Christoph Cardinal Schönborn is the archbishop of Vienna. In the past weeks his visit to Bosnian pilgrimage site Medjugorje has been the reason for criticism and, rumour has it, a private audience with the pope. On the occasion of his 65th birthday, last Friday, German Catholic news outlet Kath.net had an interview with the cardinal. He talks about his relationship with Christ, the past and future, the media and the Church, the Wagner affair, and indeed Medjugorje.
by Petra Knapp-Biermeier
Kath.net: Lord Cardinal, on 22 January you celebrate your 65th birthday, for which we heartily congratulate you. To start with a ‘birthday question’, which takes us a bit into the realm of fantasy: it is the year 2020, you are celebrating your 75th birthday, and you are looking back on the past ten years. What is the best of these ten years? What of the things that you have achieved, experienced or overcome, pleases you?
Cardinal Schönborn: I have to be honest and say that I can’t answer that, since I can’t see into the future. Of course, I see tasks in my services to the diocese. I can only say: my wish for the coming years is simply that we will live ever more in faith, hope and love, that we will be connected to Christ, that many people will understand this faith, that many people will be open to the mercy and allow God to affect them. That is really all I can say. But I believe that that is the most important.
KATH.NET: In hard times, what has helped you to go on and look to the future without doubt?
Cardinal Schönborn: Always two things: my relationship with Christ and my friends. I believe that that is the essence. Recourse to Jesus is always truly affirming and supporting, to be actively connected to Him, concretely in the Gospel, to His person, His words, to His life, particularly in the Eucharist, his presence in the tabernacle. The other thing is the invaluable gift of friendship that Jesus has established between Him and us, because He also wanted to be alive among us.
KATH.NET: Many people are open to God, but reject the Church as an institution. What do you say to them?
Cardinal Schönborn: I often and directly say: I was that you may have the same positive experience in the Church that I had. To that I usually add that I know that I can easily say that when you didn’t have such an experience yourself. But for me the Church has always been a home. I thank the Church for so very much and therefore I wish that others can have the same experience. I also ask them to remove preconceptions. The mistakes of the Church should admitted and be named. Jesus did the same towards His apostles, and the apostles did it in the gospels. They loyally wrote about the mistakes they made themselves. But we should also speak up when the Church has been done an injustice, when false preconceptions exist. We should know the history of the Church better. There are exceedingly false depictions of the crusades, the inquisition or the affairs around Galilei. These typical reproaches against the Church usually come from a very deep ignorance. We have the task to discredit and explain all preconceptions.
KATH.NET: Lord Cardinal, you have contributed to Church history – the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What changes or developments would you still like to see within the Church?
Cardinal Schönborn: The great new mission in Europe! That certainly is a great dream. Europe was initially evangelised in early Christian times, the apostolic times. The apostles travelled far. The Iro-Scottish monks were the second great missionary wave. The waves of evangelisation were also always waves of renewal. The great monasticism reform of Cluny, followed by the reform of Citeaux with its enormous expansion with monasteries over all of Europe. With the growth of the cities came the mendicant orders, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, who evangelised the growing urban population. That was followed by the great renewal of the Counter-Reformation. The 19th century, during the industrialisation, was also a source of renewal in the Church. I hope we will see something similar in our time. But we don’t really control that – they are forces that come from inside, from the power of Heaven. Renewal must truly come from the power of God. But there are many signs that the Lord is also the Lord of history: if he told Abraham that He could bring the stones to live, he can spring a new source of fervour for the gospel in Europe, where the faith has grown weak, through special mercies.
KATH.NET: In the last few days you have visited Pope Benedict XVI. Did you tell him about your positive impression of Medjugorje? Did he say anything about that?
Cardinal Schönborn: One usually doesn’t speak about audiences. But of course I can say this much: Medjugorje is a topic in Rome now, because of the publicity surrounding my pilgrimage. I reported about my impressions in Rome. And I trust that the Committee, which the Holy Father established to research the events at Medjugorje, will do god and responsible work, and the result will certainly be very positive. I am certain that they’ll be careful and sensitive about this phenomenon, which by now has attracted 30 million pilgrims and has given much good fruits, as well as many questions.
KATH.NET: Recently, the numbers of Church leavings were presented in Austria. From 40,654 leavings in 2008 to 53,215 in 2009 was a major increase. How do you see this development, what do you think is the reason for it, and how will the Church respond?
Cardinal Schönborn: There are some precise indications: The strong increase in Church leavings in the beginning of the year seems to have to do with the response to the appointment of a bishop and the Williamson affair and the strong reactions to those. But the fact that the leavings remained high throughout the year has, in our opinion, to do with the economic crisis. Many people have worries about their jobs. They simply save money were possible, and that directly affects the Church contributions. Sadly we have not succeeded to explain to contributing Catholics that, when they have financial problems, there are reductions possible. Many people pay their contribution without requesting a reduction or a partial payback – and that;s the end of the story.
KATH.NET: The Church has been confronted with the involvement of the media and lobbyists at the appointment of bishops. What do you think of this development? Should the Church respond to this pressure from outside, and how?
Cardinal Schönborn: That has always been the case. Even when I look at my own family history – I am the eighth bishop in my family -, what manner of tensions and conflict there were, for example on the baroque period. it’s a sign of life, that there is an interest in the bishop. If no one cared who would become a bishop, that would be a bad sign. The fact that many people were concerned about who became bishop is a sign that many people feel that the office of bishop is important in the Church. And of course there are ideological conflict surrounding the appointment of bishops.
If someone is said to be conservative, you may be sure that there will be protests from the media. But the person in question also has some influence. One can’t and shouldn’t avoid all conflicts, but many don’t exists until we cause them ourselves. But here we should look at the individual case. One thing is clear: the Church has long fought for the freedom to appoint her own bishops. She can’t and won’t renounce this freedom. The pope is free to appoint bishops. Of course it’s important that he receives good information so that the institutes that prepare they can work well and thoroughly. And I’m certain that they do this. But the local churches themselves also have responsibility, because Church law dictates that every bishops’ conference must forward a list of possible bishop candidates to Rome every three years. And every single bishop is similarly charged to send well-founded reports for the appointment of bishops to Rome. We have often neglected to do that in Austria.
KATH.NET: Thank you very much for this interview and good wishes and God’s blessing on your birthday!