he spoke to monks, then he returned to Vienna to hear a symphony recital and to address a range of church and lay volunteer organizations active in Austria."Volunteers like yourselves," he said, "are not 'stopgaps' in the social fabric, but people who truly contribute to giving our society a humane and Christian face. . . . Volunteer work is really about the heart of the Christian image of God and man: love of God and love of neighbors." The pope's mission in Austria was to bolster a church troubled by scandal and the same rampant desertions experienced throughout an increasingly secular Europe.It is not clear he achieved that, given the smaller, subdued crowds he attracted and commentaries offering mixed reviews."Benedict left. The event is over," noted commentator Alfred Payrleitner in the daily Kurier. "The account of his visit is also a portrait of our modern times -- a mixture of popular culture, imperturbable religiousness, ready reflexes and a lot of doubt."Many Austrian Catholics are ambivalent about their religious identities. There is a basic cultural Catholicism for many, without the piety, and it is not at all clear that Benedict's message will penetrate."We are what you might call Catholic atheists," Paul Zulehner, dean of theology at Vienna University, said in an interview."Austrians can combine being culturally Catholic without being religious."They are saying, yes, Christianity is important to the European identity and should be learned about in schools, but they don't go to church very often and they are not fervent believers."

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