Austrians bid farewell to bridge builder Cardinal


A long line of people queued outside Vienna's St Stephen's Cathedral on Friday as Austria's Cardinal Franz Koenig lay in state ahead of his burial. News of his death was greeted with sorrow far beyond the Catholic Church, from Protestants and the Eastern orthodox, and from people who had little relation to any church. Joanna King spoke to historian and church expert Hubert Feichtlbauer and asked him, behind the cardinal's title what sort of a person was Franz Koenig...

"People thought that he was sincere in his endeavours to talk to other people. He was interested in what was going on in the world, in what was going on outside the church, as contrasted with other church leaders who thought that they were sitting in their armchairs and pulling the truth out from their draw."

He was known as the "Red Cardinal" and he played, I think, a very important role in terms of reconciliation of the church with the political left in Austria in the post war years. Why did this man play that role? Was it remarkable or would it have happened anyway?

"The church in the past had always been an ally, first of the emperor, of nobility, and in the first republic, between the two world wars, of the Christian Social party. And that meant an ally of a party that finished democracy in 1934 in the wake of a civil war, and that put up gallows where the socialist leaders, because they were consider to have tried a coup d'etat, were hanged. And that so much alienated the workers that he thought we have to do something to end this situation and that was his attempt to say, we will now strictly withdraw from the immediate support of a political party - the Christian Democratic People's Party. That was revolutionary in Austria."

But how did he, as a good Catholic, reconcile relations with other people, who naturally, believed other things?

"From a very early age he thought that there should be an acknowledgement of the fact that there is truth in every religion - and you could not say that Catholicism enshrined all the truth and the others had none of them."

He was twice on the short list to be the Pope - why didn't he make it?

"Of course nobody will ever be able to tell but probably the first time in 1978 he may have come close to it but there were strong reservations already at that time in the Curia of the Vatican against his being too liberal."