VIENNA, Austria — For Pope Benedict XVI, his most recent papal journey was the next best thing to a trip home: a visit to a beloved next-door neighbor.
From Sept. 7-9, the Pope was hosted by the famously hospitable Austrians, just across the border from his native Bavaria.
Austria can be called the Holy Father’s second home; some of his family roots can be traced back there and in his childhood he lived alongside the German-Austrian border, and he has visited there throughout his life.
He delivered a firm message in his two major addresses in Austria: that the truth of Christ is key to the intellectual revitalization of the West, and to the physical rejuvenation of an aging European continent. In addition to the moral issue of the taking of innocent life, the Pope raised a wider question: whether Europe, with its low birth rate and rapidly aging population, is “giving up on itself.”
He hammered home the same theme the next day, telling 30,000 people at the Marian shrine of Mariazell, “Europe has become child-poor: We want everything for ourselves and place little trust in the future.”
During his homily at the open-air Mass he presided over Sept. 8 at Mariazell, the Holy Father said the Christian faith “is decisively opposed to the attitude of resignation that considers man incapable of truth as if this were more than he could cope with.”
This “attitude of resignation with regard to truth” is “at
the heart of the crisis of the West, the crisis of Europe,” he said.
After arriving Sept. 7 at Vienna International Airport, where he was met by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Benedict was greeted by 7,000 mostly young people at the Marian pillar in Vienna’s Am Hof Square. A bigger turnout was inhibited by the cold and rainy weather that prevailed for most of his visit.
In the evening, the Pope delivered a speech on one of his favorite topics: Europe and its identity. Speaking in Vienna’s Hofburg Imperial Palace to members of the Austrian government and the Austrian diplomatic corps, the Holy Father reminded his audience of the continent’s Christian roots and stressed Austria’s role as a bridge between the East and West.
“Europe cannot and must not deny its Christian roots,” he said. “These represent a dynamic component of our civilization as we move forward into the third millennium.”
Benedict said Europe has experienced a wide range of mistakes over the centuries, including the “abuse of religion and reason for imperialistic purposes,” the degradation caused by theoretical and practical materialism, and “the degeneration of tolerance into an indifference with no reference to permanent values.”
But Europe has also been marked by a capacity for self-criticism, he said, and by a tradition of thought that sees a correspondence between faith, truth and reason. At the root of this outlook is the Christian conviction that “at the origin of everything is the creative reason of God,” he said.
The Pope also stressed the sanctity of human life, urging the politicians in attendance “not to abolish in practice your legal systems’ acknowledgment that abortion is wrong.”
In Austria, abortion is available upon request during the first three months of pregnancy, and later in pregnancy under more restricted circumstances.
He also underlined the Church’s rejection of euthanasia.
“The proper response to end-of-life suffering is loving care and accompaniment on the journey towards death — especially with the help of palliative care — and not actively assisted death,” he said.
The Holy Father closed by telling Austrian officials, “An Austria without a vibrant Christian faith would no longer be Austria.”
The focus of the second day of the trip was his visit to Mariazell.
In 2004, while still serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had promised to make a pilgrimage there. A copy of Mariazell’s Madonna with Child stands in the Pope’s private chapel in the Vatican, where it was brought by his predecessor, John Paul II.
In his homily at Mariazell focusing on the importance of truth, Benedict said that in contemplating Jesus people can see that “truth prevails not through external force, but it is humble and it yields itself to man only via the inner force of its veracity. Truth proves itself in love.”
Said the Pope, “We need this inner force of truth. As Christians, we trust this force of truth. We are its witnesses.”
The Holy Father said that by looking at the child Jesus in Mariazell, humanity is reminded of “all the children in the world in whom he wishes to come to us: Children who live in poverty; who are exploited by soldiers; who have never been able to experience the love of parents; sick and suffering children, but also those who are joyful and healthy.”
Benedict compared Europe to a poor child: “We want everything for ourselves, and place little trust in the future.”
This selfishness and lack of confidence underlies Europe’s demographic problems, the Pope said. “Yet the earth will be deprived of a future only when the forces of the human heart and of reason illuminated by the heart are extinguished — when the face of God no longer shines upon the earth,” he said. “Where God is, there is the future.”
Food for Thought
On the final day of his brief trip, Benedict celebrated Mass in Vienna’s St. Stephen‘s Cathedral. In his homily, the Pope reminded the faithful of the importance of Christian Sunday; in Austria’s increasingly secularized Catholic culture, the legal restrictions on working on Sundays is questioned by a growing number.
The Holy Father also encouraged young people to form Christian marriages or to discover their vocation as priest and nun, naming Mother Teresa and Padre Pio as two examples of the vivid face of God in the world.
Later in the day, Benedict briefly visited Heiligenkreuz, a Cistercian abbey near Vienna that has a papal theological faculty named in his honor, and held a final meeting with volunteers at Vienna’s Concert Hall before flying back to Rome.
At the conclusion of the trip, Cardinal Schönborn thanked the Pope for having granted Austria “so much time, valuable thoughts, attention and regard,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur news agency reported Sept. 9.
The cardinal said the Holy Father’s comments indicated the path toward renewal of the Church.
Said Cardinal Schönborn, “Pope Benedict gave us much to think about.”
(Zenit, CNS and Register correspondent Robert Rauhut contributed to this story.)