Church – The following applies to Vienna’s parishes: less is more

It’s been six years now. At that time, on June 1, 2015, the first “new parish” in the Archdiocese of Vienna was officially established under canon law. The three parishes of St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Family and the Most Holy Trinity in the 10th district merged to form the new large parish of the Divine Word. It was the first big step in the great structural reform with which the archdiocese wants to prepare for a future with fewer Catholics, fewer priests and also fewer Catholic places of worship.

The almost 660 previously independent parishes in the three vicariates in Vienna and Lower Austria became 140 so-called at that time Development spaces grouped. The aim was to merge around 80 percent of this into large parishes by 2022. If things were quick at first, this process has been slower, and not just since the corona pandemic. In some parishes, the merger worked more or less smoothly, others still struggle with it today. Not every sub-community can get along well with everyone, and not everyone is equally networked with everyone; here and there there is still a certain inner self-sufficiency.

The archdiocese reacted to this in 2019 and expanded the models. The “new parish” became the “parish with sub-parishes”, and the development area as the basis, which several parishes form together, can now be three things: a pastoral care room, a parish association or a completely new parish with sub-parishes. For the latter, the rate is currently 12 percent, “but we are already at 42 percent for the parish association,” explains Stefan Lobnig, head of the parish councils and pastoral structure development department in the Archdiocese of Vienna.

Two new large parishes
this year

He believes, however, that the structures will align again at some point “and that we will then have an adapted form of parishes with sub-parishes everywhere”. Two new large parishes will be added this year: One is the parish to the Holy Guardian Angels (with the sub-communities Ebergassing, Gramatneusiedl, Mitterndorf / Fischa, Moosbrunn and Wienerherberg) in the Vicariate South. The other is the parish Währing in the vicariate of the city, to which
January 1st to merge four of the five parishes in Vienna-Währing for the time being. The fifth already has the same pastor and is also in the same development area, but does not yet become part of the common parish.

According to the experience of recent years, the focus of structural reform is currently more on the parish associations, “which in many ways already do what a parish does with sub-parishes: joint management, joint activities, joint bodies – but independence in terms of property law, which still seems to be a big topic for many, “says Lobnig. Some still shy away from losing their own legal personality. “It has a lot to do with identity. And it just takes time for mutual trust in the parish association to be great enough. And that one knows that identity depends on location, but not on legal personality.”

“The goal is profiling
and not assimilation “

Basically, the whole point of the reform lies in the synergy effects that should result from cooperation in individual areas. “The goal is to create a profile and not an assimilation. So differently oriented congregations under one roof are already good. And especially those who have perhaps been tied to a pastor alone for decades should open up with a view to the future. This close connection of the parish and pastor is going well for a certain time, but at some point the moment comes when it can start to get difficult. ” This could also facilitate the transition to new leadership.

The parish with its sub-parishes also ensures that the clergy have to get used to the fact that the laypeople have even more say in the parish than before. In addition to the parish council (PGR), other committees were drawn in: an asset management council, on which, in addition to the pastor as chairman, also honorary representatives of the sub-parishes sit; a pastoral management team (formerly: PGR board), in which lay people also play an important role; and their own community leadership teams for each sub-community. Conversely, the parishioners must first learn that every decision can no longer be left to the pastor.

Another change for the clergy is that they (have to) work together in larger teams – unfamiliar to many -: There are now usually three to five people. A pilot project for two-year support was rolled out in some development rooms, also on the basis of the findings from a large study on the situation of pastors that was carried out three years ago. Lobnig explains whether the clergy of a parish should live together in a “Vita communis” in one place or whether each sub-parish should continue to have “its” priest on site in the existing rectory. “The archbishop has the goal of a” vita communis “, but it also depends on the local conditions. It must not degenerate into caretaking. And the question is, of course, how much real estate we can afford in the long term . “

Other churches could also be given up

The handover of churches to other Christian communities has not yet been completed. “There are still one or two ideas,” says the division manager, but he does not want to reveal any details at this point in time. In particular, the handover of the parish church Maria vom Siege in the 15th district caused some displeasure in the aftermath. Not all residents were happy when the church was donated to the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2015. However, not everything had gone smoothly at the Mariahilfer Gürtel before that: the church was in dire need of renovation, at least 10 million euros should have been invested, which is why the archdiocese wanted to give the building to the Serbian Orthodox Church as early as 2010. Now Egyptian (stocky) Christians are praying there.

Even with the model of the parish with sub-parishes, not all those affected are satisfied. Again and again there is animosity between individual sub-communities, some feel that they have been taken advantage of or ignored. It also becomes difficult if, for example, the spiritual leadership team is not replaced and one pastor is suddenly put in front of the nose as the boss. In such parish mergers, the members of the voluntary committees also first have to learn how to work together properly and where they are better off together than going it alone, for example, that it is not to be taken away if all (few) confirmers are preparing in one of three or four sub-congregations will.

How can the parishes be relieved of this? “You definitely have to solve this on site, not centrally,” says Lobnig. “Realistically, one also has to say that especially in Vienna many of these young people will have a longer church dry spell after Confirmation and will only come back as young families and perhaps end up in completely different parishes anyway. From this perspective it would make sense for them to see : It’s the Catholic Church, it has different locations, and I choose the one that suits me best. ” And the church will have to get used to the fact that the general social conditions change. In general, Lobnig sees a key to change in a common direction. “The clearer this orientation is, the more the particular interests take a back seat.”

“The leeway is there – it is just often not used”

There are several examples of successful parish amalgamations in Vienna. Lobnig names, for example, the new parishes of the Happy Message (4th / 5th district), Mother Teresa (14th district), Hildegard Burjan (15th district) and Franz von Sales (19th district). Of course, it depends a lot on the pastor whether he is actually a leader, but who also gives the voluntary management team enough co-determination. “Then the parishioners also recognize the added value and identify with it,” says Lobnig.

He also states: “The diocese has room for maneuver – it is just often not used. The question is how long it works.” In his opinion, this partly results in “the experience of frustration in some parishes that nothing has changed due to the new structures – but if you do not change anything locally, everything stays as it was. That cannot be changed centrally either. ” In the archdiocese, however, there is at least one hope that the new structures will equip the parishes for the future.

Lobnig does not dare to judge whether the individual parishes would have gotten worse through the corona pandemic without the mergers. But what he found: “The parish Franz von Sales, for example, profiles its individual sub-parishes very strongly with different orientations, be it youth or Caritas, and also invests accordingly in its buildings. A single parish could not have done that for itself. The existing leeway is also used heavily here. ” In the ideal case, there are generally many synergy effects, including in the management bodies. Because in every sub-community there is one or the other specialist whose expertise the others can also benefit from. When asked by them.

One indicator of whether the structural reform is proving its worth will include the parish council elections on March 20, 2022: It remains to be seen whether the previous members of the governing bodies will run for a further term in the new parish structures.

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