Austrian Catholic Media Outlet Launches COVID-19 Prayer Crusade

‘Europe Prays,’ launched by Kath.net, invites Christians to pray together, especially the Rosary, in a public place once a week.

Police officers are seen in front of the Stephansdom Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2021.
Police officers are seen in front of the Stephansdom Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2021. (photo: Florian Wieser / APA / AFP via Getty Images)

ROME — A pan-European prayer initiative that hopes to help end the COVID-19 pandemic and bring conversion and healing to the continent after two years of division and rancor has seen a surge of participation in recent weeks.  

Called “Europe Prays,” the organizers are calling on all Christians to gather in public to “pray for an end of the COVID pandemic, for freedom, for an end to the prevailing polarization and for a conversion of hearts.” Launched by the Austrian Catholic news site Kath.net, the initiative also calls on Christians to pray for their politicians.  

“This is an invitation for everyone,” Kath.net says on its website. “Let’s meet once a week at public places and pray, pray, pray.” In particular, they urge Catholics to recite the Rosary and join Protestants and Orthodox to “head to the streets and just pray.” Participants are invited to register at EuropaBetet.jetzt.  

A Rosary was recited Wednesday evening at a church in central Vienna and in 250 towns across Austria, while in Rome a Rosary was prayed “for Italy” at the basilica of St. Mary Major. About 50 people took part and participants say the number taking part in the initiative is growing.   

“As far as I know there are now at least 600-700 places within German-speaking countries, where people are now praying at least once a week,” Kath.net’s director, Roland Noe, told the Register Jan. 5. “We hope that, with our little website, the idea is also spreading to more countries within Europe.” 

The initiative comes as many European governments step up vaccination requirements, using the now-dominant omicron variant as the motivation. 

The variant, which is highly contagious, is largely resistant to two vaccine injections. The vaccines also do not prevent transmission, and so a third booster shot is being promoted by many European governments in an effort to bring down cases.  

But omicron also reportedly brings milder symptoms as well as a much lower mortality rate than the delta variant. Some health experts believe it could provide a long-hoped-for collective immunity.  

Health officials have nevertheless urged caution and the variant, which came to prominence in December, has not deterred the Austrian government from going ahead with the toughest vaccine mandates in Europe, first announced in November.  

These include fines of 3,600 euros ($4,000) from Feb. 15 for anyone over the age of 14 who has not been vaccinated. Citizens will be traced to ensure compliance on Feb. 15, with subsequent checks every three months, and further fines if the person is still not vaccinated. 

Unvaccinated Austrians were also locked down before and during Christmas with a temporary reprieve Dec. 31-Jan. 1 during which they were allowed to attend gatherings of no more than 10 people. The fines and the lockdowns for the unvaccinated, now extended until at least Jan. 10, led to enormous protests across Austria in the run-up to Christmas.  

In many other European countries such as Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany, only the vaccinated or those who have recently recovered from COVID are able to access non-essential places such as hotels, restaurants and gyms using a pass (on Jan. 5, the Italian government tightened restrictions still further, including mandating vaccines for those over 50 and vaccination or testing to enter shops, banks, post offices and hairdressers). Since Dec. 23, Vatican employees and visitors are required to be vaccinated to enter the territory, using what has become known as a “Super Green Pass” in Italy and the Holy See.  

 

Raising the Rhetoric  

Despite increasing doubts over the effectiveness of the injections, and reports that omicron signals the end of the pandemic, politicians have also been raising their rhetoric and threatening further discriminatory policies against the unvaccinated.  

French President Emmanuel Macron caused an outcry on Wednesday when he said in an interview the unvaccinated were “no longer citizens,” adding: “I really want to p*ss them off, and so we’re going to continue doing so until the end. That’s the strategy.”  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also been strongly pushing a third vaccination, telling reporters Jan. 4 that a booster would be required to travel to other countries “within weeks.”  

Beyond Europe, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shocked many Canadians when he said last week that the unvaccinated were “very often misogynistic and racist” people who “take up some space,” and he questioned whether they should be tolerated. 

The Kath.net prayer initiative began in November after the dean of Salzburg, Father Ignaz Steinwender, criticized the exclusion of unvaccinated people and called for a “great Rosary prayer” to be prayed daily.  

In an interview, he criticized the strict government measures, saying he believed they were “disproportionate and counterproductive.”  

“Man has somehow lost sight of God and also what makes a person godly,” he said.  

He noted a great deal of “pressure and division, even within families” over disagreements over COVID-19 vaccination and said he had often been asked by the faithful to tell his priests to call the faithful to prayer.  

“So today I would like to respond to this multiple burning concern,” Father Steiwender said in the interview. “I am not Petrus Pavlicek [a 20th-century Austrian Franciscan who founded the Crusade of Reparation of the Holy Rosary for Peace in the World], but because of the urgency I would like to exceed my competencies and make this appeal throughout Austria.” 

 

Austria Pioneering “Dangerous Path” 

Father Steinwender said he believed the Austrian government had been chosen to pioneer this “dangerous path” of vaccine mandates and therefore he wanted to issue his appeal to “pray, pray for Austria! A Rosary every day!”  

“I am convinced that every Rosary is a gift for those who pray, for those around them and for Austria,” he said. “God will turn everything to the good for those who love him!” 

Noe said that “within days” of Father Steinwender’s remarks being published, “the idea spread within Austria, then Germany and Switzerland.”  

Noe added that the idea for Europe to pray for an end to the COVID emergency dates back to the beginning of the outbreak. Also an Austrian-French citizen, Louis-Pierre Laroche, started a very similar initiative last November called Österreich Betet by just contacting some friends and acquaintances.

He told the Register that it then spread like “wildfire in just a few days” with the first official rosary taking place on Dec. 1. Now, he said, public rosaries are being recited not only in Austria but also Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, France, Italy, Romania, Switzerland, Uganda, United Kingdom und the USA. Father Steinwender, Laroche said, is  the spiritual leader of his initiative.

These prayer initiatives also have connections with Alexander Tschugguel, founder of the St. Boniface Institute, an Austrian think tank defending the Catholic faith, which started Rosary processions two and a half years ago.  

“Whatever is going on in world, whether it’s abortion, attacks on marriage, or these corona restrictions, if we need to fight against them then we need God’s help, and the only possibility is through public worship through the help of Our Lady,” Tschugguel told the Register.  

Like Noe and Laroche, he said these public prayer gatherings have grown exponentially over the past two months and spread to other non-German-speaking countries. Tschugguel said he will soon be release details of an online group for English-speaking participants, which he will announce on his Twitter page.

This article has been updated to include details of the Österreich Betet initiative. 

People demonstrate against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in Huntington Beach, California, on Jan. 3.

COVID Mandate Logic

EDITORIAL: The decision whether to vaccinate or not should be a free and informed choice, not something that’s mandated or coerced by our governments.