Protests at donation of Austrian Catholic church to Orthodox

By Ecumenical News International
December 2, 2010

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria has denied being "anti-Polish" after members of Polish congregations in Vienna protested against his decision to offer one of the city's Catholic churches to Serbian Orthodox Christians - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.

"In recent weeks, many stormy events have taken place around a church in the Neulerchenfeld district," said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the chairperson of the Austrian Catholic Bishops' Conference.

"Untruths and simplifications have been spread, filling me with great sadness," said the cardinal. "It has gone so far that I have been accused of deliberately acting against Polish Catholics, and this information has even circulated in southern Poland. I must assure you the truth is quite different."

Schönborn was reacting to protests by local Polish Catholics against news that the city's Our Lady of Sorrows church would be handed over in June 2011 to members of the 160 000-strong Serbian Orthodox community.

More than 130 Catholic priests from Poland are currently ministering in the Vienna archdiocese, where Polish Catholicism is one of 36 foreign-language communities recognised by the Catholic Church.

The cardinal had said in a 19 November 2010 open letter he had promised to donate the church to the Orthodox after determining it could no longer be maintained by its declining congregation, and would otherwise have had to be closed and sold.

The move had faced protests by local Catholics, including a large group of Poles and their priest, the Rev Tadeusz Cichon, who rejected Cardinal Schönborn's explanation and accused him of an "act of unfriendliness towards Poles".

In his letter, the cardinal noted that the number of Christians of other denominations had been growing rapidly. "We must help them in Christian solidarity, among other things by transferring places of worship to them," said Schönborn.

"I am aware that this is a painful decision for people connected with this place. But the churches we own were built in other times and in the expectation that there would be more Catholics," he stated. "We cannot preserve such a large number of churches forever."

Catholics make up three-quarters of Austria's 8.1 million inhabitants and have been divided over the past decade over calls for women priests, voluntary celibacy and other reforms.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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