Presbyterorum Ordinis

Before pastoral commitment: care of relationships

At the Service of a Fraternal Church

Bishop Wilhelm Krautwaschl
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Conceiving the priestly ministry on the one hand as rooted in Christ and on the other at the service of the People of God, the Second Vatican Council outlines the profile of the priest as a network of relationships in three directions: with the bishop, with the other priests, and with the laity and their gifts. Even before this vision can be realized in determined structures of communion, it requires to be cultivated daily. A few months ago, the author was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Graz-Seckau (Austria) and here he refers to his experiences as a parish priest and vicar forane and now as a bishop in a context where there are many tensions.

I grew up in the spirit of the Council. Since childhood I experienced the Church as a group of people who know they are following Jesus. Coming from this experience, in 1981 I entered the seminary When I was ordained a priest in 1990, I was well aware of being inserted into a sacramental brotherhood. To live accordingly - I thought - from now on it will be a gift and a task for me.

Wherever I exercised my ministry I have always lived with another priest. Celebrating together, comparing thoughts with each other and sharing what we lived, pursuing joint projects and pondering what God wanted in the situation entrusted to us, made me experience always more clearly that "sacramental brotherhood" is much more than just words.

To be well rooted in a territory meant, among other things, to regularly visit the nearby parish priests, sharing inner thoughts with them perhaps while going for a walk or in other ways and to establish a dialogue with them on the priorities of pastoral work/the ministry and other issues.
Once, however, I realized that for my brother my remarks resounded as if his way of being a priest was being challenged. He asked me: “Won’t I be able to continue moving around as I feel appropriate until I retire?". I learned then to become subtler in my way of relating with others, trying to "immerse myself", so as to be able to express my ideas according to their way of thinking and talking, so that what was important to me could be “listened to” by them.

"Brother" and not just "the person in charge"

As vicar forane I was also the parish priest of a pastoral unit that included three parishes of almost 20,000 residents. At least once a year I arranged to have a dialogue with each of the priests and lay people engaged in the pastoral work, so that they could share with me what they were living personally and professionally. I would invite them to lunch - usually for their birthday - and afterwards we spent about 90 minutes talking. Most of these conversations were focused on reflections and experiences of their brother priests and other collaborators. Thanks to the relationships established in this way, the pastoral visits that I had to do as vicar forane, were not perceived as my being “somebody in authority” but lived in a participative and sharing manner.
As vicar forane I also had the task of handing over parishes to their new parish priests. On one of these occasions, before the official act, I found myself talking to the new parish priest for an hour about some hurts/wounds I had reported about him. At a very difficult time for the seminary, that priest had promoted the idea of opening a second seminary where the "Catholic faith" would be lived more genuinely. It also happened that, during the liturgical celebrations, they had prayed for the "conversion of seminarians." I am well aware that this is all very good, but the context made the real intent clear. I told him that I was very unhappy with what had occurred, "You know why," I added. And then I said: "As vicar forane I will make sure that you do not reject anyone intending to carry out the ministry according to the will of God and to follow Jesus in the right way. And I will make sure that none of our brothers will reject this of you either."

Listening and knowing how to grasp the intent
of any possible expression of dissatisfaction

For various reasons various groups urging a reformation of the Church started up in the 80s and 90s in Austria. Among the most well known initiatives of that period was the so-called "ecclesial referendum." Especially demanded was the abolition of celibacy and the ordination of women to solve the increasingly serious lack of priests. Other initiatives adopted those requests as their own. In this context, some bishops’ positions were interpreted publicly as maneuvers to ensure, first of all, loyalty to Rome, thus putting the Church in Austria to the test.
In addition to this, in the early 2000s, there were the issues concerning a new structural set-up of the Church. The people who were engaged in a reformation of the Church perceived that the challenges linked to this, along with the issues raised earlier often did not seem to be heard by those responsible for the Church. Consequently, this provoked a "call to disobedience" by the so-called "initiative of the parish priests," which had repercussions in the media far beyond Austria and evoked similar initiatives in other countries.
Some of my Italian brothers pointed out to me that an invitation to "disobedience" was inconceivable to them: "Does it mean that the Church in Austria is about to separate from the universal Church?" I replied that a famous "disobedient" Austrian had even been beatified: Franz Jägerstätter had refused to join the Nazi army. In our milieu - I explained - the expression "disobedience" has very different connotations from what is understood in the theological context, and it even has a "prophetic" nuance.
Though I could not fully share the demands of the "initiative of parish priests" - which, among other things, represented various theological tendencies -, I gradually learned to listen more deeply, in order to grasp the underlying issues and above all the anguished demands that had led a considerable number of priests to join this initiative: "What kind of future do we see for our Church with this history and this way of living her and setting her up?".
In this way, to a certain extent, I could identify with the demands of those who had promoted the initiative. Faced with the questions that I understood to be urgent, I started, however, to focus not so much on a structural reform, but on what seemed to me the essential core of the life of the Church. "Where two or three ... I am there among them" (Mt 18:20) is not just any form of Church, but it is what will remain of her forever: even in Heaven the Lord will be among his people.
Therefore, on several occasions, I began to speak about this content which was essential for me and I looked for ways to put it into practice in order to alleviate the overload of priests who were responsible for several parishes, etc. My new position as rector of the minor seminary ( was helpful as it allowed me to travel for many years throughout the region of Styria.
There was an ever greater awareness and, at the same time, the question among us deacons and diocesan priests of the Focolare Movement in Styria of what could be our specific service in this situation in which the clergy seemed to be increasingly divided. And we realized that real, deep listening was undoubtedly an exercise that we had to learn in order to avoid being superficial and therefore finding ourselves ever more divided.

With the Crucified One,
taking charge of tensions

If you want to learn how to live with tension, be it from the "right" or from the "left", you must live suspended between the two "like the Crucified One" and assume the discovery that, as far as the content is concerned, there are many meaningful approaches but, when the time comes to put them into practice, the proposed ways forward are so diverse from one another that it triggers a huge discussion. During the meetings in recent months, with representatives of the “initiative of parish priests," I realized once again that only this deep listening can make the indispensable dialogue possible.
Since I have been called to serve the Church as a bishop, these issues are even more serious. I have in fact also been entrusted those brothers who have left the ministry, either a while ago or more recently. Which attitude should be adopted towards them? Once it was having lunch with someone who was the assistant parish priest with me, or visiting the home of a dear friend who left the ministry and the lady with whom he is now civilly married; another time it was an encounter with a priest who had to be suspended from the ministry or offering birthday wishes to one who can only exercise his ministry with restrictions, or listening to those who speak to me of their struggle with celibacy, or to those who become aware of their homosexual orientation; etc. etc…
In all these situations I discover that I do not have any easy solution to offer, and especially no ready-made solution. I see myself, then, "at the mercy" of these painful circumstances and I have almost no room for action. It feels as though there is too much to bear. Similarly, in meetings with colleagues who suffer from a serious illness. "My God, my God, why?" I have no answer, and I do not even know if I will ever get one. I can only fill my questions and my "darkness" with this often unexpressed cry, which invokes God and place all my trust in Him and in the action of his Spirit. This allows me to take a step towards every person I meet.
As I try to love, the dimension that distinguishes the family of the disciples of Jesus becomes clear and visible: "No one has greater love than he who gives his life for his friends" (cf. Jn 15:13). This family is life.