Amid waves of highly restrictive lockdowns and a proposed universal COVID-19 vaccine mandate to start February 1, tensions in Austria, where I live, are on the rise. But in late November, a new light of hope appeared on the horizon, just in time for Advent. Louis-Pierre Laroche, a wine merchant and father of eleven, issued a call to pray the rosary with others in public, for Austria. Exhausted from the political responses to COVID offering just ever-increasing restrictions, suffering economically, isolated by the lockdowns, frightened and dismayed by the prospect of a universal vaccine mandate, Laroche’s call is resonating with Austrians eager to join in.
Weekly, on Wednesday evenings since the end of November, all over Austria people have started to gather in public to pray the rosary together as part of the Austria Prays initiative. The call is simple while also profound: “Pray for Austria!” every Wednesday night, in public, as a flyer explains, “so that our country, that is currently in one of the most serious crises in its history, will be entrusted to the Mother of God, and to ask for her intercession for all citizens.”
The new Austria Prays initiative has historical inspiration, an approach to the current crisis of pandemic-related politics, and aspects of intra-Catholic collaboration that I think offer Americans something worth considering. The movement is already spreading to other countries, and perhaps it is coming to a town square near you—or you can bring it there.
To understand the significance of Austria Prays right now, first it’s essential to know about Fr. Petrus Pavlicek, OFM (1902-1982). His 1950s Rosary Crusade is the main inspiration behind Austria Prays today.
After being raised Catholic, Fr. Pavlicek left the Catholic Church in the early 1920s, followed by some wayward years. In 1935, he returned to the Church; in 1937, he became a Franciscan; and in 1941, he was ordained to the priesthood.
In 1944, while held by the Americans as a POW in Cherbourg, France, Fr. Pavlicek learned about the apparitions in Fatima. After the war, he made a pilgrimage offering thanksgiving for having been released from the prison camp and to pray for Austria’s liberation from occupation by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the USSR. During his pilgrimage, he heard, “Do what I tell you and there will be peace.” He recognized the echo with the Fatima message. This led him to found a rosary prayer society in 1947, which became the Rosary Crusade for Atonement (today, RSK) in 1949.
Five years after WWII had ended, Austria was still occupied, including a large sector experiencing many particularly acute difficulties under Soviet occupation. (And years later, when I lived in Upper Austria for a year in my teens, still young and naive, the stories of women fleeing into the forests to try to escape being raped by Soviet soldiers left a deep impression on me.) Fr. Pavlicek viewed this crisis as so grave that he felt politics alone would not get the country out of this.
So, in 1950, he started annual public rosary processions along the main road encircling central Vienna on the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary to pray for Austria. These processions met with an outpouring of public support and participation. By 1955, it is estimated that 500,000 people participated in the procession. Today, many Austrians attribute the liberation of Austria from occupation in 1955 to these intercessory prayers and the public witness of these processions. In 2001, the Archdiocese of Vienna submitted the case for the canonization of Fr. Pavlicek to Rome.
Now it is 2021, and Austria is in a crisis again. What to do? Go pray the rosary together and in public is the response. Laroche, the catalyst for Austria Prays, explained, “I started this Catholic prayer initiative on Monday, November 29, with the goal to awaken and invigorate praying of the rosary in public places. In recent weeks I had simply observed around me that this prayer, i.e., the rosary, is a necessity.”
In witnessing frayed nerves and fear, he saw problems deeper than what politics alone can solve. “It was the deeply concerned mother and grandmother with tear-filled eyes,” he wrote. “It was the father of a family on the phone, who already had plans to emigrate. It was the young woman marching in a demonstration, who held a rosary up the whole time. It was the secretary of a customer, who said to me: ‘Now the only thing that will help is prayer.’ And many more.”
In a video about how Austria Prays started, Laroche explains, “It had nothing to do with a pro or anti position on various hot-button issues.” Rather, “everyone said…‘now only God can help’ or ‘now only prayer can help.’ People are ready to pray but nobody does. OK, then I’ll do that…keeping it as simple as possible,…so that everyone feels…‘yes, I can do that.’” He prayed about it, wrote down his idea, and sent it to a few people. “I didn’t spend a penny,” he notes. He simply prayed about it, said what he was going to do, and invited others to join in.
Laroche emphasizes the need to pray in public and locally. When asked where he was going to pray in public on Wednesday, December 8, he responded, “I am of course going to be where I live. I live in a village with a population of about 350.” When he started praying for Austria in public the week before, he said at first “five of us came, and then there were ten of us altogether.” He added, “An elderly lady called me from the village yesterday. She is over 90 years old and she says she is going to come. This is wonderful!”
From this mustard-seed sized local public prayer group, there are now over 100 Wednesday night public rosary prayer groups all over Austria. Participants are sharing photos of their public prayer gatherings at the initiative’s Facebook page. The number keeps growing and such movements are emerging in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Uganda, and the United States. Regarding the astonishingly fast growth, Laroche, amazed, says humbly, “God works wonders.”
According to the news site kath.net, “The initiators are appealing to all believers to pray not only at home, but also in public, in order to bear witness to prayer and at the same time to offer encouragement to others.”
Kathnews.de reports that “Public visibility is vital for the goal of the initiative, which at present is currently focused specifically on averting, to the extent possible, the universal [COVID] vaccine mandate planned to start February 1.” At the same time, “This is not about a politicized appropriation of the rosary, and certainly not about another form of protest and demonstration…but rather about understanding the current situation in the light of a spiritual dimension and pleading for supernatural help for a good and peaceful solution of this.”
Laroche says, “We want to remain in this spirit: we want to pray the rosary in public spaces with humility and full of trust in God for a peaceful solution to this societal crisis, to honor the Mother of God.”
At least a few priests are mustering up the courage to mention Austria Prays in their homilies and inviting worshipers to join in. In a homily on December 5, at a Mass I attended in Heiligenkreuz, Fr. Florian Mayrhofer, echoing the mention of St. John the Baptist in the Gospel that day, compared these public rosary prayer sessions popping up in public to the voice of St. John the Baptist in the desert. Today, this new “voice in the desert” is “bringing the salvific tiding” of the Hail Mary “into the desert we are in now,” a desert “in which many souls are threatened with dying of thirst spiritually, as they can no longer find any of ‘groundwater’ for faith coming to the surface, because…more and more Christian faith is disappearing from the public realm and even actively being thrust out of the public eye.”
In a homily on the “Rosary for Austria,” Fr. Johannes Regele said, “We live in a time of distress, no one can deny this. We have to reach out for the means, [to do something], the natural means and the supernatural means.” He explained, “The ‘Rosary for Austria,’ this is the great summons for our day…let us reach for the rosary, let us be armed with the rosary.”
One aspect of Austria Prays that has stood out to me is how broad and non-quarrelsome this Catholic movement is. In the group on the messaging app Telegram for Austrians who want to coordinate local Austria Prays rosary gatherings, there are priests who celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass and priests who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass. The laity are all over the liturgical map. The TLMers themselves are from various, sometimes otherwise quarrelling, realms of the Trad movement.
The point of agreement binding this movement is that these differences, some of which are significant, are not the issue at hand. Rather, there is a crisis right now that affects everyone. We need to pray. We need to pray together. We need to pray together in public. Right now.
[Photo: “Austria Prays” Rosary procession in Heiligenkreuz, Austria, Dec. 8, 2021. Photo by Carmen Kronspiess.]