Vienna's Visionary

Book cover
Open to God, Open to the Worldby By Cardinal Franz König, Edited by Christa Pongratz-LippittBurns & Oates. 143p $24.95 (paperback)

In the last months of his long lifehe died at 98 in 2004Cardinal Franz König, the former Archbishop of Vienna, wrote this very personal book. In Open to God, Open to the World, he highlights milestones in his service to the church as the Holy See’s longest serving cardinal and tireless bridge-builder between the East and the West with candid and often delightful recollections that leave the reader breathless at the vision and energy of this remarkable man.

The remarkable man was once a remarkable boy who, at a very early age, wondered what it was like to speak a different language or have a different faith. As a high school student in the 1920’s at the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, Austria, König read Greek, Latin, French and English and wrote his senior paper in Latin on Women in the Age of Homer. Later, as a seminarian at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Biblical Institute in Rome, he studied old Oriental languages and chose Zoroastrianism as a field of specialization. A focus on non-Christian religions may not have been a mainline choice for a seminary student in the early 30’s, but it was providential since it led to his pioneering work in interreligious dialogue at the Second Vatican Council.

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König was in the loop when anti-Semitism was debated as prelude to Nostra Aetate (The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), although his support for the document elicited sacks of letters (from Christians as well as from Arabs)some positively vicious and libelousbegging me to prevent a declaration on the Jewish question. As a cathedral priest in St. Pölten during World War II, however, König witnessed firsthand the fruit of a hateful Nazi ideology and recognized the enormous significance of the event when Nostra Aetate was finally ratified.

With the tension of Nostra Aetate sizzling in the background, König accepted an invitation to visit Cairo in 1965. He was graciously received by his hostsa testament to Muslim hospitality and the sincere interest of the cardinal in Islam. He returned a few years later as the first Roman Catholic cardinal to give an address at the prestigious Islamic University of Al Azhar. In 1968, he was invited by Teheran University to speak on the influence of Zarathustra on the European and Anglo-Saxon world. A few years earlier, aware of his exceptional intellectual breadth and human touch, Pope Paul VI asked König to head the Secretariat for Non-Believers. Floored by the invitation, König demurred, citing his lack of experience. Usus docebit, Paul VI replied, which roughly translated means Just start and learn in the doing. He did.

König confirms the reluctance of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, to be elected pope. I am enveloped by complete darkness, Montini told him in a private conversation the night before his election, and can only hope that the dear Lord will lead me out. Given that Montini’s personality was no match for the charismatic style of Pope John XXIII, König credits Paul VI with tenacity, perseverance and will power in continuing the council. Paul VI also shared König’s concern about collegiality, a decentralized sharing of authority in the church whose interpretation and application has been unresolved since the council. König recalls, for example, the 1971 synod when the issue of priestly celibacy was up for debate, when the pope personally assured him beforehand that he would accept whatever the bishops wanted. König emphasizes the point that Paul VI was prepared to let the bishops decide.

The cardinal calls Vatican II the highlight of my life, but he knew as he finished this book that there was still work to be done. By disposition, König favored the optimism and hope generated by John XXIII and the council over prophets of doom, convinced that the Catholic faithful expect signs of encouragement more than warnings of error and heresy. As a way forward, he offers a modern Christian’s survival kit that, unsurprisingly, contains all the important impulses of Vatican II: the image of the church as the pilgrim people of God, a focus on the importance of the laity and their vocation in the church, and the commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. At the heart of it all is the response to the central question, Who is Jesus Christ? Is he a great religious leader, like founders of the other great world religions who proceeded from other human beings? Or is he living bread that has come from another place, transcending all dimensions of time and space to satisfy the deepest hungers of all humanity? Christians, König counted among them, are convinced of the latter.

These essays were edited by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, the Vienna correspondent for The Tablet, a British Catholic publication, who became a trusted friend. When she first arrived in Vienna, König told her she would find it a fairly quiet place. She soon learned that both the place, and especially the man at the helm of the archdiocese, were anything but ordinary. Open to God, Open to the World makes that discovery possible for us, too.

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