My catholic Evangelical career

I grew up Roman Catholic, in a family that also produced a priest and a nun (my mother’s siblings), two catechists (both of my parents) and a pastoral assistant (my youngest sister). Of course none of them are still active; all but my retired sister are deceased. Both myself and my brothers served as altar boys for many years.

As is unfortunately true for most young people among paedobaptized Austrians, both Catholic and Lutheran/Reformed, my Catholicism became more and more nominal as I grew into a teenager, with church attendance mostly designed to keep the peace with my parents.

When I was 16 I encountered Evangelical Christians[1] and came to a personal faith in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics were not really talking to each other back then[2], so I was fed a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric which I never fully swallowed but went along with as it was the official line in Austrian Evangelicalism back then.

Very early on in my Evangelical life I came across Anglican liturgy and was amazed at how much it still resembled the Catholic liturgy had known as a child, and over the course of time I also realized how much Scrpture I had absorbed through both liturgy and catechesis (7 hours/week during grades 1-9). In 1984 my work with a theological training project for pastors in Eastern Europe (BEE/EES) brought me and my wife to Dallas, TX, where a friend at church introduced me to the Pesach Seder; also, this was also the time when Avner and Rachel  Boskey, who attended the same church as us while attending Dallas Theological Seminary, made the decision to make Aliyah, and I was impressed and moved by their testimony.

After my daughter was born and I thought a lot about how faith is being passed on to the next generation, I made the connection between the liturgy of my childhood (of which I could still recite large swathes) and the power of the Older Testament feasts (which I had just experienced in the Seder), and the conviction grew that not everything was bad about the Catholic Church.[3]

We came back to Austria in 1989 in the midst of the “Waldheim Affair” which started in 1986 when Kurt Waldheim, as the conservative candidate for the Austrian presidency, was accused of war crimes during WWII. He was elected anyway because many Austrians saw these accusations as a smear campaign by the “East Coast” (an antisemitic code word for world Jewry supposedly dominated by rich Jews living on the Anerican East Coast), but the controversy continued throughout Waldheim’s presidency, until 1992. It increased the already high receptivity for antisemitic ideas; what struck me though, after we returned from the US, was that these ideas were beginning to creep into Evangelical churches[4]. This gave me the idea of leading Pesach Seders in churches and home groups to increase awareness of the Jewish roots of our faith and combat antisemitism. I translated Barry Rubin‘s messianic haggadah, augmented it with some ideas from a Jews for Jesus haggadah, and over the next four years or so led Seders in several churches in the Vienna area.

Sometime in the early 1990s I reconnected with Johannes Fichtenbauer who had come to faith around the same as I and had attended the same church as I in the early 1970s but then went back into the Catholic Church, became a leader in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and eventually a deacon.

In 1995 the “Groër Affair“, in which the then Archbishop of Vienna Kurt Groër was credibly accused of having abused pupils while teaching at a Catholic boarding school, years earlier; in the wake of this several other priests were credibly accused of similar crimes. This was seen, especially in Evangelical circles, as a specifically Catholic problem, despite the fact that around the same time there were revelations of abuse in both Protestant and secular boarding schools in Germany; some Evangelicals seemed to be positively gloating over the fact that the Catholic Church had finally been shown up as the “whore of Babylon”. I was by that time an associate member (“partner”) of the ecumenical community “Umkehr zum Herrn” of which Johannes Fichtenbauer was a founder and leader and had shed any remaining vestiges of the anti-Catholicism I had been fed earlier in my evangelical “career”; I found myself calling out the gloating by some Evangelicals, pointing out that such public sins by prominent Catholics did not just besmirch the Catholic Church but the name of Christ and of all Christians, as the world doesn’t care about our divisions.

A short while later the “Round Table for Austria” was formed, an initiative for reconciliation between Christians who claimed a personal faith in Christ, regardless of their denominational membership. Johannes invited me to attend one of the Round Table’s twice-yearly conferences and I became an active participant until first the COVID-19 pandemic halted all conferences and then a health problem sent me to hospital and my bed where I remain to this day (April 2023).

In 2004 Johannes invited me to the first TJCII Vienna Consultation, and while I have never become a formal member of any TJCII entity I have since then become an advocate for the concepts of Romans 9-11 and the recognition of Messianic Judaism as a fully valid expression of the Body of Christ, and Torah observance as fundamentally compatible with faith in Christ (however generally only for Jews; in general, I am not in favor of gentile Evangelical would-be Jews).

Around 2010 a renewed effort began to get Evangelical churches officially recognized by the Austrian government; the Round Table for Austria and specifically Archbishop Cardinal Schönborn, the leader of the Vienna Archdiocese, supported this effort which succeeded in 2013 with the recognition of the “Freikirchen in Österreich” (Free Churches in Austria), a federation of five credobaptist denominations. Most Evangelicals realize that without Archbishop Schönborn’s support we would probably still be waiting for this; this has vastly improved the attitude of most Evangelicals toward the Catholic Church. At the same time the growth of the “Loretto” movement which is so close to Evangelicalism in its expressions has also had a positive effect on relationships.

I am very glad that this shift in attitudes has come about, as it brings us closer to the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17[5]. As Evangelicals we have as much to learn from Catholics as they from us.

Except for my participation in the Round Table where through the years I gave several presentations and also served as an editor of and contributor to the Round Table’s book “Meilensteine auf dem Weg der Versöhnung” (Milestones on the Road to Reconciliation)  I have not had any official or formal roles in all of this but have tried to act as a mediator wherever possible, in person as well as through Facebook and blog posts, and by calling myself a “catholic Evangelical” as opposed to Johannes, an “evangelical Catholic” – this is always a good conversation starter.

The Body of Christ transcends all man-made divisions, from the first big one when the increasingly gentile church effectively banned Messianic Judaism, through the East-West schism and then the Reformation (which was and is in itself divided), to all the petty divisions ever since then.

  1. They were part of an Evangelical mission movement, Operation Mobilization[]
  2. the Catholics were too afraid of  sects/cults, and Evangelicals were still resentful and suspicious, having been and still were to some extent, oppressed by a state beholden to the R C.C.[]
  3. Back then, one of the accusations Evangelicals leveled at the Catholic Church was the claim that it contained too many works-oriented vestiges of Old Testament religion; I was beginning to see aspects of this as not entirely negative.[]
  4. Fortunately that did not last, since deep down antisemitism is not really compatible with the dispensationalism of most Austrian Evangelicals[]
  5. I don’t believe, however, that we will fully achieve this unity, especially on an institutional level, until Christ returns and knocks our heads together. But until then a reconciled diversity is what we should strive for[]