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König at 94 still carrying torch of renewal

NCR Staff
Vienna, Austria

Though all roads may indeed lead to Rome, many of them from both East and West pass through Vienna first -- making the old Hapsburg capital a critically important crossroads for the Catholic church.

For more than 40 years, the man at the intersection of those roads has been Cardinal Franz König. Now retired at 94 but as active as many bishops still in their prime, König has been at the pinnacle of Roman Catholicism’s power structure longer than anyone else alive.

Though König will not be at the European Synod, which opens Oct. 1 in Rome, hardly a topic is likely to surface in which he has not been a key player.

He is the last cardinal alive elevated by John XXIII. He was part of John’s first consistory in Rome, December 1958, and it was a sign of things to come from the peasant pope. The pope overruled his own advisers in the curia to give König the red hat, much as he later ignored their trepidation about calling the Second Vatican Council.

König has seen it all, done it all -- from playing handball with the future Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac of Croatia during their student days in Rome, to persuading Hungarian Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty not to storm out of the American embassy in Budapest to protest what he considered to be U.S. waffling on communism.

It was König who pioneered Catholicism’s historic “opening to the East,” König who helped steer Vatican II toward reform, König who engineered the election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy in 1978, and König who today advocates an agenda in many ways the antithesis of what Wojtyla’s papacy has come to represent.

König has been in the headlines of late for his strong criticism of this papacy’s treatment of what it sees as dissenting theologians. He is a staunch advocate of decentralizing Rome’s power and an equally avid advocate of inter-religious dialogue.

And yet he has managed to criticize without dividing. It is a style he used in Austria, where he is widely respected as a bridge builder.

“There is a very strong group of people here who came to power after World War I, who were the cultural alternatives to the Hapsburgs,” said Michael Waldstein, director of a Catholic theological institute in Gaming, Austria. “These people are socialist in their thinking. Down through the years, they have had terrible clashes with the Catholic church.”

“König managed not to alienate them, to extend a hand, making him a real man of peace,” Waldstein said.

Waldstein, a friend of Vienna’s current cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, who is to the right of König on many theological issues, said König’s appeal also transcends church politics. “He’s not someone who tries to beat his enemies,” Waldstein said. “He is tremendously spiritual.”

Hubert Feichtlbauer, chair of Austria’s left-wing We Are Church movement, shares the assessment.

“König is beloved,” Feichtlbauer said. “He is seen as a genuine pastor, concerned for everyone and not just his allies.”

König, whose life spans so much of Catholic history in this century, symbolizes in many ways the road not taken by this papacy. At the same time, many would say he embodies -- in his pastoral approach, outreach to other religions and convictions about decentralized authority -- the path the church must take as the new century arrives.

In late September, König sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with NCR in his apartment in Vienna.

The residence is part of an eldercare facility run by the Sisters of Mercy, but König is no shut-in. The day before the interview, he appeared at an event sponsored by a new Catholic radio station, presided over a dinner that reconciled the leaders of Austria’s notoriously fractious Catholic lay organizations, and went on national television to urge compassion for foreigners in the midst of an election campaign in which the country’s far-right Freedom Party seems poised for significant gains. All this after König had just returned from a speaking engagement in London.

Passion for language, religion

Born Aug. 3, 1905, Franz König grew up in rural Austria. He said he was fascinated as a young boy with two discoveries: One, that people spoke different languages; and two, that they practiced different religions. His interest led to two of the great passions of his life: Linguistics and inter-religious dialogue.

König speaks seven languages: German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and Latin. He also has a reading knowledge of Syriac, ancient Persian and Hebrew. This last set was necessary for his doctoral work in comparative religions; in 1947 König published The Old Testament and the Ancient Oriental Religions, still considered a groundbreaking work, as is his 1951 Christ and the World Religions.

During World War II, König did parish work in his home diocese of Sankt Pölten. Harassment from the Gestapo began in 1939, when he was ordered to pay a 1,000-mark fine for the “suspicious activity” of catechizing youth. In 1943, he was ordered to appear at Gestapo headquarters in Vienna for what he assumed would be transfer to the prison camp at Dachau in Germany

“I had to be there at 8 a.m., and I spent the whole day, until 6 p.m., in interrogation. Every hour a different officer came in to ask questions -- sometimes friendly, sometimes angry,” König said. Eventually he was told to go home, an outcome König attributes to the shifting fortunes of the war.

König taught theology at the University of Salzburg after the war. In 1952, he was named coadjutor bishop with the right of succession in Sankt Pölten. In 1956, however, the Austrian nuncio told him that Pius XII wished him to succeed Cardinal Theodor Innitzer as archbishop of Vienna.

König declined, but relented after a personal audience with the pope. “I was full of admiration for him,” König said. “He was a tall man, a real intellectual.”

Both Innitzer and Pius XII have come under criticism for their wartime conduct -- Innitzer because he supported the Anschluss, the 1938 political move that united Austria with Germany, and offered a “Heil Hitler” when the Nazis marched into Vienna; Pius because he was not more energetic in his condemnation of Nazi policies.

König said Innitzer wanted to find a way for the church to survive. “Looking back, we can say he was naive,” König said. “But his idea was that the Germans are very stubborn; we Austrians are kind -- maybe if we change the language a little bit and offer the Heil Hitler, we will get more freedom.”

Innitzer was not a Nazi supporter, König said. “A few months after the occupation he preached at St. Stephen’s an excellent sermon in which he said that our führer (leader) is Jesus Christ. He did not say Hitler is not the führer, but he said our führer is Jesus Christ.”

Afterward a group of Hitler Youth, supported by the Gestapo, ransacked the archbishop’s residence. “His secretary later told me that when Innitzer came down and saw the destruction, he said, ‘Well, now, my rehabilitation.’ He suffered very much, because afterward people did not understand his actions,” König said.

Of Pius XII, König said: “He was very much against communism, very much afraid of it. He was not sure who would be the stronger power … Also, the German situation was not so negative right away, everybody was able to work again, and there was a general feeling of uplift. It took a certain time until he began to realize what Nazism meant.”

Because Pius XII had spent time in Germany, and because he knew the language and the culture well, König believes Pius was hesitant to condemn Hitler for fear of condemning Germany. “He was clearly against National Socialism, but he was very sympathetic to the German-speaking nation.

“Fifty years later, we say, of course he should have been more outspoken. But if he had, who knows what the reaction toward the church would have been in Germany? It’s very hard to say,” König said.

A turning point in König’s career came in February 1960. Cardinal Stepinac had just died in Croatia, and König wanted to attend the funeral. The two men knew each other from the German College in Rome. They were on the same handball team (König says Stepinac was small but feisty on the court; of his own play, “I was actually quite good”).

König assumed that Tito’s communist regime in Yugoslavia would deny his visa request, but it came through. König, his secretary (today, the auxiliary bishop of Vienna, Helmut Krätzl) and his driver set out on an icy February morning for Zagreb. In northern Croatia, they collided with a truck in an accident that left both König and Krätzl unconscious and seriously injured.

Peering behind the Iron Curtain

“I woke up in the hospital -- a communist hospital, in a small room, with my jaw wired up,” König said. The only thing to stare at in the room for hours every day was a portrait of Tito on the wall. “I began to reflect on what this experience meant. It occurred to me that the archbishop of Vienna should take care about what’s going on behind the Iron Curtain,” König said.

Though many Westerners assumed the wreck was communist sabotage, König publicly said Tito had nothing to do with it. His restraint in not exploiting the incident for propaganda purposes earned him credibility with other Iron Curtain governments.

“As I visited Catholics in communist countries, I discovered that their feeling was ‘We are lost.’ They felt the West didn’t care. I became famous because I had the courage to cross over.”

This was well before John XXIII declared his policy of Ostpolitik, an opening to the socialist nations of Eastern Europe. König pursued his contacts behind the Iron Curtain much to the consternation of the Cold Warriors in the Vatican.

“They wondered about my intentions,” König said. “I always said, ‘I am the archbishop of Vienna, I am not a Vatican man. I come from Vienna -- that is all.’ I would inform Rome afterwards, not before.”

Paul VI eventually endorsed König’s work. The pope drew him aside during Vatican II and said, “We have to change our attitude. We must have contact with the communist world, and I am indebted to you because you opened the door.”

“He was a very great pope,” König says of Paul VI. “He was very modest, extremely knowledgeable, and he suffered so much to make the right decisions.”

König acknowledged the pope’s reputation for indecision. “You know the story, he went to the railway station in Rome. Three or four trains were ready for departure. He was walking up and down the tracks, and someone says, ‘Holy Father, it is time to go.’

“He said ‘Yes, all right, but I’m trying to decide which train to get on.’ ”

Where did that indecision come from? “He saw too much. He knew too much,” König said.

It was John XXIII who entrusted König with his most famous mission behind the Iron Curtain: dealing with Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, a staunch anti-communist who had taken refuge in the American embassy in Budapest after Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

“The pope said to me in 1961, ‘There is a cardinal in Budapest, not far away from Vienna. Why don’t you go and visit him?’

“I said, ‘Holy Father, it isn’t that simple. There is an Iron Curtain. It is impossible for a clergyman.’

“He said, ‘All right, but go to the railway station and buy a ticket.’ ”

A meeting with Mindzenty

Improbably, Hungary gave him permission, and König set out for Budapest, a city only 32 miles east of Vienna.

He had never before been on Hungarian soil. “There was a 1,000 mark fine under Hitler, and then the Iron Curtain -- it had been impossible,” König said.

“I got to the American embassy and went up to the third floor. I saw a man in a simple cassock, with big eyes. We spoke in Latin.

“He said, ‘So, what is the wish of the Holy Father?’

“I said, ‘No special wish, but he sends his greetings.’ ” The two men then went into Mindszenty’s room.

“He turned on the radio very loud because he was convinced the secret police were listening to him. I began to understand that this was a different mentality, a different world. He felt isolated,” König said. “He was fully convinced that the communists must leave the country, and they will do it. ‘We have to fight against communism. I will never leave the country. I am Hungarian. I will remain here and I am ready to die here.’ He was perhaps a little bit strange, but these were the times.”

König said the Americans treated Mindszenty well. Catholics posted to the embassy served his Masses, and he had a fairly spacious greeting room and a small bedroom.

A couple of years later, the Vatican again sent König on an urgent mission to Budapest -- this time because Mindszenty was threatening to march out of the embassy and into the streets. “The reason was the American government had begun for the first time to talk with the Hungarian government. Mindszenty said, ‘I am a guest of the American embassy. If they talk to communists, then I’ll leave.’

“I told him, ‘You can walk out of the embassy, but you will be arrested by the communists. There is no doubt of it.’ I think he believed the people would rise up. In the end, I talked him into staying.”

Mindszenty finally agreed to leave Budapest in 1971 at the request of Paul VI (he also had a letter from President Nixon saying he was an “unwelcome guest”). Mindszenty was supposed to live in Rome, but he found the court intrigue at the Vatican suffocating.

“He escaped -- simply escaped from Rome,” König said. “The Vatican secretary of state urged me, ‘Look here, the cardinal has disappeared. We know that he has got a ticket for Vienna. Please tell your secretary to go meet him at the airport,’ ” König said.

Mindszenty eventually settled at the Hungarian College in Vienna, where he died in 1971, the year he left Budapest. His remains were relocated to Hungary after the fall of the communist regime, and the process of his canonization has begun.

König’s first encounter with John XXIII was over his own elevation to the College of Cardinals.

“I went to Rome to assist at one of the pope’s first Masses,” König said. “Afterward he said to me: ‘Ah, you are the archbishop of Vienna. I will tell you, I am preparing my list for the cardinals, but the archbishop of Vienna won’t find his name on the list. My people around here tell me Austria has a big problem with the concordat.’ ”

At the time, Austria’s socialist government refused to recognize the concordat, an agreement with Rome for the regulation of church affairs that had been negotiated under pre-war Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a Catholic proto-fascist.

“I said, ‘Of course, your holiness.’

“We talked some more. Finally, he said: ‘I have a different opinion. I will put you on my list and you will find a solution.’ ” And so it was -- König was made a cardinal in 1958, and not long afterward his talks with the socialists led to a recognition of the concordat.

König’s outreach to Vienna’s socialists was just as controversial inside his own country as his travels behind the Iron Curtain. “When I became archbishop of Vienna, I knew the big problem was that the socialists are against the Catholic church because for them the Catholic church was a conservative political party,” König said.

Eventually, König overcame such historic prejudices and demonstrated that it was possible to be both a faithful Catholic and a voice for social progress.

His ability to blend fidelity with openness to reform again surfaced at Vatican II, where König served on the preparatory commissions and helped overcome curial resistance to open debate. The document that bears his strongest personal imprint is Nostra Aetate, on non-Christian religions.

Today, König says the five most important impulses from the council for the life of the church are: ecumenical dialogue; inter-religious dialogue; growth in the lay apostolate; religious liberty; and a new concept of church that sees both human and divine elements and hence is always open to reform.

In favor of a non-Italian

It seems, perhaps, strange talk from the man widely identified as having played the central role in the 1978 election of John Paul II -- under whose papacy many observers believe these very impulses have been pushed back.

Without violating the conclave’s rules of secrecy, König acknowledged his role.

“The big question in that year was ‘Should there be an Italian or non-Italian?’ I was in favor of a non-Italian,” König said.

König knew Karol Wojtyla from his travels in Poland. When Wojtyla went to Rome, he usually stopped off first in Vienna to see König. The two men had also become acquainted at Vatican II. Given König’s passionate concern for Catholicism in Eastern Europe, he was determined to push a candidate from the region.

“As we searched for a non-Italian, it became clear there was no obvious solution. I said, ‘Is there a candidate behind the Iron Curtain?’ I presented Wojtyla in the discussion. He was not a candidate at the beginning, but I was surprised that very quickly there was a two-thirds majority for him,” König said.

One of the curious aspects of papal elections is that because candidates present no platform as such, many electors have only a vague idea of why they’re voting for one person over another. What does König believe the cardinals who elected John Paul II expected?

A pope from Poland

“He was from a communist country, and everyone felt that could mean a lot for the future of the church,” König said. “But it was little more than that. I remember when the conclave ended, a cardinal from Australia or New Zealand came up to me and said: ‘Now we have a pope from behind the Iron Curtain. What does this mean? What will the future be?’ In other words, we did not really know what we had done.”

This is perhaps a polite way of saying that even König was unprepared for the strongly conservative, centralizing character of John Paul’s papacy.

Friends and advisers say that to this day, König draws a sharp distinction between the pope and top curial officials. He attributes most of what he calls the profuse “warnings of error and heresy” flowing out of Rome to the latter group.

König mentions no one by name, but he says: “Up in the structure of the church we have people who are full of anxiety, who are afraid. I would say, if we are the people of God: Why? We will have problems, of course -- always. But this drawing in on ourselves is not the answer. We have to talk; we have to listen.”

König has lately been pushing the need to listen in an unusually public clash with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When news broke that Ratzinger’s office was investigating Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques DuPuis for his work on religious pluralism, König published a letter suggesting that the congregation should be less defensive, and that the Western background of its personnel makes understanding Eastern theological currents difficult. The investigation of DuPuis would cast a chill on the entire field, König warned.

“I cannot keep silent, for my heart bleeds when I see such obvious harm being done to the common good of God’s church,” König wrote. He suggested that Ratzinger’s office should “find better ways of doing its job.”

Ratzinger responded publicly, expressing “astonishment” at the criticism. “Is dialogue with authors to be forbidden to us?” he asked.

König said in the NCR interview that writing the letter to Ratzinger had involved “very difficult preparation.”

“Dialogue among the religions is very important to me,” he said. “It is one of the big projects of my life. In the past we had wars of religion, and these were among history’s largest mistakes.”

König is ineligible to participate in the next conclave because of his age, but he knows what he would be looking for if he were. “In my view, the most important issue will be to find someone who will decentralize the government of the church. That is very important.”

Where would he start? “Bishops’ conferences should get more responsibility. Up to now, bishops are a little bit too much branch managers rather than successors of the apostles. Sodano will tell you ‘Not at all,’ but it is so,” König said, referring to the current Vatican secretary of state.

König himself has felt the sting of Vatican control. When he stepped down in 1985, he presented a terna, or list of candidates, to the nuncio for his replacement. At the top was Krätzl. The nuncio told him he must add the name of Hans Hermann Gröer to the list, a relatively obscure Benedictine abbot who was tending a Marian shrine at the time.

“I felt that it was not in the plan of the Lord that he should become a bishop, but the nuncio said it comes from up above,” referring to the Vatican, König said.

In due course Gröer was named to the post. His authoritarian ways alienated many Austrians accustomed to König’s patient, gracious style. When revelations that Gröer had sexually abused novice monks surfaced, it ripped open the Austrian church -- especially given perceptions that the Holy See was assisting in a whitewash.

In 1995, Gröer stepped aside, and again Krätzl was passed over, this time in favor of Dominican Christoph Schönborn. It was seen as a second repudiation of König by the pope he had helped to elect.

The sadness was compounded by the fact that John Paul named the ultra-conservative Kurt Krenn to König’s home diocese of Sankt Pölten. Krenn has proved to be an extremely divisive figure in Austrian society. As the country heads into Oct. 3 national elections, for example, a popular poster shows Krenn embracing the leader of the country’s far-right party, with the caption: “The two best reasons to vote liberal.”

Of Krenn, König says tartly: “I can’t talk about the bishop of Sankt Pölten.”

At 94, König is still not a man given to thinking about his legacy -- he’s more absorbed in projects he’s set for himself. Yet when pressed to identify what he hoped his gift to the church would be, he did not hesitate.

“Unity in multiformity,” he said. “I believe the Christian church must be one, but that oneness should be expressed in all possible diversity.”

If the politics of papal elections allowed for platforms, someone could do a lot worse than that.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999