For Third Time, Austrian Cardinal Welcomes AIDS Charity to Hold Fundraiser at Cathedral

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, center, with event organizer Gary Keszler to his immediate right

Vienna’s cardinal once again welcomed an AIDS charity to the city’s cathedral for an arts fundraiser, one of his many LGBTQ-positive acts in recent years.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn invited LIFE+, an HIV/AIDS charity, to hold a fundraiser at the St. Stephan’s Cathedral for the occasion of World AIDS Day on December 1. The event, titled “Believe Together,” was the highlight of the “Long Night of Solidarity” series related to AIDS relief. KathPress reported:

“Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and cathedral priest Toni Faber had opened the cathedral for the third time for the AIDS organized by Gery Keszler. ‘God wants nobody and no one to feel excluded, [God] wants everyone to feel secure,’ said the cardinal in his introductory words. Schönborn thanked ‘everyone, that they have a big heart and do not forget the people who need our help’. The cardinal also emphasized that the participants and visitors of the charity evening should not only be welcomed as ‘guests’, ‘because they should know that we are all at home in this cathedral, it is the roof over the soul is expressed in these stones and that we need so much.'”

The funds raised support the Brotherhood of Blessed Gerard Maltese AIDS Hospice in South Africa administered by Benedictine Fr. Gerhard Lagleder. The event was co-sponsored by Austria’s Knights of Malta section. In a recent radio interview, cathedral priest Fr. Faber Sonntagfrüh described Lagleder and his staff as “angels” , encouraging people to support the healthcare center that serves some 700 people living with HIV/AIDS.

Organizer Gery Keszler picked up on that theme of angels for the event’s program, which featured drag performer Conchita Wurst, the cathedral’s choir, and a number of prominent Austrian musicians, singers, and actors. KathPress reported:

“In particular, Keszler thanked Schönborn “for the trust” and the multiple joint events. Together we stand for a “building bridges and the reaching out of hands”. The lyrics and music of the evening dealt with the theme of longing for angels throughout. In terms of commitment to people with HIV / AIDS, ‘everyone can be an angel,’ said Keszler. Angels are also ‘door openers for those who are far from the church, because angels have no fear of contact, they do not judge life situations or religion, they are a symbol of solidarity, if not the symbol of solidarity.’

“The disease still limits many HIV-infected people. Especially in view of the beginning of Advent, ‘we should again more than ever simply think about the cooperation,’ said Keszler. Without a strong civil society, no end to the AIDS epidemic will be possible, as its absence will also make it ‘impossible for aid workers’, he alluded to this year’s motto of the World AIDS Day ‘Communities make the difference’. The evening in the cathedral should be an ‘ode to charity and good in the human person.”

Outside the cathedral, a small group of  right wing Catholics held a protest led by the Austrian man who threw the so-called Pachamama statue into the Tiber River during October’s Synod on the Amazon, an act which drew widespread condemnation.

“Believe Together” is the latest fruit of a friendship between Schönborn and Keszler. In 2016, cardinal credited this friendship with the gay HIV/AIDS activist and several “very moving” talks the men had as having “melted away” prejudices Schönborn once held. The cardinal now has hosted three AIDS events at the cathedral, including an ecumenical service on World AIDS Day in 2017 that he led alongside Keszler. In 2018, the cathedral hosted another fundraiser for the Brotherhood of Blessed Gerard hospice. In a related note, earlier this year an art exhibit hosted by the St. Stephan’s rectory featured a photo of two women kissing on the steps of a church.

Schönborn has not only been an advocate for HIV/AIDS relief, however, but has also spoken positively on several occasions about LGBTQ people. In 2019, Schönborn partially reversed 2017 comments criticizing marriage equality by endorsing the right of government’s to implement equal marriage rights for same-gender couples if that is what the populace affirms. He previously expressed support for civil unions and recognized at least partial goodness in same-gender relationships. In 2015, Schönborn described a close friend’s same-gender relationship as “an improvement” given the couple’s shared life together, even if  the union is considered irregular by the church. He admitted that year’s iteration of the Synod on the Family likely “disappointed” LGBTQ advocates in its final report. At the 2014 Synod on the Family, he spoke about a same-gender couple that “was saintly” because of their love and care for one another. In 2012, he reinstated a gay man to a parish council after the local pastor had rejected him. He has also expressed an openness to transgender people.

Schönborn and Keszler have shown a way forward in their openness to each other and their willingness to listen and learn humbly. It is essential that other leaders in the church learn how to emulate their friendship. The cardinal’s episcopal motto, “I have called you friends,” is precisely the goal church leaders should be seeking when it comes to LGBTQ people. Imagine the possibilities for discourse and practice in the church, not to mention the common good, if only more bishops pursued not only formal engagement with LGBTQ people, but friendship, too.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 10, 2019

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