Dr. Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck
20 May 1998
|Unpacking the collage . . .
On 20 May 1998 my colleague and friend, Professor Leonard Swidler and I spent some three hours with the recently retired Bishop of Innsbruck, Dr. Reinhold Stecher, to discuss the state of the Catholic Church in Tyrol, in Austria, and in the world, and especially to talk about his ongoing struggle with Rome and the various petition drives, referenda, and other grass roots movements that in the past three years have been spreading from Innsbruck throughout the globe. While Stecher has reservations concerning some of the specific points of the initiative, he is delighted by the active love of the Church and commitment shown by the people involved. He even put one of the lay leaders of the We Are Church movement in charge of a parish without a priest.
This collage is an attempt to communicate at least a portion of what appears to motivate this complex man. In order to tell the story in a single frame, I moved images of various moments into some of the book shelf spaces. However, I made no changes in the smaller images themselves.
We spent some time on the balcony with a magnificent view of the mountain landscape, dotted with countless villages, all marked by their unique church steeples. Stecher presented a brief history of the Inn river valley from the last ice age to the present, pointing to various landmarks, and suggesting places for us to see. Especially, he wanted to make sure that we would visit the village of Rinn, where for a couple of hundred years the faithful had gathered to commemorate the martyrdom of a little boy who had supposedly been murdered by a group of Jews in the 15th century. The Anderle cult, as it was known, caused immeasurable pain to Jews in the region. Stecher considers it one of the major triumphs of his tenure as bishop that he was able to have this cult officially stopped and the anti-Jewish plaques in the chapel replaced by appropriate markers. A couple of days later, we went to visit Judenstein (Jewstone), as the place is called, and I inserted a picture of one of the current markers into the collage. In translation it reads: "This stone reminds us of a dark deed of blood as well as, by its very name, of the many sins Christians have committed against Jews. In the future it shall serve as a sign of our reconciliation with that people who have born us the savior." Later, Stecher showed us copies of a book dealing with the Anderle legend, published by the Inssbruck Diocese.
Before returning to the interior of the apartment. Stecher mentioned that a couple of blackbirds had built their nest in the living Christmas tree he was keeping in a large pot on his balcony. As he walked over to show us the nest, his body-language was one of infinite care for his little tenants, in case they had not yet left, Alas, the nest was empty. Several times, as we talked, we heard a bird's anxious chirping, and each time Stecher went to investigate, to make sure there was no involuntary visitor trapped in his apartment.
Bishop Stecher is a thoughful man filled with joy. He loves God, loves the Church, loves people, loves the mountains and history of his native land, loves being a priest, and sees the task of priests and bishops as one of loving service. His home is filled with creations of the Catholic imagination. He is at once very traditional and very non-traditional. While he turned little Anderle from a blessed child into an ordinary child, he was instrumental in having one of his mentors beatified. In fact, literally, the first thing Stecher showed us as we entered the apartment was a reliquary containing some of the ashes of Father Otto Neururer, a priest the Nazis had martyred in Buchenwald by hanging him upside down. Stecher considers Neururer as one who has accompanied him for most of his life (he received first communion in 1928 from Neururer, who was his catechist for several years thereafter), both before and after his death. Like Neururer, Stecher and his two brothers were arrested, but eventually released. In the 1980s and 90s, as Bishop of Innsbruck, Stecher lived in the Bishop's apartment by St. Jacob's cathedral. The apartment turned out to be the very same apartment which had been occupied by Neururer as young priest some sixty years earlier. And so, among the treasures in Stecher's apartment are the reliquary and copies of a book that chronicles the life, death, and beatification of Father Otto Neururer, a quiet and scholarly man, an anti-hero who refused to give in to tyranny. Stecher recalls an old farmer coming to visit one day around 1981 to tell him that his cot in Buchenwald was next to Neururer's, and that if this man was no saint, then there were no saints at all. He adds that Neururer's example coupled with his personal experience with the Nazis, have made him allergic to any willful exercise of power. Even if that power comes from the very top of the Church he loves.
He brought in books filled with his gentle stories and poems and glowing watercolors that celebrate the beauty of nature and God's goodness. My favorite book is Geleise ins Morgen, "Tracks toward Tomorrow," maybe because I love trains so much myself. Stecher uses the metaphor of riding on a train to ask us whether we prefer to sit against the direction of travel, our eyes fixed on the past, or with the direction of travel, looking toward the future. He fears that too many Catholics prefer to focus on the past and suggests that we ask the Holy Spirit to grant us both a deepened understanding of revelation and a coldly realistic grasp of the contemporary situation. That way, Stecher hopes, we might be able to prepare appropriately for tomorrow. Throughout Stecher's books and paintings, there is joyous faith that no matter how seemingly powerful the forces of dogmatic legalism, the Spirit of Renewal will prevail. He is a man of hope.
I had brought along a notebook computer and showed Stecher some of our webpages, and especially the translations of his articles, in a local version of our websites. He mentioned that in the past few months he had answered over 1,500 letters from all over the world by hand. We asked how many letters were positive, and he said that fewer than 50 had been hostile.
As we were leaving, Stecher pointed to a picture of his mother who had been blind for several years before her death, and whose wish for him had been that he should have a special chalice, a true work of liturgical art. Shortly after her funeral, a two-hundred year old chalice arrived. In the collage, I moved a picture of Stecher's mother to the top of the book shelf above the reliquary and chalice. I was even able to capture a closeup of the interior of the chalice, reflecting Bishop Stecher, as he talked about the power of the Eucharist and God's call to the heavenly banquet. That image seemed to provide a perfect foundation for the rest.
5 June 1998
Last revised 7 June 1998, 4:20 CDT
Text, hypertext, and graphics copyright © 1998 Ingrid H. Shafer
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