The Archdiocese of Vienna has said it will press ahead with a major reorganisation that will include closing most of its parishes over 10 years, despite objections from some local Catholics.
The archdiocese’s 660 parishes will be merged over the next decade into around 150 larger parishes, each served by three to five priests and offering regular Masses.
Michael Prüller, archdiocesan spokesman, said: “Our emphasis isn’t just on reorganising the Church, but on reinvigorating the missionary impulses of the entire Christian community.
“Although we can debate how best to achieve it, the plan’s main aim isn’t open to discussion.”
Mr Prüller told the American Catholic News Service that falling numbers of clergy and laity had made the changes necessary. He said smaller affiliated communities within the parishes will be run by lay volunteers authorised to conduct the Liturgy of the Word.
Prüller said archdiocesan bishops would draft the new parish boundaries and steps for implementing the reorganisation by January 1.
He added that experiences from Latin America, Africa and Asia suggested ordained priests were not needed “in every small town and village” and that larger parishes could be introduced “without losing the nearness of people to their church”.
“As society changes, the Church has to change its old-fashioned practices and structures, too,” he said.
“The Church’s mission of apostolate and evangelisation isn’t just the responsibility of parish priests, but of the whole community of baptised and confirmed. If this reorganisation creates more vibrant Christian communities, praying, celebrating Mass, conducting mission and helping the needy together, then it could offer a model for Church reforms throughout Europe.”
Speaking in September, after the reorganisation was announced, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said the reform would be the archdiocese’s biggest for two centuries and would mean “saying goodbye to much that has become dear to us”.
But he said the reorganisation would help pool resources, reduce administration and “leave more time for evangelisation”.
“This is about a new cooperation between priests and laity from their common Christian vocation,” the cardinal told the news conference, which was reported by Austria’s Kathpress news agency.
“We have to free ourselves of the traditional image that the Church is present only where there’s a priest and stress the common priesthood of all baptised,” he said.
Mr Prüller said the reorganisation had been preceded by a “long consultation phase”, but could not be “discussed endlessly”.
He added that it would not alter the ratio of priests to lay Catholics and said other dioceses in France and Germany had also made “groundbreaking structural changes” and re-trained their parish teams.
“It will be much more efficient and robust to have several priests working together, rather than priests left totally by themselves,” the spokesman said. “The local Christian communities will be counted on to take care of those needing help, such as the elderly, so that everyone can get to Mass.”
The reform was supported by several Austrian newspapers, including the mass-circulation Die Presse daily, which said in an editorial it was “not only understandable but imperative” to centralise parish work.
But a theologian and sociologist, Fr Paul Zulehner, said that in an online survey the reform had been opposed by most Catholic respondents.