Bishop Manfred Scheuer of Innsbruck, in an article in the Tyroler Tageszeitung, speaks openly of the contrast between Pope Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI, and of the change in relationship between the Vatican and diocesan bishops. Bishop Scheuer was among the Austrian bishops in Rome last week for their ad limina visit with the pope and curia officials.

At their 2005 visit to Rome, the Austrian bishops got reprimanded. But Bishop Scheuer characterized the new message like this: “You must bear responsibility for the local church and you must act with shrewdness and differentiation, the pope said to us.” According to Scheuer, “Previously there was a different tone, entirely concrete proposals came at us for how we must proceed.” He said of the change of culture in the Vatican, “One sees a different style which is more reserved, more respectful, and more alert.”

But Scheuer said that the pope had a clear message for the Austrian bishops: to take time, amidst all their administrative responsibilities, for prayer and proclamation of the Gospel, and to strive to be near to people and to show mercy. Francis models this, according to Scheuer: “He is reserved and does not put himself in the center. He criticizes most strongly clericalism and the positions of power tied to the office of priest.”

The “Pastors’ Initiative,” a manifesto of hundreds of rebellious Austrian priests calling for reforms such as women’s ordination, optional celibacy, and communion for remarried Catholics, was a topic in Rome. The word from the Congregation for Clergy and from Pope Francis was that the Austrian bishops had to bear responsibility for the situation. Scheuer openly admitted that in previous conversations there was talk of sanctions on these priests. “That is not gone, but today it is no longer in the foreground,” he said. In his diocese, Scheuer has entered into dialog with “Pastors’ Initiative” priests and has continued to appoint such priests to diocesan positions.

Bishop Scheuer said of the change in popes, “Since Francis is pope I have often asked myself whether I am now happier to be bishop.” Bishops repeatedly are pressured by various lobbying groups. “One feels powerless as bishop. Ultimately, one cannot act prudently when it’s under pressure.” But Scheuer has found recent months to be “easier breathing.” He said, “Although the pressure situation has not yet ended, the pope has brought about a change in atmosphere. One can breathe easier.”

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