Reflections on Austria, a Catholic nation

As our time in Austria draws to a close, I want to share a few thoughts on what I have seen here. First of all it has to be said that Austria is an absolutely beautiful country. It reminds me somewhat of West Virginia where I grew up. Also, we have had terrific weather throughout the trip. I feared we were coming too late in the season and it would already be cold. Instead the flowers are in full bloom while the East Coast of the United States has been dealing with torrential rains from Hurricane Joaquin.

I was also somewhat surprised to find just how much of a Catholic country Austria is. I assumed that like Germany, Austria was about half Catholic and half Lutheran. The CIA World Fact Book says that currently Germany is about 34 percent Catholic and 34 percent Protestant. (Most of the latter belong to the Evangelical Church in Germany.) I was surprised to learn that less than 5 percent of Austria’s population is Protestant. The latest figures from the Austrian Embassy, from the 2011 census, show that 64.1 percent of Austrians are Catholic.

There are churches everywhere in Austria. Our tour guide said that there are 42 Roman Catholic churches in Salzburg alone. We came across one Lutheran church in the small town of Hallstatt. It was a community that had resisted the Counter Reformation and experienced years of repression.

We also encountered a group of migrants at a rest stop on the highway outside of Vienna. They were traveling on a bus and were presumably Syrian people heading to Germany. They were all men, and the size of the group suggests they were pretty tightly packed into the bus. I suspect this group of migrants is among the lucky ones.

Driving back into Vienna from Salzburg we ran into a demonstration which turned out to be more than 20,000 Austrians supporting the refugees. We have also heard that Austrians are bringing food to migrants at some of the train stations. This show of support is encouraging news amidst some other pretty depressing reports about this crisis. We had hoped to go to Prague and Budapest but were told not to travel to Hungary or certain other countries because of the refugee situation.

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Going to Mass one Saturday evening was an interesting experience because of the language barrier. We went to a small parish church near the center of Vienna. The service was all in German, but the celebration of the Mass was pretty much the same as you would expect to find in most U.S. parishes. They did not, however, have an offertory procession or Communion under both species.

The priest was quite amiable and came to talk with us. He was Polish and spoke no English, but he found out my wife speaks Spanish. They had a nice conversation while I just listened.

They did have an English leaflet for the readings. The relevant readings were from Numbers and Mark. In Numbers Eldad and Medad began prophesying even though they had no authorization. Joshua said to stop them and Moses said, “Are you jealous. ... If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the Lord gave his spirit to them all.”

In Mark there was someone who was casting out devils in the name of Jesus. Again the disciples tried to stop him because he was “not one of us.” Jesus intervened and said not to stop him because, “Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

There was also a reflection or meditation included with the readings which conveyed their message well. I found the reflection to be one which highlighted a number of what I would consider among the best of Francis’ attributes. I would like to share a bit of it with you:

“On the cross, he opens himself to all humanity. Therefore, universal understanding and acceptance ought to characterize the disciple of Christ. ... Under pretext of orthodoxy, we often tend to identify belonging to Jesus with some elitist option. ... The temptation to exclude is no more legitimate within the church than outside it.”

It is nice to know that the Francis spirit exists in Vienna also. Hopefully that spirit will be blowing through the Vatican these next few weeks at the Synod on the family.

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