Cardinal Schönborn: ‘Some of You Feel Abandoned by Your Bishop’


Sermon of Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn at the Chrism Mass

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Monday of Holy Week 2012. Translated by Sancrucensis.

[Introductory note: the following sermon is only intelligible in the light of a recent decision of the Cardinal’s to allow a man living in sin with another man to serve on a parish council in Stützenhofen, which has caused great consternation. I admire Cardinal Schönborn greatly. He is a wonderful teacher of the Faith and a pastor filled with zeal for souls, who has done much good for the Church in Austria, and indeed the whole world. But sometimes he does things that simply make no sense at all. In the following sermon, preached at the Chrism Mass on Monday, he tried to address the concerns of many priests about the  Stützenhofen decision. I shall post some reflections on the sermon after Easter. For now I shall only say that I think the sermon makes many good points, but that the part that tries to explain the Stützenhofen decision doesn’t make sense. I have translated from the prepared text, which differs slightly from the sermon as recorded in the video embedded above.]

Dear Brothers in the Priestly Ministry,

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me, and sent me out to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted; to bid the prisoners go free, and to set the oppressed at liberty, to proclaim a year of the grace of the Lord…”  These are the words of Isaiah, the words that Jesus read out in Nazareth, His hometown.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Says Jesus, and His word holds true to this day. It is for this that Jesus came into the world. This is His Mission. And therefore it is our mission. It is for this that we are priests. It is for this that we are Christians: “to proclaim a year of the Grace of the Lord.

But how is this grace, this liberation, this good news realized among us today? How do we live our mission to bring the liberation of grace, the healing of broken hearts?

Doesn’t it in fact seem like our attempts to proclaim a year of the grace of Lord and heal the brokenhearted, are rendered useless, hindered, by all kinds of rules and regulations and laws? Many priests who give their whole hearts to the cura animarum, the care of souls, have the painful sense that they are constantly being hemmed in by limits. Is the mercy of God, the love of Jesus towards sinners, for which He came into the world, tied up by the decrees of “Canon Law”? Is this the option of our pastoral ministry rigorism or laxism? ‘Everything goes’* – or ‘nothing goes’*?
I sense uncertainty among you. The lack of clarity is discouraging; it can lead one to want to give up. Where is the Church going? Is everything to be arbitrarily abandoned? Or is there still an unshakable foundation on which we can build? Some of you feel abandoned by your bishop; left to your own devices, confused, worried, disappointed, saddened.

We are about to begin a “year of Faith.” Will it bring more clarity? Will it be “a year of the grace of the Lord”?

But what is this grace? What is this salvation? Isn’t one of the greatest problems of our ministry the lack of a sense of the need for salvation? It is God’s will “that all men should be saved, and be led to recognize the truth” says Paul (1 Tim 2:4). But do we want to be saved? Do we realize that without God’s salvation we are eternally, hopelessly lost?

“God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth.” Thus the Catechism glosses the words of the Apostel (CCC 851). And it continues, “Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the path of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire” and offer them salvation.

We are to bring salvation to the brokenhearted, but there are many who do not see their situation as an evil from which they must be saved, or which breaks their hearts. And yet the Church teaches that certain situations are objectively evil, dis-ordered, and that those who find themselves in such situations need to be saved from them. I would like to consider three such situations which occur ever more often, and cause much frustration in our pastors, making them feel helpless and perplexed:

  • The many unmarried persons who live together from a very young age, and who consider it natural that they should do so.
  • The many divorced persons who live in a “second marriage.”
  • And also ever more often those who live in homosexual “partnerships.”

How are we to handle these situations? Should we just look the other away?  Should we follow the saying “you can only oversee if you overlook”?  [Nur wer viel übersieht, hat Übersicht]. Should we complain that the Church is too “narrow-minded,” that Canon Law is more of a hindrance than a help? Should we join those who are calling for “reforms”: that the Church should change this and that and the other thing? Whenever one asks such people, “how is do you think that will work in real life?” they aren’t able to say exactly.

Today I want to offer you some help; some suggestions about how one ought to handle these pastoral problems. There is one path that is neither rigorous nor lax: a path on which love completes the law. Please don’t say: “the bishop has no idea how things are in the real world.” We can only go this path together: with and in the Church and faithful to Her teaching.

1) In all three of the situations I mentioned the issue is not “Church law” and it’s supposed “narrow-mindedness”; the issue is rather the order of creation and its authoritative interpretation by Jesus Himself. The “Church teachings” that we defend are not some arbitrary denominational peculiarity of Catholics: they are the “master plan” of the Creator: that God Himself created man and woman according to His image; that therefore the distinction of the sexes and the order they have toward each other is willed by God; that he gave man and woman the command “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28 Jewish tradition calls this the “first commandment” since it occurs in Genesis 1!); that therefore a man will leave his father and mother and will cling to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Gen 2:24), which Jesus authoritatively interprets: “what God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Matt 19:6). This is the basis for all of Christian teaching on marriage and fertility and the conviction that sexual union is only in accordance with the order of creation when it takes place within the marriage of one man to one woman.

2. I think that a second point follows from this: are we ourselves, the shepherds, that is each of us  really convinced that this biblical view is true, non some distant abstract ideal, but something truly great, life-affirming, life-giving? If we ourselves think it nothing more than an illusion then we will not be able to help others to “come to the knowledge of the truth.”

I find a certain rabbinical tradition helpful on this point. According to this tradition God needed a plan when he created the world, and so he wrote took the Tora out on His thrown, and built the world according to that. So everyone who obeys the law of God, the Tora, is conformed to creation, to the “master plan”* — and that is the secret of happiness! Joy over the Tora, conformity to the plan of the Creator, means that life makes sense; this makes life happy, even if it doesn’t make it comfortable. If we ourselves are convinced of this, then we will approach the “brokenhearted,” and “broken” life-situations in a different way. It is a joy and a blessing to experience, to see before our eyes, that a life according to God’s plan makes sense, and gives life the splendor and attraction of truth. It is not old-fashioned narrow-mindedness that causes the Church to teach that sexuality has its proper place in the protected space of the indissoluble bond of matrimony. Do we ourselves really believe this? With our hearts and souls? Not as an abstract ideal, but as a reality which can be lived and is lived by many even today?

3. At this point objectors immediately raise the argument from statistics: How many young people really live according to the Church’s ideal, abstaining from sexual intercourse till marriage? How many divorced and remarried persons really live “as brother and sister”? How many persons who live with homosexual attraction to each other live their relationship as a chaste friendship? There are two points that I want to make in reply. First: there are such people! Regardless of the statistics. And they are a powerful example of the fact that life according to the “master plan” is possible, with the grace that is denied to no one. And second: there is a great difference between trying to live according to God’s order but failing, and failing without having tried. But there are many who do not live according to the master plan because no one showed it to them, no one taught it to them, no one gave them an authentic example to them. Or because they wanted to live according to it, but didn’t succeed. Or because they honestly think that they are unable to conform to the plan in one way or another.

How are they to understand the teaching of the Church if it only appears to them as an unlivable, arbitrary, externally imposed norm? We pastors often give up in the face of the very real problem of a total lack of understanding of the Church’s teaching. E give up and conform…

In order to understand and live the “master plan” of the Creator it is vital to recall the norm again and again – but this not enough. There is only one path, the path on which the disciples went: the path of coming to know the Jesus ever better, of growing in friendship with him. Only a lived friendship with Jesus can make us an interior understanding of the master plan of the Creator grow in our hearts. “Religion itself, without the experience of wondrous discovery of the Son of God and communion with him who became our brother, becomes a mere set of principles which are increasingly difficult to understand, and rules which are increasingly hard to accept.” (John Paul II, Meeting With the Youth of Kasachstan, September 23rd, 2001)

Thanks be to God for the example of many persons young and old, who show that this path can lied to a deep transformation of life. But the path of friendship with Jesus requires much patience: the inexhaustible mercy of the Lord, who said to the adulterous women: “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. (John 8:11).  On this path there are set-backs, times of contradiction, of impatience, of failure. But it remains a path with Jesus and toward Him.

A good shepherd hold on to both of these things: the conviction that God’s master plan is right, truly good for all people, the source of happiness. But also this: the loving and patient path on which Jesus leads us to His friendship. On this path we need little signs of concrete love, of patiently bearing one another, even at times in “irregular” situation – the signs of a growing friendship with Christ. We pastors should look for such signs – encourage and promote them. These things are not “the solution” to all the problems of life, but they are part of the path of growing in the friendship of Christ.

Seven years ago today, the Blessed Pope John Paul II went to his eternal home, on the eve of the Feast of the Divine Mercy. I end with words which were, a sort of last will and testament, which he spoke in his farewell to Krakow on the August 17th 2002, when he consecrated the world to the Divine Mercy, “with the burning desire that the message of God’s merciful love, proclaimed here through Saint Faustina, may be made known to all the peoples of the earth and fill their hearts with hope … In the mercy of God the world will find peace and mankind will find happiness! I entrust this task to you, dear Brothers and Sisters… May you be witnesses to mercy! (Bl. John Paul II, Homily in Łagiewniki, August 17th 2002). Amen.

*English in the original.

5 thoughts on “Cardinal Schönborn: ‘Some of You Feel Abandoned by Your Bishop’

  1. For his priests, and the faithful in his diocese perhaps it matters what his reasoning is. Flawed or not, not withstanding.

    But for virtually all others who come across the story, it really doesn’t matter in the least what his reasoning is because it won’t be known, and if known it won’t be remembered. What shall be remembered is scandalous.


  2. The Road to Hell Is Paved With the Skulls of Bishops” Saint John Chrysostom’s observation is as true now as it was sixteen centuries ago!


  3. Even catechumens cannot be baptized yet if they have not shown clear signs of conversion. How can a person of bad example be allowed to function in a parish council?


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