I just returned from a Mass of Thanksgiving at Stephansdom held in honor of Pope Benedict XVI on the last night of his pontificate. It is not always easy to be a Catholic in Vienna, which probably sounds strange considering that Austria historically was and statistically still is a predominantly Catholic country. There is no persecution in the traditional sense as is happening elsewhere in the world but there is a certain brand of open animosity that is not only socially acceptable but also quite popular. And while the Church membership numbers point to a statistical Catholic majority, actually attending Mass on Sunday places one in a near-single-digit minority. Austria and the Church share a long and complicated history that is also relevant to the current situation but beyond the scope of what I can describe here.
That being said, there are also advantages to being a Catholic here, at least to my foreign eyes and ears, and tonight's Mass was a good example. I arrived a half-hour early and the cathedral was already almost completely full. I would say that every Catholic in Vienna was there if I didn't know that there were a few putting their pajamas on and brushing their teeth back at our apartment. Despite the crowds I was happy to find several familiar faces: our parish priest processing in with an army of priests and altar servers, nuns from two different convents in our area, acquaintances from our neighborhood. The cathedral itself may be less colorful and ornate than some others in Europe but is nonetheless majestic and filled with enough history and detail to occupy a visitor for a month. The choir and organist performed Charles-Marie Widor's Mass in F-Minor (Op. 36) beautifully. Each of the eight or so intercessions was read by a native speakers of a different language, starting with German and English and moving on through eastern Europe to languages that I could only vaguely place. At 8:00 p.m., at the moment that Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate officially ended, we all knelt in silent prayer as the Pummerin, the 20,000 kg bell in the north tower of the cathedral, rang for several minutes:
The Church lives on in Vienna and it is praying for Pope Benedict XVI and the cardinals gathering in Rome in the coming days to elect the next pope. I am happy to be there and to be a part of it.