Pope Benedict in Austria - Church reformers critical

Photo: CTK

Pope Benedict the 16th visits Austria this week - the first papal visit to the country since his predecessor John Paul was there almost ten years ago. The main purpose of the trip is a pilgrimage to Mariazell - an Alpine town where the Basilica is a major place of pilgrimage for Central Europe's Catholics. Thousands from Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and the Czech Republic are travelling to Mariazell to hear Pope Benedict speak. But many Austrians are critical of the Church and upset they will get no chance to deliver their complaints to the Pope.

Photo: CTK
The bells of the Basilica at Mariazell - a shrine to the Virgin Mary and a much loved place of pilgrimage for Catholics from all over Central Europe - ring out over beautiful Alpine slopes. The setting here is stunning, and the architecture of the Basilica impressive - but the picture within the Austrian Catholic church is not so idyllic. The Church is divided between a deeply conservative leadership and a strong liberal movement which wants radical change - including an end to celibacy for priests and greater recognition of women in the Church. Hubert Feichtlbauer heads a reform group called "We are the Church" - he says despite requests they won't get a hearing from the Pope.

"They say there is no time for such a meeting. I do have some understanding that a Pope making such a visit in three days can not meet every group who wants to speak to him - reform groups but also traditionalist and other. It would have been very nice if he had spared at least ... a half hour".

There are other complaints about this visit. It's costing 5 million euros and it's being marketed a little like a rock concert with the slogan "look up for Christ." There IS wall-to-wall television coverage on the state broadcaster. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, belongs to the conservative Church leadership. He told the liberals this was not an occasion to bother the Pope with their complaints.

"It is a pilgrimage and normally that is not a forum where one discusses such questions. One comes to join others, to pray, to celebrate".

Photo: CTK
Cardinal Schönborn would be much happier with another message. A recording of the Bishops of Austria singing songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary - published on CD and presented to the Pope in honour of his pilgrimage to Mariazell. But there are real concerns among the Bishops as well, about the number of Austrians leaving the Church and a critical shortage of new priests. The reformers, like Hubert Feichtlbauer, fear the Pope will avoid these issues.

"If he doesn't have anything else to say than, come with me and pray then the question will continue to be asked by more and more people "why is god hearing so many many prayers, and this one hasn't been heard for a half century now - and it won't be heard in the future I think" if we don't understand that he is talking to us through empty seminaries and empty parish houses".

Tens of thousands of Austrian Catholics are making the pilgrimage to Mariazell but the Vatican's hope that this visit marks a return to what it calls "serenity" in the Austrian Church, seems a forlorn one.