By Jonathan Luxmoore
The head of Austria’s Roman Catholic church has agreed to give one of his parish churches to Orthodox Christians, after an appeal against the decision by local Catholics was rejected by the Vatican on 11 November.
In October 2011, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn said he had decided to merge two neighboring parishes in Vienna so that the church of Our Lady of Sorrows could be taken over by the Serbian Orthodox church’s diocese of Central Europe.
However, the move was protested by local Roman Catholics, including Poles who attend Polish-language services in the church and who staged demonstrations outside Vienna’s St. Stefan Cathedral.
In an open letter, Schonborn said he had promised to donate the church after determining it could no longer be maintained by its declining Roman Catholic congregation, adding that he had arranged Polish services in other local churches.
The cardinal said he believed Roman Catholics should “help sister churches in a spirit of Christian solidarity,” and would rather give churches to a denomination with which they had “so much in common” than sell them for use as restaurants or discos.
“I am aware this is a painful decision for people connected with this place. But the churches we own were built in other times in the expectation that there would be more Catholics,” he said.
However, the handover was suspended pending the result of an appeal to the Vatican by the church’s Polish priest, Tadeusz Cichon. In a statement, the Vienna archdiocese said Schonborn had received the Vatican decree rejecting the appeal and would now hold talks with parish representatives on the church’s handover.
Meanwhile, a Serbian Orthodox spokesman, Mirko Kolundzic, welcomed the cardinal’s ecumenical gesture, adding that the request for a church had been made directly by Patriarch Irinej after his 2010 installation.
“There are up to 160,000 Orthodox Serbs living in and around Vienna, and we’ve very few places for our liturgies, not to mention any community life,” Kolundzic told Poland’s Catholic information agency, KAI, on 15 November.