Cardinal Christoph Schönborn: 25 years Archbishop of Vienna

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Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has been Archbishop of Vienna for 25 years – and could stay that way for a while. After Austria’s highest ranking Catholic clergyman reached retirement age in January and submitted his resignation, the Vatican extended his term of office indefinitely. Since taking office, Schönborn has been accompanied by crises in his church time and again.

In church circles, Schönborn is considered cosmopolitan and intellectual. His almost impudent way of proclaiming the truths of faith impresses even liberal critics of the Dominican, who comes from a noble family whose family tree includes more than a dozen bishops and cardinals. Schönborn has a harder time with the critical church people, however. He often attacks “hot irons” hesitantly and then reacts in tricky church discourse.

The always elegantly appearing cardinal is not only one of the most prominent advocates of interreligious dialogue, he has also made the inner renewal of Catholicism his banner. In this respect, the French theologian Yves Congar proved to be formative for the Dominican friar, who entered a Westphalian monastery at the age of 18. During his doctoral studies in Paris, which he completed with distinction, Congar introduced Schönborn to French renewal movements that were searching for a new place for the Church in a secular world.

The son of a single mother has not lost his enthusiasm for renewal movements such as the “Neocatechumenate” to this day. Observers see this as a strategy to concentrate the Catholic Church on a “healthy hard core” of deeply believing Christians, instead of keeping the large mass of “baptismal Christians” with concessions to the “spirit of the times”. Schönborn’s sympathy for Orthodox Judaism must also be seen in this light. Thus he called it “vital” for the future of the Church to study the Bible “in the light of its Jewish interpretation. During a trip to Jerusalem by the Austrian bishops, but also on other occasions, Schönborn repeatedly found clear words about the Holocaust, which earned him praise from the Jewish community.

But Schönborn also acted as an “icebreaker” with regard to Islam. In 2001, he was the first cardinal to meet with the religious and secular leadership of the Islamic “state of God” in Iran. After the terrorist attacks against the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, he even criticized what he considered to be “contemptuous and vulgar caricatures” in it. Less in the picture, his words fitted a “third Islamic attempt to conquer Europe”. After strong reactions and with reference to the “missionary mandate of Islam” he spoke of a “misunderstanding”.

In socio-political areas, the Archbishop of Vienna faithfully marches along with the Vatican line, for example in the rejection of abortion. Schönborn meets critics of the Church, who, for example, demand the abolition of celibacy and the ordination of women to the priesthood, with a friendly tone but harsh words. Schönborn was also involved in the change from Pope Benedict XVI to the liberal Francis: In the context of the family synod of the Vatican Schönborn expressed itself for its conditions surprisingly openly to homosexual partnerships.

Schönborn, born on 22 January 1945 in Skalsko, Bohemia, has good connections to the Vatican. Observers say that he has had a close relationship with Benedict XVI since his years as Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At the beginning of the 1970s, Schönborn spent a year studying with him at the University of Regensburg. In 1981 Josef Ratzinger appointed the gifted Dominican, who speaks French, Spanish, English and Italian, to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and made him editor of the World Catechism (1992), which lays down the doctrine of the Catholic Church. A highlight in Schönborn’s term of office so far was the visit of the Holy Father to Austria in 2007.

Schönborn, who grew up in Vorarlberg after the expulsion of his family, is known to Austrian Catholics primarily as a crisis manager. Since 1991, he has been auxiliary bishop of Vienna, and owed his greatest career leap to the most serious church crisis in Austria. After his predecessor Hans Hermann Groer had to resign because of accusations of sexual abuse of pupils, Schönborn became archbishop of Vienna in September 1995. As such, he also carried out the dismantling of the quarrelsome St. Pölten bishop Kurt Krenn, who stumbled upon a sex affair at his seminary in the fall of 2004. Schönborn – Cardinal since 1998 – is considered to be extremely conflict-averse.

Already at the Amazon Synod in October 2019 Schönborn handed in his resignation, as he would reach the retirement age for bishops in January of the same year. Nevertheless, he remained in office as Archbishop of Vienna for an indefinite period. The handing over of the presidency of the Bishops’ Conference in June brought him professional relief. His successor became Salzburg’s Archbishop Franz Lackner, from whom it is not excluded that he also follows the Cardinal in the Archdiocese of Vienna.

Schönborn keeps his private life strictly under lock and key. His brother is the actor Michael Schönborn. Recently health problems of the Viennese archbishop became known. After a – successful – cancer operation he suffered a lung infarction, from which he is currently recovering.

At Schönborn’s request there is no big celebration. A commemoration of the anniversary will take place during the Chrisam Mass, which will be celebrated on Monday, September 14, in the evening in St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

— Hector Pascua, Source: with reports from k.at Picture: hpascua

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