A sharp decline in the number of practicing Catholics “must not find us inert, but rather must motivate our efforts for a new evangelization,” Pope Francis told the bishops of Austria.
“To be church doesn’t mean to manage, but to go out, to be missionaries, to bring the light of faith and the joy of the Gospel to men and women,” the Pope said in a message he handed to the bishops on Thursday during their “ad limina” visits to Rome.
The text of the Pope’s message was released by the Vatican on Friday at the end of the bishops’ visit to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses.
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna told Vatican Radio January 27 that 1.8 million people live in Vienna and “only 2 percent of them frequent Sunday Mass.”
“Where do the others live their lives? What moves their hearts? What are their hopes and concerns and fears?” the cardinal asked. When the Pope talks about the need for Catholics to open church doors and let Jesus out, he’s talking about reaching that 98 percent of the population, the cardinal said.
Pope Francis said he knows this is “a difficult phase for the church” in Austria, one that “has various causes and has been going on for decades.”
The Pope did not mention the Priests’ Initiative, a group founded in 2006 and made up of about 500 priests. The group made international headlines in June 2011 when it issued a “Call to Disobedience” over its agenda, which includes making clerical celibacy optional, allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who did not receive an annulment to receive Communion, and advocating a softer line on homosexual partnerships.
Cardinal Schonborn told Vatican Radio that press coverage of the group has given many people the impression that it is much bigger, more influential and more disruptive than it really is. Still, he said, the church in Austria “is in the midst of a huge process of change.”
Several of the Austrian bishops reportedly brought to Pope Francis their concerns about the status of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Cardinal Schonborn said that from the 30,000 responses the bishops have received to a questionnaire prepared for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family, it is clear that the majority of Catholics’ “desires, hopes and expectations coincide more than you’d expect with what the Bible and the church affirm in matters of matrimony and family life.” Most people, he said, want “a successful relationship and a healthy family.”
“The reality very often does not correspond to this vision, and creating a bridge between what is desired and what exists is the great challenge we are facing,” the cardinal said. The Pope and the Austrian bishops want to bring God’s mercy to the situation, he said.
Pope Francis, in his message to the bishops, did not address the question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but he did talk about the challenge of keeping families healthy and united today.
“Globalisation and postmodern individualism favor a lifestyle that makes the development and stability of relationships very difficult and are not favorable for promoting a culture of the family,” the Pope said.
“The church’s care for the family begins with a good preparation and appropriate accompaniment of spouses, as well as with a faithful and clear explanation of the doctrine of the church on marriage and the family,” Pope Francis said. “Marriage as a sacrament is a gift of God and, at the same time, a commitment. The love of two spouses is sanctified by Christ, and husband and wife are called to witness to and cultivate this sanctity through their fidelity to one another.”