Druckansicht - Donnerstag 16. Dezember 2010
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Living Ecumenism - Mariazell and Sibiu




Christians have been engaged in ecumenical movements for 45 years in Austria. Cardinal Franz König was the leading figure in Austria who recognized the necessity for dialogue. In the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council he had a great influence on ecumenism in Austria. In 1964, before the Decree on Ecumenism "Unitatis reintegratio" was released, he founded the foundation "Pro Oriente" which made a great contribution to the relationship with the Eastern Catholic Churches. Many ecumenical initiatives, meetings and services are celebrated together. For example, the "Long Night of Churches" has been a strong ecumenical initiative for many years. Since 1994, the Austrian Bishops' Conference has been a member of the "Ecumenical Council of the Churches in Austria (ÖRKÖ)." Two European Ecumenical Councils took place in Basel in 1989, and in 1997 in Graz. At the moment,  the Christian Churches are preparing themselves for the Third European Ecumenical Council in Sibiu under the motto "The Light of Christ Shines Upon All." The Pope's visit to Austria, which takes place simultaneously with the Ecumenical Council, is not seen as a competition. To express solidarity, an Ecumenical Symposium on the topic "Approaching Each Other - Mary and Unity in the Christian Churches" took place in Mariazell. The Lutheran Superintendent and representative of the ÖRKÖ, Mag. Paul Weiland, is going to present Pope Benedict XVI. with a candle with the emblem of the Third European Ecumenical Council at the ecumenical Vespers in Mariazell. The pilgrimage of Pope Benedict XVI. to Mariazell and the Ecumenical Council in Sibiu are going to be two signs of being on the way to Christ. All texts on ecumenism can be found on the homepage of the ÖRKÖ (Ökumenischer Rat der Kirchen in Österreich) or on http://www.oekumene.at/.




An account of 45-year learning process of "against-each-other" to "with-each-other" given by a contemporary witness facilitates a more realistic picture of the ecumenical situation in Austria in 2007:


Owing to the Second Vatican Council


Austria has been the country of counter-reformation for centuries. On the occasion of His visit to Austria, Pope John Paul II. rightly said: "Austria, like many other European countries - was shaken to the core by disturbing denominational conflicts. The religious, cultural, and societal life in the country was shaped by religious discord and hostile intolerance, oppression, and persecution. The guilt of Christians in these events must not be denied. They are still waiting for confession and forgiveness." But He also pointed out: "The seeds of the Second Vatican Council have fallen on fertile grounds in this country."


Indeed, the Austrian Bishops, especially Franz Cardinal König, tried to bring the message of the council to the people in Austria.


On Catholics' Day in 1962 a ecumenical working group formulated ecumenical concerns and requests dedicated to the Austrian council fathers. Before the release of the Decree on Ecumenism "Unitatis reintegratio," Cardinal König founded the foundation "Pro Oriente" on November 4, 1964, which still makes a great contribution to the relationship with the Eastern Catholic Churches. After the release of the Decree on Ecumenism, the Lutheran Bishop gave the Austrian Bishops' Conference a memorandum which named all difficulties and stumbling blocks. Both agreed on discussing and solving these problems together and founded a committee consisting of Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Lutheran, the Reformed Church, and the Roman Catholic Church are members of the committee. Pro Oriente began its work in the Archbishop's Palace in 1966 and has been working in the name of these three churches until today. When discussing the memorandum in 1969, the churches mutually accepted each others baptisms and agreed on an arrangement concerning interdenominational marriages in the following years. This had been a controversial issue in Austria, as about 75% of the Protestant Christians living in Austria have Catholic spouses. So it is important that the Holy See agreed that the vow of the Catholic spouse reads as follows: "I acknowledge that my faith obliges me to stand up for the baptism and the Christian Catholic education of our children. I will try to fulfill this task with regard to the conscience of my spouse."


On July 1, 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, a diocesan commission on ecumenical questions was established. It was assigned the following tasks by Cardinal König: coordination of all ecumenical initiatives on the basis of Church Decrees, advising the diocese on important decisions and proposing measures. The given status is still valid.


Since 1967, the Austrian Radio has been broadcasting an ecumenical mass on Sundays and Holy Days in which three representatives of the three churches explore one religious subject. Creating this program for more than 30 years, the responsible persons got to know each other well regarding their personality, spirituality, and theology. Together, they bear witness to their faith in front of ten thousands of listeners in and outside the country.


Similar to the ecumenical mass, the preparations for the Vienna Diocesan Synod started in which the important results of the Second Vatican Council were brought from the world level to the local diocesan level. Theologians and representatives of other Christian churches were invited as observers. Their questions, experience, and theological insights as well as their biblically based spirituality did not just die away unheard but attracted interest. Guidelines were worked out which were approved by a great synod majority and have not lost their importance. For instance: "True unity is based on the heritage of Jesus Christ. Thus, ecumenical efforts mean to fulfill His Commandments. Ecumenical concerns are thus to be freed from tactical considerations. There is only one ecumenical task and not a separate ecumenism for every church." "Unity is to be made visible where agreement is possible."


In 1970, the Roman Catholic Church petitioned status of observer for the Ecumenical Council of the Churches in Austria (ÖRKÖ). All 13 member churches approved and appreciated the petition.

The process which had been started showed great results and so Pope John Paul II. said in 1983: "I want to encourage you to continue with your work!"


New Tasks and Ways of Cooperation


The conference of the KSZE in Vienna resulted in new tasks and assignments: the organization of talks, meetings and ecumenical services. For this, a new working group called "Austrian Bishops' Conference - Ecumenical Council of the Churches in Austria" was established. The contacts with the representatives of the KSZE, the participating people from the provinces, meant a practical test for the home churches.


Though, there were a lot of positive experiences which were incorporated into the preparation, participation, and reviews of the First Ecumenical Council in Basel.


In 1988, Pope John Paul II. came to Austria for the second time and celebrated an ecumenical mass in the Protestant Christ-church in Salzburg. This acted as an affirmation and encouragement for the ecumenical process in Austria.


The First European Ecumenical Council in Basel in 1989 with its motto "Peace in Justice" was well received in Austria. For the first time after the Reformation, European Christians of all denominations had come together. 98% of the 700 delegates signed the final document which was a sign that the cooperation of KEK (Konferenz Europäischer Kirchen; Conference of European Churches) and CCEE (Rat der Europäischen Bischofskonferenzen; Council of the European Bishops Conferences) had been the right thing to do.


On March 25, 1993, an "Ecumenical Directory for the Application of Norms and Principles of Ecumenism" came out which put the decision of joining a council into the hands of the Bishops. This document was very well received by all churches for opening many possibilities and making new suggestions.


For the Austrian Catholic Church the time had come to change its status in the Ecumenical Council of the Churches in Austria from observer to full member. After detailed debates, the Austrian Bishops Conference decided unanimously to apply for full member status. In an extraordinary meeting on December 1, 1994, all 13 member churches granted the request. A new phase in ecumenism had begun.


Further Steps after the Joining of the Austrian Roman Catholic Church as Full Member

Before gaining full member status, the Austrian Bishops' Conference had extended an invitation for the Second European Ecumenical Council in Graz. Afterwards, all 14 churches could prepare and organize the council together. "Dialog" was the leading motto in the preparation phase and a detailed documentation gives an account of the variety of topics discussed. The motto "God -The Gift of Reconciliation and Source of Life" was apt for the situation in which they found itself after the fall of the iron curtain. To their great surprise, half-and-half Christians from the East and the West came to the council.


The council in Graz had recommended to the churches to write a document on the ecumenical duties and rights which was tackled by the CCEE and the KEK. Thus, the "Charta Oecumenica," guidelines on the growing cooperation among the churches in Europe, was published in 2001. The churches in Austria had had a great share in the development of the "Charta Oecumenica" and recognized that their suggestions had been accepted.


On April 22, 2001, the day of the signing of the "Charta Oecumenica" in Strasbourg, in a festive ecumenical Vespers in St. Stephen's Cathedral and accompanied by the applause of the church community, the document was given to the representatives of the churches asking them for its acceptance and implementation. In the prayer week in 2002, it was announced that all 14 member churches of the ÖRKÖ had accepted the "Charta Oecumenica." It is a source of joy that the "Charta Oecumenica" is going to be the directory for the Third Ecumenical Council.


Integral Parts of Ecumenism

  • The parish council regulations allow for one member of the parish council to fully engage in ecumenical tasks. This enables a better cooperation with other parishes, churches, to organize the Women's World Day of Prayer, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Bible Circles, educational events, etc.
  • Counseling of interdenominational couples: the working group organized by interdenominational couple does a great job here.
  • Many help lines have been run for decades in ecumenical cooperation.
  • The exemplary cooperation between Diakonie (Protestant) and Caritas (Catholic) is especially beneficial. The granting of the greatest award of the Caritas to the Lutheran Bishop Mag. Herwig Sturm mirrors the mutual esteem.
  • The "Katholisches Bibelwerk" and the Austrian Bible Association bear witness to their mutually inspiring cooperation.
  • The National Ecumenical Committee for the Women's World Day of Prayer and the Ecumenical Forum Austria occupy observer status in the ÖRKÖ and are engaged in spreading its concerns beyond borders.
  • In ecumenical synods, academies, and adult education programs, pastoral, liturgical, and theological topics are discussed. Of course, all three church traditions are included which leads to a better understanding of the differences and the similarities.
  • Meetings and exchange of thoughts of the clergy of different churches have a long tradition and take place in dioceses in an apt way.

This list does not claim to be complete but gives an idea of the diversity of the ecumenical efforts.


Special Ecumenical Processes in Austria

  • Burdens of the past are viewed from different perspectives by members of different churches and dioceses in order to reduce prejudices and stereotypes. In the light of the Gospels, one's guilt is acknowledged and steps towards reconciliation are taken.
  • The project "Social Mission Statement" is a unique ecumenical initiative in Austria and beyond its borders. This project is characteristic for the ecumenical cooperation in this country. The document of this project was developed in a 3-year process and was presented to the public in a festive Vespers on the First Sunday of Advent 2003. In a first phase, people, and institutions in all churches concerned with social issues were interviewed. 555 responses were evaluated and summarized in a social report called "Sozialwort," "Social Mission Statement," as a basis for further projects.

In a second phase, the surveyed people and institutions were asked for a response to the report "Social Mission Statement." Unions, the Industrialists' Association, and parties were among the persons and institutions asked. About 150 statements were given which were presented and illuminated in extensive talks. This broadened the horizon enormously and led to a change in the primary questions. One thing became clear: the formulation of a "Social Mission Statement" of the churches of eastern and western tradition was sensible and desirable.


About 50 experts of the different churches now engaged in writing the Social Mission Statement. In this third phase, the working group in charge of the "Social Mission Statement" kept close contacts with the church representatives. They were provided with the various drafts of the "Social Mission Statement," and the decision making in the various churches was given greatest priority in terms of writing the document.


After this 3-year process, the representatives of the 14 member churches in the Austrian Ecumenical Council approved the publishing of the document with their signatures. Since that time, the "Social Mission Statement" has had a long and lasting history of reception. It was translated into English and Hungarian and was internationally well received. A scientific study on the perspectives of ecumenical ethics ("Perspektiven Ökumenischer Sozialethik") stressed the unique cooperation between the churches of eastern and western tradition. Further scientific studies concentrated on certain aspects.


The document is characterized by a deep biblical spirituality and does not only address people outside the church. In fact, it rather appeals to the churches to discharge their duties. The "Social Mission Statement" is meant as a realization of the Charta Oecumenica N. 7. Every year, an account of the receptive history of the "Social Mission Statement" is given. The "Social Mission Statement" turned out to be an orientation guide which invites to engage in reflection and dialogue. So the "Alliance for a Free Sunday," which all churches joined in, has become a real movement.

On the "Mitteleuropäischer Kirchentag," the "Social Mission Statement" was given to the representative of the Pope, Kardinal Sodano, and the Bishops' Conferences present.

  • In a hearing of the "Österreich-Konvent" (an advisory committee on a reform of the constitution), the representatives of the state-approved churches presented their concerns and requests in a text they had prepared together. This joint action astonished as well as impressed as it showed the churches bearing witness together which had a lasting impact.

As a result, the Catholic representative of the ÖRKÖ was nominated as a member of the "Österreich Konvent" by the President of Parliament. As the nominated person was not a lawyer by profession, the churches spontaneously assigned a highly qualified group of legal experts to her. This group of experts is still operating and advises the churches in legal questions.

  • Long lasting confidence-building actions in schools and the great cooperation between the people in charge of school matters were the prerequisites for the Europe-wide unique foundation of a "Kirchlich Pädagogische Hochschule." The university, which is going to be opened on October 1, is going to be a place of education for Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Old-Catholic R.E. teachers. There are going to be joint courses for members of all denominations and specific denominational courses.

It is a sign of reliable cooperation that it was possible to find an organizational mode for the university which was compatible with church law and received state approval. Additionally, the university has the full approval and support of the Archbishop of Vienna and the representatives of all churches.

  • The foundation "Pro Oriente" conveyed the results of the international meetings in symposiums and included the local churches in it. This network of contacts has been established not only in Vienna but also in other dioceses, such as Graz, Linz, and Salzburg in an appropriate way.
  • Ecumenism has become a topic of great interest of scientific research and teaching at Catholic Theological Universities in Austria. Thus, good contacts have been established with Universities in Middle and Eastern Europe.

At the Catholic Theological University in Graz, an Orthodox theologian teaches Orthodox theology. In Vienna, the Catholic Theological University and the Protestant Theological University offer joint theological seminars.

  • Since the Prayer Week in 2002, the ÖRKÖ (The Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria) has been in contact with the Ecumenical Councils in the neighboring countries Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. In this learning process, all parties concerned have been able to reduce the burdens of the past and build mutual trust. In these meetings, the "asynchrony" of ecumenical developments, the different conditions, and the limited knowledge of the documents of the Second Vatican Council come to light. The ecumenical situation in Austria is seen as a sign of hope.
  • The ÖRKÖ regularly speaks on important issues: asylum seekers, EU enlargement, EU Council Presidency, the War in Iraq. The joint statement on "human dying" has attracted great interest. All texts on ecumenism can be found on the homepage of the ÖRKÖ (Ökumenischer Rat der Kirchen in Österreich) or on www.oekumene.at.
  • The "Long Night of the Churches" has become a strong ecumenical sign for the public in the last three years. All member churches took part in the initiative and organized the program for this one special night in their churches. An ecumenical service is being celebrated in a centrally located church at the beginning of the night.

More than 100.000 people visited the churches that night. Negative and reserved attitudes towards the church could be reduced and the Eastern and Western Churches experienced each other as spiritually and pastorally enriching. This initiative which has originally been developed by communities and parishes in Vienna has inspired parishes in other dioceses.

  • The ÖRKÖ has engaged in establishing contacts with the Jewish Community and these mutual efforts have resulted in a number of initiatives. The "Koordinationsauschuss für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit," whose president is the Methodist Pastor Prof. Helmut Nausner, makes a huge contribution to this. The commitments formulated in the Charta Oecumenica are taken very seriously,

The Day of Judaism stresses the change of thoughts inside the churches. The Night of Broken Glass is being commemorated together every year and the churches take part in the commemoration in the former concentration camp Mauthausen. Joint study days and meetings are being held.


Sibiu and Mariazell


Since the announcement of the pilgrimage to the Third Ecumenical Council under the motto "The Light of Christ Shines Upon All," the Christian churches have been hoping for a renewal and unity in Europe. All ecumenical services, study days etc. have been seen as a station on the pilgrimage to the council and were accompanied by a working group.


The similarity of the Pope's visit to Austria on the occasion of the 850-year anniversary and the closing event of the Third Ecumenical Council pose a certain challenge. When the ÖRKÖ was informed about the visit of the Pope in December 2005, it was taken care of that the two events do not appear to be "competing against each other." The people in charge decided to invite all Austrian representatives of the Third Ecumenical Council to a Ecumenical Symposium in Mariazell in March 2007. To express solidarity, an Ecumenical Symposium on the topic "Approaching Each Other - Mary and Unity in the Christian Churches" took place in Mariazell. This Ecumenical Synod became a blessed event which is documented in a 106-page report. The report gives the following concluding remarks on the symposium:


"The meeting in Marizell was characterized by nobody stubbornly insisting on their views. All speeches were bearing testimonies which were well received by the people present who were listening actively. This was especially noticeable at the celebration of the Ecumenical Vespers in the Chapel of Grace and in the Ecumenical Prayer in front of the Altar of the Trinity in the Basilica: "We have come a long, long way together."


At this point, it is important to refer to the Marian Statue which is especially important for Mariazell. Baby Jesus is sitting on Mother Mary's lap and Mary is pointing at Jesus with the forefinger of her left hand. The message is clear. With this, Mary is saying: "It is not I who is important. Jesus Christ is important - look on Christ!"


At this pilgrimage site, the partakers of the synod in Mariazell have experienced an amazing meeting with Christians from various traditions. This is a reason to say thanks to the Lord."

Rome has not yet reacted on the document of this blessed event which the Head of the Austrian Bishops Conference and the Head of the ÖRKÖ have announced to Cardinal Kasper and the President of the KEK and CCEE in a joint letter.


Home remains that Pope Benedict XVI. recognizes this ecumenical sign in the "Austrian Ecumenical Pilgrimage" and that He incorporates it into His Mariazell message to Sibiu.


The Lutheran Superintendent and representative of the ÖRKÖ, Mag. Paul Weiland, is going to present Pope Benedict XVI. with a candle with the emblem of the Third European Ecumenical Council at the ecumenical Vespers in Mariazell. This candle shall stress the strong ties and the closeness of the two events.


Concluding Remarks


The 45-year learning process was marked by difficulties, confusions and stumbling blocks and there are members of all churches in Austria who are indifferent to or even oppose ecumenism.

Respectful contact "par cum pari" led to a positive development. After confusions about the church service after the catastrophe in Kaprun, directives were made binding for ecumenical services. Many small steps, taken in mutual respect, made one giant leap for both the Churches of the East and the West.


Differences are openly addressed. Theologians deal with hot theological issues. If difficulties arise concerning certain issues, such as bioethical questions, the churches agreed to update each other on decisions taken to take a first step towards a respectful recognition.


The representatives of the Christian churches describe ecumenism in Austria as "exemplary" and want to continue their efforts. Based on this, the churches can help and enrich one another.  This is particularly true for the Orthodox and the Old Oriental Churches: they have a growing number of members and try to fulfill their duties in pastoral work, charity work, Religious Education, and in public despite a very slim infrastructure.


The fact that the General Secretariat of the GEKE (Gemeinschaft Evangelischer Kirchen in Europa; Association of Protestant Churches in Europe), which consists of 105 member churches, moved to Vienna on January 1, 2007, poses a challenge to the credibility of ecumenism in Austria. The General Secretary of the GEKE was elected Bishop of the Lutheran Church and is going to assume office on January 1, 2008.


The delegates of the Third Ecumenical Council are already getting ready for "Sibiu" and are planning on steps to deepen the experiences and insight they are going to get in Sibiu. The joint testimony within a secular society has to be stressed.


Reverend Mother Prof. Dr. Christine Gleixner FvB

Head of the Diocesan Commission on Ecumenical Issues of the Archdioceses of Vienna.

Member of the Ecumenical Commission of the Austrian Bishops' Conference and the Joint Catholic-Protestant Commission.

Consultant of the Foundation "Pro Oriente"

Representative of the Archdiocese of Vienna at the Third European Ecumenical Council in Sibiu.


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