In the midst of renewed hope for Church reform, Fr. Helmut Schüller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, will begin his first national speaking tour in New York, this July. He comes because of the initiative of FutureChurch and at the invitation of nine other U.S. Church reform organizations* who are sponsoring a fifteen-city tour: The Catholic Tipping Point: Conversations with Fr. Helmut Schüller.
The Austrian Priests’ Initiative (also known as the Pfarrer-Initiative) was organized in 2006 to address an increasing shortage of priests that has forced many Austrian parishes to close. The initiative inspired the establishment of similar priest groups in Germany, Ireland, France, the United States and Australia.
In June 2011, the Pfarrer-Initiative issued an “Appeal for Disobedience” calling for lay leadership and preaching in parishes without a priest, permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive sacraments and support for married and women priests. According to a November 2011 survey, the “Appeal” was positively received by over 70 percent of Austrian priests: “Rather than consolidating parishes, we call for a new image of the priest,” the declaration reads.
Schüller believes that Church leaders have an overly priest-centric view of Christianity that they are reluctant to give up. “They want to be accepted as the intermediaries between God and the people yet Jesus was a layman.... And he made no effort to install a clerical class … he encouraged people to confront God on their own.” Hence he believes the Eucharist is celebrated by a parish community and a leader together. Schüller admits that according to Church doctrine, this leader has to be an ordained priest, but he also believes: “There needs to be a revival of the importance of the parish for the celebration of Eucharist . . . .”
The Pfarrer Initiative was rebuked by Pope Benedict XVI in a sermon last year, and Fr. Schüller, who once served Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as vicar general, was stripped of his honorary title of “Monsignor, Chaplain of His Holiness,” but he remains a priest in good standing.
Father Schüller now works as a regular parish priest in Probstdorf, about half an hour’s drive east of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna’s old town. “The church is built on the congregation,” Father Schüller said. “You can’t reduce the churchgoer to a consumer, receiving a service.”
Schüller’s U.S. Tour comes in the midst of a steadily worsening priest shortage. Boston is downsizing 288 parishes into 135 parish clusters and the number of available priests will drop from 316 in 2011 to 178 in 2021. A 2009 study from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils found that for every 100 priests who retire, only 30 are available to replace them. According to recent Vatican statistics, since 1975, the number of Catholics worldwide has increase by 71.2 percent to 1.216 billion, but the number of priests increased by only 2.1 percent to 413,418.
Red ribbons, symbolizing the spirit of Pentecost and calling for the renewal and celebration of the rights of the laity, will be worn by Fr. Schüller and parishioners throughout the tour. The ribbons, which will be collected and carried from city to city, represent a commitment to dialogue between clergy and laity. Organizers have requested a meeting with Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. They hope to present the ribbons to him at the end of the tour.
Sponsoring Organizations: Call To Action - Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good -CORPUS - DignityUSA -FutureChurch - National Coalition of American Nuns - New Ways Ministry - Quixote Center - Voice of the Faithful - Women’s Ordination Conference
(Quotations from this article from The Vienna Review, December 1, 2011 and The New York Times, Europe edition, March 22, 2013)