The Austrian Bishops will meet next week, among other things to elect a new chairman. The laity of the country, meanwhile, are asking their pastors for more synodality and more women in Church leadership.

– A successor to Cardinal Schönborn

Top of the agenda at the spring plenary assembly of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference (ÖBK) to be held March 16-19 at the St. Michael Bildungshaus in Pfons will be the election to replace outgoing chair Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, recently announced his intention to step down as ÖBK president after 22 years in the post.

That announcement followed months of speculation as to whether the cardinal would continue as Vienna archbishop past the mandatory retirement age of 75 and after various health problems, surgery included.

After Schönborn offered his resignation to Pope Francis last October, the pontiff in January – when the Austrian Dominican turned 75 – decided finally not to accept it, and to extend the cardinal’s time in the Vienna archdiocese indefinitely.

Schönborn is, however, stepping down as Austrian Bishops’ chair, and that before his 2016 six-year mandate expires in 2022.

As such, the 15 Austrian prelates with the right to vote in the Conference will have to choose from among the nine diocesan bishops in the country to replace him, and that by a two-thirds majority.

Querida Amazonia, also on the Bishops’ agenda

The vote to choose a successor to Schönborn – to be held Tuesday March 17 – isn’t by any means the only item on the Austrian Bishops’ agenda.

Also slated to be discussed are Pope Francis’ post-Amazon Synod exhortation Querida Amazonia, as well as hot-button political topics in the country, such as the welcome and integration of refugees, euthanasia or the exclusion of religious symbols from public spaces.

The Austrian Bishops will also discuss the state of Church academic and higher education institutions, according to SIR, as well as the state of preparations for two important national Church events: the Austrian parish council May 21-23 in Saalfelden, and the “Jesus in the City” youth meeting to be held in Klagenfurt from July 3-5.

– “The will to implement a ‘synodal path’ in Austria is there for many”

In the meantime, however, the Austrian laity are asking their bishops to concentrate on two topics especially dear to them: synodality and women in Church leadership.

On that first point, the Catholic Lay Council of Austria (KLRÖ) organised in Vienna the weekend of March 7-8 in Vienna an encounter on the topic “Synodality in the Catholic Church”, just as the Vatican was announcing that Pope Francis had chosen precisely that theme as the subject of the next Ordinary Synod of Bishops in 2022.

In a resolution, the KLRÖ voted in favour of “the principle of synodality gaining more and more space in the Catholic Church”, not just on the universal level but also at the levels of national episcopal conferences, dioceses, vicariates and parishes.

The Lay Council recommended that, as far as possible, reform and innovation proposals in the Church – “apart from beliefs and moral questions” – be discussed and decided in committees made up of bishops, priests, religious and lay Catholics.

Some Austrian laypeople are even looking, with their emphasis on synodality, in the direction of the German Church’s ‘synodal path’, and hoping to implement a similar reform process in their own national Church.

“The will [to implement a synodal path in Austria] is there for many”, journalist Klaus Pömpers told Domradio March 9.

“However, one also has to say that there are a lot of Catholics who are very conservative in sticking to the status quo and want to cement it.

“There are two groups facing each other, as in Germany. One can only observe who will ultimately be able to organise progress or regression”, Pömpers added, observing that much depends on who succeeds Schönborn at the head of the Bishops’ Conference.

– Women urge Bishops to deal with “urgent” question of their equal rights

For their part, Austrian Catholic women are also hoping the Bishops will take up their cause in their forthcoming spring assembly, at least going on the demands they made in protests at the weekend for International Women’s Day.

On March 8, the women’s commission of the Diocese of Linz organised the social media campaign #frauenmachenkirche (“Women Make Church”), to make visible – as did thousands of Catholic women around the world – their struggle for equal opportunities in the Church.

“It is a powerful sign of life for women in the Church”, commission head Maria Eicher told Kathpress March 10 of the online campaign.

“This campaign has shown that many women identify with the Church”.

But in order for the “Women Make Church” initiative not to remain just “a nice action”, the upcoming bishops’ assembly must “deal with these urgent questions” of women’s participation in the Church, Eicher urged.

Regional solutions are necessary, “also with the bishops in German-speaking countries”, concluded the chairwoman of the Linz Diocese’s Women’s Commission.

– Update 14/3/20 13:06 CET: Meeting scaled back to two days due to coronavirus, outbreak to dominate discussions

The Secretary General of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, Peter Schipka, announced March 13 that next week’s Bishops’ assembly will be scaled back from four days to two due to coronavirus, and that the outbreak will dominate the prelates’ discussions at the meet, now moved also from Tyrol to Vienna.

“Local bishops will start their debate on Monday, 16 March, at the Episcopal Palace in Vienna, under the presidency of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. The agenda will cover almost exclusively the current coronavirus crisis and measures against the pandemic”, Schipka explained.

The Bishops’ assembly, which will also involve consultations with government officials and health experts, will take place at a time when the vast majority of religious celebrations in Austria have been cancelled over the COVID-19 emergency.

However, it is still expected that the bishops present in the assembly will still vote for a successor to Cardinal Schönborn as Austrian Bishops’ president.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.