Apathy, Hostility Await Pope in Austria

Vienna, Austria - A larger-than-life image of Pope Benedict XVI beams down at passers-by from billboards around Vienna. But few Austrians are smiling back.

Even in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, apathy and hostility — the fallout of clergy sex scandals and a highly unpopular church tax — will greet the pope when he arrives Friday for a three-day visit.

The Archdiocese of Vienna promises a "fresh wind" from Benedict's pilgrimage, the seventh foreign trip of his two-year papacy. But Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the nation's top Catholic cleric, concedes that many Austrians' ardor has cooled.

"Now, more than ever, our society needs the gospel," Schoenborn said, alluding to "some very difficult years."

More than a half-million people have formally renounced their affiliation since 1995, when the Austrian church was rocked by allegations that the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s.

The record rate of departures accelerated after 2004, when a huge cache of child pornography, and lurid photographs of young candidates for the priesthood fondling each other and their older religious instructors, was discovered at a seminary west of Vienna.

Many dropouts cite their disgust with the church tax, which averages $340 a year and remains enshrined in the constitution.

Last week, Schoenborn touched a nerve by revealing that Benedict's visit, which runs through Sunday, will cost the church $6.8 million — not counting whatever the government will spend to protect the pope.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, said the pope hopes his trip will signal that a climate of "serenity" has returned to the Austrian church after the "difficult years" and "tensions."

"I rejoice for the imminent visit that I will make to Austria," the pontiff, speaking in his native German, told the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square for Wednesday's weekly general audience.

Yet only 3 percent of the alpine country's 8.2 million people will turn out to see him, and 40 percent plan to "completely ignore" him, according to a survey for the magazine News. No margin of error was given.

Underscoring the pope's unpopularity in some quarters, socialist youth groups planned a demonstration in Vienna on Friday to denounce the Vatican's alleged "conservatism, sexism and homophobia." Police said anti-pope protesters planned two other rallies during the visit.

We Are Church, an influential Catholic lay organization pressing the Holy See to relax celibacy requirements for priests, ticks off a list of reasons why Austrian Catholics are jaded.

"Young people experience the church as dusty and inflexible, and it's about to lose the under-50 crowd completely," said the group's chairman, Hans Peter Hurka.

"Priests must leave the ministry if they wish to marry, and towns are left to wonder what's become of them," he said. "The role of women continues to be ignored, even though they are already active in the church."

Lombardi said the pope "doesn't really care about the size of crowds."

Yet it was clear from the planning that the issue would be avoided. The main Mass on Sunday will be inside Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral, averting the possibility of empty plazas were it to be held in one of the capital's huge squares.

Organizers of Austria's first papal visit since a 1998 trip by Pope John Paul II said tens of thousands of pilgrims were issued tickets for Saturday's commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the founding of Mariazell, a famous shrine to the Virgin Mary.

At Vienna's former imperial Hofburg Palace, the pope will deliver what the Vatican described as a major address to Austrian authorities and diplomats serving with the U.N. nuclear agency and other organizations. He also will tour the Heiligenkreuz abbey outside Vienna.

His most poignant event will be one of his first: a silent tribute to Jewish pogrom victims at a memorial on Vienna's Judenplatz, or Jewish Square. There, he will honor not only the 65,000 Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but those who were burned at the stake in the 1400s after refusing to convert.

It will be a powerfully symbolic gesture in a country still tamping down anti-Semitic sentiment.

"It's very late in coming," said Vienna's chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg. But he added: "The symbolism of his bow is important enough to me that I won't ask why he doesn't say anything."