Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eight in 10 priests in Austria want celibacy to end

Austrian Independent

A vast majority of Austrian Roman Catholic priests want an end to mandatory celibacy, a new survey has shown.

Pollsters GfK Austria said today (Tues) 80 per cent of the 500 interviewed parish priests supported calls for an abandonment of the ruling.

Fifty-one per cent said women should be allowed to become Roman Catholic priests.

More than six in ten (64 per cent) of priests the agency spoke to said the Austrian Church should get up to date with the modern world.

GfK Austria revealed the new study showed that younger priests had more conservative mindsets than their elder colleagues.

A vast majority of 92 per cent complained of inadequate education in becoming a priest, while 48 per cent accused the institution’s leaders of "acting helpless and lacking vision".

The number of Austrian men deciding to become Catholic priests is meanwhile in decline.

Church officials said earlier this month that 24 men will be consecrated priests in 2010 by the end of June. They said 33 consecrations took place in the first six months of last year.

The reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in Austria suffered dramatically as hundreds of people came forward to report violent and sexual abuse at its institutions over the past few months.

The Church reacted by setting up a special commission to deal with the cases and provide victims with financial compensation and therapy.

The question of the amount of compensation is currently an issue of heated public discussion. Viennese Archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schönborn refused to comment on reports claiming that the Church tried to keep the overall sum lower than 100,000 Euros.

More than 30,000 Austrians left the Church in the first three months of this year, up by 42 per cent compared to the same time span of 2009 when more people than ever cancelled their membership.

Fears are increasing that up to 80,000 Austrians will leave throughout this year. Last year’s 53,216 people quitting their membership meant an all-time record high.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Austrian Catholics ramp up quest for church reform

By Veronika Oleksyn
Associated Press
June 23, 2010

VIENNA — Historically a potent symbol of Catholicism in Europe, Austria has in recent years been known more as the center of a taboo-busting movement to liberalize the church.

Now, reformers here are ramping up their campaign for change amid worldwide outrage over the priest sex abuse scandal.

And while much of the push comes from the grassroots, the country's powerful cardinal recently caused a stir with strong gestures in support of reform, raising the stakes in the confrontation between the Vatican and dissidents pushing to allow priests to marry and women to be ordained.

What is particularly troubling for Rome is that Austria — which in past centuries was famous for being a bulwark against the Protestant Reformation — is losing worshippers in record numbers as calls for reform grow stronger.

Tens of thousands of Austrian Catholics — many of whom still consider themselves devout believers — are leaving the church each year, disgusted by the priestly sex abuse scandal and frustrated by what they see as the Catholic hierarchy's outdated ways.

For 76-year-old Erwin Bundschuh, who left the church about six weeks ago, the main problem today is an ivory tower mentality that rejects dialogue and cuts itself off from the realities of the modern day.

"You can't redesign a religious community every day but you also can't pretend as if nothing has happened in 2,000 years," said Bundschuh as he strolled past Vienna's famous St. Stephen's Cathedral. "There should be an open dialogue about certain things but it's always choked off."

Earlier this week, the head of the Vienna archdiocese's church tax office estimated that up to 80,000 of Austria's roughly 5.5 million Catholics could leave the church this year — a new record. Last year alone, 53,216 people formally had their names removed from church registries, a 31 percent increase compared to 40,654 in 2008.

Many have dropped out to also avoid paying a highly unpopular government-imposed church tax, questioning whether they should help finance an organization with which they have increasingly divergent views.

As the sex abuse scandal has heated up, critical Austrian Catholics have stepped up their reform campaign — holding news conferences and pressuring church officials.

In May, the Priest Initiative — a group of critical clerics — adopted a strongly worded resolution that criticized the "absolutist" church structure and urged both bishops and ordinary believers to take a stand. The Vatican has had no comment on the turmoil in the Austrian Church.

Amid increasing calls for change, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn — the country's top churchman and a papal confidant seen as a possible successor to Benedict XVI — has stepped into the fray more forcefully in the past few months.

"The wall of silence has to be broken," he told reporters on Wednesday as he presented measures to prevent clerical abuse and help victims. "This is not allowed to happen and cannot be allowed to repeat itself."

Set to take effect July 1 and approved by all of the country's bishops, the measures foresee a unified approach by church abuse complaint centers to probe and deal with allegations against priests, employees and volunteers of church-run institutions. It also mandates the creation of a foundation for abuse victims to cover their therapy costs and possible compensation demands.

At a March service for sex abuse victims in St. Stephen's Cathedral organized with a reform group, he was among the first high-ranking Catholics to openly acknowledge church guilt in the scandal.

More recently, he accused Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the retired Vatican secretary of state, of blocking an investigation into sex abuse allegations against his disgraced predecessor, Hans Hermann Groer, 15 years ago.

He also spoke of the positive aspects of gay relationships and suggested the church needed a new perspective on the remarriage of divorcees.

In addition, Schoenborn recently declined to publicly criticize Eisenstadt Bishop Paul Iby, who made headlines when he said it should be up to priests to decide whether they want to live a celibate life and that he would welcome it if married men could be ordained. The 75-year-old bishop also said the ordination of women should also eventually be considered.

When asked by The Associated Press what he thought of Iby's comments, Schoenborn replied: "I think that the worries Bishop Paul, Bishop Iby, has expressed here are the worries of all of us — there's no question about that."

To reformers like Richard Picker of the group Priests without Office, Schoenborn understands the plight of clerics who choose not to live in celibacy. "The cardinal has understanding for us," Picker said.

But others cautioned against overrating the softspoken Schoenborn, saying he has shown understanding for those who don't fall in line in the past but has failed to come up with concrete actions to support them.

Described as someone who tries to please everyone and dislikes confrontation, Schoenborn initially stayed quiet when he replaced Groer in 1995 amid abuse allegations. Only three years later did he personally apologize "for everything that my predecessors and other holders of church office committed against people in their trust."

"Rome gets on his nerves and he sends signals but he'll never contradict the pope," said Herbert Kohlmaier, a former politician and national ombudsman who heads a reform group called the Lay Initiative. "He won't cross that line."

Kohlmaier was also among the first to welcome the new measures to prevent abuse, saying Schoenborn's efforts reflected courage and openness and set an example for the entire church.

Experts say Austria's unusually rebellious streak these days stems from a series of conservative Vatican appointments — including Groer's — following the retirement of the liberal and outspoken Cardinal Franz Koenig, a much beloved figure, in 1985.

"The church took a new turn after Koenig and that, coupled with the Groer pedophilia story, sparked dissatisfaction," said theologian Paul Zulehner. "Austria is a special case caused by Rome."

The Groer scandal erupted in 1995 when a former student of his alleged that he abused him in the 1970s. Other accusations followed. Groer stepped down shortly after the first allegations surfaced and was later forced by Pope John Paul II to relinquish all church functions. He died in 2003 but never directly admitted any guilt.

The disgust surrounding Groer resurfaced recently when the Alpine country — like several others — was hit by a new wave of abuse claims against clergy and employees of church-affiliated institutions such as schools.

"The abuse scandal has shown that apparently the church's leadership is no longer primarily focused on Jesus' message but rather on its own interests," said Hans Peter Hurka, who heads We are Church, an influential Vienna-based lay organization active across Europe.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The priest - and his Mrs.

By David O'Reilly

After 19 years as a Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Philip Johnson had grown disenchanted with Protestantism.

"There comes a time, if you're Catholic, to be Catholic," the newest priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden said Wednesday at his home in Sewell.

Dressed in his 11-day-old Roman collar and black clerical garb, Johnson, 59, was explaining the appeal of Catholicism's traditionalist ways when a middle-aged woman emerged from the kitchen.

"Here you go, Hon," said Johnson's wife, Janet, handing him a glass of Coke.

"Thanks," said the priest, smiling as she eased down next to him on their living room sofa.

It was a familiar scene for the Johnsons. Married 38 years, with four grown children and four grandchildren, they spent nearly two decades in a Lutheran parsonage in Jersey City, N.J., before converting to Catholicism four years ago.

Men sporting both Roman collars and wedding rings are a rarity in the Catholic Church; it banned married clergy eight centuries ago. In 1951 it made an exception for married clergy who convert, but on a case-by-case basis.

The church has ordained only a few hundred since. "Mr. Johnson's ordination does not indicate a change of celibacy norms for Latin Rite priests," the Camden Diocese noted when it announced his May 22 ordination.

In fact, the Johnsons had no clue he would be accepted for ordination when they converted. But priesthood was their fervent hope. "He was just horrible sitting in the pews," Janet Johnson, 60, said Wednesday, and laughed. Her husband, a serious man, shrugged. "I just couldn't imagine not preaching," he said.

It was not until four months after converting, as Johnson was studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington, that Camden Bishop Joseph Galante learned of his situation and invited him to be a candidate for priesthood.

Galante has named Johnson parochial vicar at St. Bridget's parish in Glassboro, where he will also serve the Catholic community of Rowan University. Both Johnsons will conduct marriage-preparation classes around the six-county diocese.

Although Johnson is the second married priest in its history (the Rev. George McCormick, a former Episcopal priest, served from 1984 until his death in 2000), the Camden Diocese is still learning how to fit the couple in. "The insurance forms for priests don't have a line for 'wife,' " Janet Johnson said. "I told them I'm his 'preexisting condition.' "

Johnson's appointment at St. Bridget's - he said his first Mass there Wednesday - appears to be welcome news to parishioners.

"I think it's wonderful," said Anne Young, an elementary school teacher and Realtor who stopped by the parish office Friday to shake his hand.

Young is "not sure" she likes the idea of married priests, but told Johnson that she and her 92-year-old father "do welcome you."

Jim Dougherty, 72, said he was delighted with Johnson's appointment. "I have no problem at all," with married clergy, Dougherty said as he emerged from the church with his granddaughter. "In fact, I think it would help with a lot of problems."

Johnson sees no long-term obstacle to married priests in the Catholic Church, since the ban is "not a matter of dogma." But he also regards "consecrated virginity and priestly celibacy an ancient tradition and a great gift" to the church. "I don't want to be the poster boy," he said, "for married clergy.

Both Johnsons' faith journey began in the fundamentalist Church of Christ: a Bible-based sect that preached hell for outsiders but was "very nurturing, very loving" for those inside, Janet Johnson recalled.

They met at Harding College in Little Rock, and married after graduation. By then, both had qualms about their faith's exclusionary ways. "The church in those days had a very narrow view of who was Christian," Philip Johnson said.

But after he earned a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1979, the couple accepted an invitation to live and work for the church in London.

There, they and their young children shared a stately home, Disciple House, with two other couples and their children, whom they all raised together.

London also exposed them to Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic modes of worship. These included a liturgical calendar, sacraments, formal liturgies, and instrumental music - all of them unknown in the Church of Christ.

Philip Johnson's prayer life, meanwhile, was becoming less self-scrutinizing and more communal - what he calls more "Catholic." When it came time to return to the United States "we knew we couldn't come back to the Church of Christ," Janet Johnson said.

"But we couldn't cross the bridge all the way to Roman Catholicism," said her husband.

In 1986 they converted to Lutheranism, whose music, sacraments, preaching tradition, and liturgies fit their notion of "Catholic" but without the "Roman." After two years at Grace Lutheran Church in Jersey City, he became pastor of 500-member St. Paul Lutheran Church, also in that city, where he served until 2006. She taught kindergarten.

At the time of their conversion, mainstream Lutheranism seemed headed toward rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. But when the main Lutheran sects grew liberal and allowed female clergy, the faiths drifted apart.

In October, however, the Vatican announced a new policy by which traditionalist Anglicans, including whole congregations and breakaway synods, may seek "full, corporate and sacramental union" with Rome while retaining much of their liturgy and traditions. The arrangement would allow married Anglican clergy to petition for priestly ordination.

Lutheran pastors, Philip Johnson said, also seemed increasingly free to impart their own views on abortion and homosexuality to their flocks.

"It was a question of who decides," he said. "The question of church unity and teaching authority became very big for me.

"It was Janet who pushed me" toward Rome, he recalled. "She said, 'It becomes clear we don't have a choice.' "

Their conversion was not without pain. Son Nathan, 27, and daughter Alison, 35, did not convert with them, and as non-Catholics were barred from receiving Holy Communion from their father at his ordination Mass. "They understood," their mother said, shaking her head. "But there was a lot of grief. It will never be easy for me." Son Thomas, 25, and daughter Meghan Onochie, 32, are now baptized Catholic.

His ordination "is a culmination of everything Dad's prepared for," Onochie, a new mother, said Friday from her home in Reston, Va. "I think it's really beautiful they made an exception for someone in his situation."

Despite their unique status, the Johnsons said the diocese was trying hard to fit them in.

As they prepared to pose for photos after the ordination, Janet Johnson recalled, she stepped to Galante's left side, leaving her husband on his right.

"No, no," said the bishop, switching positions with her.

"I never," he said, "want to stand between you and your husband."

Photo: Fr. and Mrs. Philip Johnson

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Father of eight becomes Catholic priest

Pro-life activist and married father of eight Paul Schenck changed faiths yet again and became a Catholic priest, receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders in a ceremony at St. Joseph Church in Springettsbury Township, Pa on June 12, 2010.

Schenck grew up in a Jewish home. At 16, he was baptized in the Niagara River by a Salvation Army officer and later became a Protestant pastor, eventually founding his own New Covenant Tabernacle church in a Buffalo suburb. He later joined the Reformed Episcopal Church, serving several years as rector at an Anglican church in Catonsville, Md. Schenck converted to Catholicism in 2004. He has a BA from the Elim Bible Institute and a masters from Catholic University.

Fr. Schenck is best known as the head of the National Pro-Life Action Center and in 1992 was featured on the cover of Life magazine confronting a pro-choice demonstrator. He is married and the couple have eight children: Leah Crowne, Ari, Abraham, Jordan, Miriam, Marta, Isaac, and Eva.

Schenck had been ordained for only a few minutes when he administered communion for the first time as a Catholic priest. The first person to step forward and receive: Rebecca Schenck, his wife of 33 years.

Fr. Schenck will continue to work as the Diocese of Harrisburg's director of the Office of Respect Life Activities, and he will be an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisburg.

Isn't it amazing what the pastoral provision can do? And yet a birth Catholic with a similar pro-life record can't become a priest if he is married. Am I the only one who sees the injustice in this?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Cutie is a priest again -- and a father-to-be

By Jaweed Kaleem
Miami Herald

As he stood in front of dozens of reporters a year ago to say he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church and marrying, celebrity priest Alberto Cutié took a plunge, putting his life on a path that would look little like what he imagined when he slipped on that first clerical collar and vowed a life of celibacy in his 20s.

These days, he's a suburban 41-year-old husband, sharing a three-bedroom house in Miami Shores with his wife and her son, often cooking Cuban meals before a game of Chinese checkers.

On Saturday, after dusting off the same white stole he wore when he knelt before Miami's Roman Catholic Archbishop 15 years ago to be ordained, he put it back over his shoulders. Padre Alberto is a priest again, this time in the Episcopal church.

It's not the only change in his life. In six months, the padre will be a dad. Ruhama Buni Cutié is pregnant.

"God's not all that interested in you falling down. God is interested in you getting up again,'' Cutié told Episcopal bishops and hundreds of parishioners gathered Saturday at Church of the Resurrection in Biscayne Park for the ceremony marking his return to the priesthood. He spent the past year at Resurrection, studying Episcopal traditions as lay minister.

It's a denomination, he proclaims, "that is welcoming of all,'' including himself, a once invincible priest who has seen many Catholics "act as if I dropped dead, as if I don't exist.''


As a Catholic, he secretly struggled with his church's stance toward homosexuality, contraceptives and his own celibacy. As an Episcopalian, he's speaking freely about his support of openly gay clergy, of birth control, and, when a woman's life is in danger, even abortion.

Life today is a far cry from what it was on Miami Beach, where Padre Alberto became a household name for his good looks and the one-man media powerhouse he built from scratch. That was before a Mexican tabloid printed racy photos of him getting cozy on the beach with a woman -- now his wife -- an undeniable turn against his vows.

His popular newspaper advice column, cable television show, book on love and relationships, and jobs heading South Florida's Catholic radio station and South Beach's only Catholic parish, are now little more than lines on a resumé.

Cutié's departure from top posts in the 800,000-strong Archdiocese of Miami -- Miami's biggest and most influential church -- to the 38,000-member Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida thrust him into the national spotlight for months.


He went on Univision and CBS' The Early Show, and he and 'Buni,' as he affectionately calls his wife, graced the cover of People en Español and discussed their wedding at the picturesque Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach. By September, "Father Oprah'' had made it to his namesake talk show.

Still part of an influential inner Miami circle that includes celebrities, TV news personalities and power brokers, Cutié, is known to navigate the worlds of the sacred and the profane with ease. But in recent months, life has regained a normalcy unseen for years.

Today, his media outreach doesn't go far beyond an occasional Saturday morning appearance on WWFE 670 AM La Poderosa, where Episcopal priests host a show. But Cutié, who says he has "shied away from having a central role in media,'' rarely goes on live, preferring to tape comments.

"People love when he was on TV and people loved when he was on the radio, but with the controversy, he had to take a different step,'' said Emilio Estefan, to whom Cutié has turned for advice over the past year. "To me, he's the same father, in a different way.''


The priest best known for his life outside church has instead turned inward toward family, faith and his parish -- one that was handed to him this time last year in disarray, broke and without a permanent priest for two years.

It's there that Cutié has shined: Sunday attendance has gone from 28 at a single service to 250 between two services in English and Spanish. A mixture of Haitian, Hispanic and Anglo Episcopalians and a few former Catholics now attend, and Cutié is leading Bible study and kids' classes.

The priest who was tapped by the Archdiocese of Miami several times to revitalize struggling Catholic parishes is now doing the same in Biscayne Park. A $36,000 project to renovate pews and landscape the grounds, including installing a life-size outdoor statue of Jesus to welcome parishioners, is under way.

"We used to not have AC. Now we have AC. There's new paint on the walls, new lighting,'' says parishioner Jose Areiza. "He inherited a debt. They owed on the telephone and electricity. Now many more people are coming, people from the beach as well.''

Part of Cutié's attractions are his down-to-earth sermons and comedic charm. Last week, preaching on the Feast of Pentecost, he invoked the classic 1980s Hershey's chocolate syrup commercial starring "Messy Marvin,'' saying that the "holy spirit is everywhere'' -- even in chocolate milk.


And even though he has preached at Resurrection as a lay minister -- not a priest -- for a year, "there are already a few churches that are saying, 'Why can't Alberto become the rector here?' '' says Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal diocese.

At St. Francis de Sales, the South Beach Catholic church Cutié left last year, the pews are still largely full on Sundays, partially a legacy of Cutié's smart management. It's also a testament to faith over celebrity.

"Father Cutié doesn't even come up in conversations,'' says Anne Burgess, 29, who joined St. Francis two years ago. For weeks after Cutié packed his bags, the archdiocese shuffled priests in and out of the parish, but a permanent pastor, the Rev. Gabriel Vigues, came in late last summer. A handful of St. Francis members followed Cutié, but most have stayed put.

"I never wanted to be the anti-anything poster child,'' says Cutié. "I love the Roman Catholic Church and I love the Roman Catholic community. I understand the good the bad and the ugly of the church.''

But privately, he has voiced some criticism of the church. Last fall, when the Vatican said it would let Episcopal/Anglican churches that were unhappy with their increasingly liberal denomination join the Roman Catholic church while keeping their distinctive traditions -- notably the policy that their priests could be married -- Cutié fired off an email to friends.

"Why does the church accept married priests from other churches, but does not allow its own priests to be married? I would ask the Vatican: Are we [Episcopalians/Anglicans] heretics and schismatic or are we good guys? Please make up your mind.''


Cutié's move has also soured ecumenical relations between the Archdiocese of Miami and Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, insiders from both churches say. But while his supporters staged protests last year against the Roman Catholic policy on clerical celibacy, Cutié has had little impact on the issue.

"Did his leaving change local Catholics' thoughts on celibacy? Probably. But overall, the Cutie 'switch' will not change anything in the Catholic church,'' says Christine Gudorf, a professor at Florida International University who studies Christianity.

The Episcopal Church, which has worship services similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church, considers itself the "middle way'' between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is the U.S.-wing of the worldwide Anglican communion, which broke from Rome in the 1500s.

The church approves the use of contraception within marriage and ordains women, unlike the Catholic church. Nationally, the church also has two openly gay, non-celibate bishops. Episcopalians do not see the pope as their leader.

Cutié dove into such issues over the past year, studying the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and Anglican history.

"We talked about differences between the Episcopalians and the Catholics. Some theological, some liturgical,'' said the Rev. Howard Stowe, a retired Episcopal priest who taught Cutié and stood by his side on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, which Cutié could not do as a layman.

"He wanted to know what we believe about some of doctrines of church, our understanding of what the sacraments are, the role of marriage in the church,'' Stowe said.


While Padre Alberto further separated himself Saturday from his past as he became a priest, he retains elements of his Roman Catholic upbringing. "In his Bible, he still keeps a photo a Pope Benedict XVI. He says 'I still pray for him, he's going through so much,' '' said Stowe.

And while his media empire is all but gone, Cutié continues to dole out advice to couples, one by one instead of en masse, in his church office.

Recently, Cutié called friends, including Estefan, to break some news and request advice for himself. A baby -- Cutié doesn't know if a boy or a girl -- was on the way.

"In order to preach and to talk to married people and couples, it's good to live and understand how people live,'' says Estefan. When he heard about the child, "I told him, sleep, because you will never sleep again.''

More: 'Padre Alberto' becomes Episcopal Church priest, Episcopal Life Online, 6/1/2010