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An experience in Austria with a salary, a vacation, and a pension

The theologian
who leads a parish

 La teologa che dirige  una parrocchia  DCM-006
01 June 2024

“My work makes sense”. Sabine Meraner, 31, leads a parish in Austria. This is not an isolated case. In German-speaking countries, Catholic theologians have many professions and ecclesiastical ministries to choose from. In addition, more than half of theology students in Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland are women. They know that the Church needs them and is looking for them, though today fewer young people want to study theology and work in dioceses.

Jenbach is a municipality of 7,500 inhabitants in Tyrol, less than 70 kilometers from the Brenner Pass. In the Catholic parish church of St. Wolfgang and St Leonard, which is a building dating back to the early 1500s on the Tyrolean stretch of the Camino de Santiago, the sun gently shines through the tall, colorful stained glass windows. Inside, there is a children’s mass. A young woman in liturgical vestments begins by explaining that today is a day of joy, while the Indian assistant parish priest celebrates the Eucharist. There is happiness in the air, the children - and some parents - sing loudly. This is truly a celebration.

Sabine Meraner, a woman in the liturgical vestments, is giving a sermon in her Tyrolean dialect, looks directly at and speaks to the 8-year-old children, describing to them what it means to encounter Jesus in the sacrament. Afterwards, each child goes up to the altar and receives the communion garment they will soon wear for their First Communion. As Eliah receives it with both hands, his older sister - the altar server next to the woman in the vestments - smiles. “The children are so radiant”, Sabine Meraner says later in our conversation. “When you ask them, during the baptismal remembrance: Do you want this friendship with Jesus? They look at you and happily say: ‘Yes, I do’, I realize that I am a part of their lives and I can talk to them about Jesus. It is beautiful”.

Sabine Meraner has an enthusiasm for her work that is immediately contagious. Yet her tasks in the community are demanding. If someone needs her, she is present, even on her day off or at night, “because I believe that’s the point. When you take care of a parish, it’s about the people and not the building”. As a parish curator - this is the name of the lay leadership model in her diocese of Innsbruck - she is responsible for all pastoral and organizational matters of her parish. “When someone dies, I go to the family and talk to them about their grief, and then I celebrate the funeral, either with the priest or alone. I bless the children at the beginning of the school year; I celebrate Christmas, Easter, and the main festivals with them in church. I have my responsibilities in the liturgy, I am assigned preaching shifts, and I also prepare the major functions and discuss them with the vicar, who is usually available to us as a priest”.

Decisions are made together with the parish priest, the vicar, the deacon, and the full-time staff. As a theologian, Sabine Meraner attaches great importance to this aspect. “Thank God I don’t have to do everything alone, I could never do it. But I have the final responsibility”.

Sabine is an employee of the Diocese of Innsbruck. She receives a salary, enjoys vacation time, and is entitled to a pension. Like her, hundreds of other women with theology degrees work in the dioceses of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, and often in leadership roles. While religion teachers continue to provide valuable services, gone are the days when theologians could only work as teachers or, less frequently, as university lecturers. Years ago, theologian Daniela Engelhard, then in charge of pastoral affairs for the Diocese of Osnabrück, compiled a list of over 50 positions open to laypeople, and thus to women, in the Catholic Church: from altar servers to pastoral care workers for the sick, from liturgy of the word coordinators to diocesan judges. Most Catholic women theologians currently serving in the Church work in parishes as pastoral associates. According to unanimous reports from the three countries, women theologians no longer face difficulties being accepted in pastoral roles. In Switzerland, lay theologians, including women, have long been working as parish leaders, sometimes even in married couples who share the position. A priest, as required by canon law, accompanies them.

In addition, in recent years, there has been further development in terms of shared leadership. Under Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, one of the largest in the German-speaking area, has a dual leadership composed of the vicar general and a female office head (who, however, is a lawyer). A rector, a priest, and an experienced young female theologian lead the seminary of the Diocese of Innsbruck jointly. Both Caritas Germany and Caritas Austria have women in leadership roles for the first time. In both countries, bishops have committed to bringing more qualified women into leadership positions in the Church, Austrians even through a gender quota. The proximity of women to the altar and ambo varies from diocese to diocese. In some, preaching is tied to the leadership of the parish, while in others, the bishop grants it on a case-by-case basis. In the Diocese of Linz, known for its innovations, the abbot of the monastery of St Florian invited a theologian to preach at the grand function on May 4, 2022, for St Florian, patron saint of the diocese. Around the same time, in Germany, the first bishop - Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen - authorized some pastoral ministry theologians to administer baptism to children, so that families would not have to wait too long for the availability of a priest or deacon.

If today female theologians are increasingly visible in Church ministries, many factors have played an important role. Consider the shortage of priests, but also the relative wealth of local churches in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. “We are one of the few areas in the world where the Church has the means to employ a lot of so-called lay personnel, because the salaries must be high enough to support a family”, explains Arnd Bünker, director of the Swiss Institute of Pastoral Sociology in St Gallen. In other Countries, dioceses cannot afford to hire lay theologians, even if they were open to the new forms of pastoral work that this would entail. For this reason, young people rarely choose to study theology; after all, they would not be able to make a living. Consequently, theology risks remaining a kind of secret science, relevant and accessible only to priests.

The fact that fewer and fewer young people study theology is also a problem for the Church in German-speaking countries. It is true that over half of theology students are women, but interest in this subject is decreasing year by year among both men and women. This is not due to career prospects because “The Church is recruiting them even before graduation, both for teaching and for the parish or other areas of pastoral care”, notes Gabriele Eder-Cakl, director of the Austrian Pastoral Institute of the Episcopal Conference of Vienna. In her opinion, the study of theology remains very attractive because it teaches a solid knowledge of faith and discernment. However, she adds, this also reflects the dissatisfaction of young Catholic women with the fact that their Church excludes them from the actual sacramental ministry - the priesthood.

Sabine Meraner from Jenbach does not feel called upon to be a priest. When someone jokingly calls her “Mrs. Priest”, they do so gratefully, but she does not like it the same way, Sabine says. “So, I clarify: the priesthood is a separate vocation. I am a parish curator. It’s not a ‘half priest’, but a ministry with its own vocation”. Moreover, she wants the young people she is so happy to serve to feel that. She wants to be a model herself, making her joy and enthusiasm for this lay ministry tangible. “Announcing Jesus to others, comforting those in mourning, all that follows. These are encounters where good is done. I can proudly say: my work has meaning”.

Vatican News Journalist