Austrian Catholic activists criticize Pope's trip

Vienna, Austria - Some Catholic Church activists in Austria accused Pope Benedict of devoting too little time to hear ordinary churchgoers' concerns during a visit starting on Friday and said he was risking losing more of his flock.

On his three-day visit Benedict will pray at a memorial for Jewish victims killed by the Nazi regime of his native Germany when it annexed Austria in 1938. He will also visit a Catholic shrine and deliver an address on global issues.

Austrians are mostly at least nominally Catholic but two-thirds said in an opinion poll they were either disappointed by the Church or indifferent to it.

"The situation screams for solutions," said Peter Hurka, spokesman for the We Are Church grassroots activist group.

"There will be only speeches, no discussions (during the visit). The Church is about to lose those under 50 years old. You can't pray away the problems."

Austria is a stronghold of We Are Church, which wants the Vatican to give women a greater role in the Church and to ordain married men so they can replenish the ranks of the priesthood.

Church experts say Austria could run out of priests as the present average age is 64.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the Pope's visit was not the right place to address "existing questions" and that it was more of an occasion for prayer and celebration.

"It's not really easy to be a believer today and it would be a good thing if (Austrians) are encouraged (by the Pope's visit)," Schoenborn said in an interview on state ORF radio.

On Saturday, about 33,000 pilgrims, including 70 cardinals, will join Benedict at the 850-year-old shrine of Mariazell dedicated to Mary.

The 80-year-old Pope, who decided to go ahead with his trip despite suffering a sore throat, will cap the visit with a Mass in Vienna's 13th century St Stephen's Cathedral on Sunday.

The Church is still feeling the ripples of a sex abuse scandal that forced a Vienna archbishop, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, to retire in the 1990s. In 2004, the bishop of St Poelten quit after a scandal over pornographic pictures at a seminary.

The youth wing of Austria's governing Social Democrats will hold a rally on Friday against Benedict's conservative stance on homosexuality and women's rights.

The number of Catholics in Austria has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 1991 to 72 percent of the population. Less than a sixth of them go to church regularly and their average age is on the rise.