Ecumenical dialogue with the Free Churches was “imperative”, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told the delegates in St Stephen’s Cathedral on 29 September, the last day of the Vienna archdiocese’s five-day diocesan assembly.
“Catholics and members of the Free Churches must learn from one another without losing their own identity”, the cardinal underlined.
Five Free Churches, namely the Baptists, Evangelicals, Mennonites, the Elaia Community and the Pentecostals, were recognised as Churches by the Austrian state in 2013. At the time, taken together, they had 20,000 members. Today, only five years later, that number has doubled and the Free Churches are thought to have roughly 40,000 members with membership constantly on the rise.
On 28 September, the founder of the 24-7 Prayer Initiative, Pastor Pete Greig, was the main speaker at the assembly in the cathedral and a week later the Loretto Movement and the Free Church “24-7 Prayer Initiative” held a a large prayer meeting in St.Stephen’s.
On 29 September, representatives of the Catholic, Protestant and Free Churches attended the opening of an ecumenical mission centre called “Campus Hub Wien” at Vienna’s new main railway station.
Schönborn had played a key role in changing the Church’s attitude towards the Free Churches, deacon Johannes Fichtenbauer, who works closely with the cardinal, told the Austrian weekly 'Profil' on 1 October. Already in January 2011, Schönborn had invited Free Church leaders to a meeting at Passau as he wanted to know why the Free Churches were growing so fast, Fichtenbauer recalled. The reply he got was that they were simply actively proclaiming the Gospel Message. It was after that meeting seven years ago that the cardinal had decided that the Free Churches should be regarded “as partners and not as opponents”, Fichtenbauer explained.
The Free Church leaders had born the “most impressive and amazing witness” at that meeting, which he (Schönborn) thought very important, the cardinal had observed at the time. The Church could “abandon its sometimes beaten tracks" and discover new ways of proclaiming the faith, Schönborn had underlined at that Passau meeting, Fichtenbauer said.