A Search for Faith

An in depth look into Vienna’s religious communities during the pandemic.

Sunday

The mass started at midday, but I was already running late, having forgotten to factor in the walk from Schwedenplatz to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Saint Barbara’s. The beautiful baroque style building is tucked away in the narrow streets of the old city behind the Academy of Sciences. Although, in fact, all I could see were the white canvas skrims from the renovation wrapping it up like a present.

My goal was to explore how members of the religious community have coped during this year-long pandemic, and possibly seek spiritual reprieve myself. Many of my friends sank into depression; some focused on meditation and the inner self, others on serial dating. As for me, I wanted to see the religious side of it all. “All the churches and Cathedrals in Vienna can’t be just for show,” I thought; perhaps my answer lies within those walls. 

I took my place among the congregation; everyone wore masks and most were standing, save for a few of the elderly. The room was lavish, gold and marble with portraits of Saints in shimmering frames adorning the walls, and crystal chandeliers overhead. Although smaller than most churches I’ve seen in Vienna, the congregation was around 70+, which made it hard, if not impossible, to socially distance.

An hour passed, with the service alternating between German and Ukrainian throughout – a challenge as my German was rusty and my Ukrainian abysmal. I was interested in the parishioners. Had faith helped them during this difficult time?

“Yes. You can find strength through prayer,” Katarina, a 32-year-old law student, reassuringly told me. “It’s been hard for all of us. I’m glad we’ve had masses online so we could participate. I miss this social life, it’s difficult not to be able to meet your community, which you are used to always seeing in church.”

Like everything else, places of worship were shuttered during lockdown. But for the Ukrainian community, their church is also a little piece of home, as a 28-year-old University of Vienna employee told me: “For Ukrainians, religion is very important in our lives. Even though we are far away from our country when we are here in Austria, it makes us happy to come to our church and pray in our language. Especially in these hard times, it is a possibility to meet each other and to meet with god.”

Most communities have streamed virtual services live since the first lockdown last March. For some, this sufficed, but for many it didn’t compare to the physical sensation: Outside of St. Barbara’s, parishioners were laughing and catching up on what’s happened in their lives that past week. 

Ivan, a 25-year-old student, confided in me that “When it wasn’t allowed to go to church, I had to watch a stream of the service. I didn’t have this feeling that I belonged to a community. That’s why this is the best feeling for me. I know a lot of people here.” He continued, “It’s a very uncertain time and I need something like a foundation to build myself. The church is this foundation.”

(C) Islamic Centre of Vienna

Wednesday

The following week, I visited the Islamic Centre of Vienna and sat in on a call to prayer. I had always avoided mosques, as I’m unfamiliar with the protocol – even in Istanbul, I didn’t dare enter the Hagia Sophia for fear of embarrassment. This was somewhat obvious by the way I stood in the entrance, neither in nor out. 

An elderly gentleman saw my hesitance and called me over. I introduced myself and told him why I had come; he said that the Director of the mosque would be more than happy to answer my questions. I thanked him and took my shoes off before entering the prayer room behind him.

Red Persian carpet covered every inch of the floor, with a heavy chandelier suspended from the domed ceiling. The sky was clear and the sun shot through the windows, blazing upon the red carpet as it slowly inched westward. 

This was my first time witnessing Muslim prayer. I couldn’t help but feel comforted by the softness of the red rug beneath my feet. Men came in and greeted me and others who were seated around the edges of the room, “As-salamu alaykum;” I greeted them back, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam.”

The Imam entered for the 12:40 prayer. Everyone rose and unfurled their prayer mats, each one a different style, colour and fabric; some simply used their jackets. It only lasted about 5 to 10 minutes – brevity is sensible if you’re meant to prey 5 times a day. 

Dr. Ahmed S. Al Mofareh is the director of the Islamic Centre of Vienna./(C) Daniel Harper

Afterwards, I went to their office to see if I could ask a few questions. The director, Dr. Ahmed S. Al Mofareh was very kind and soft spoken, not only a believer but a scholar also. 

“It is difficult, especially for elderly people who have no other places to go. Mosques are usually their places for reconnecting with people and spiritually, there are demands that they pray and repeat the Quran. It is very hard for administrators to lock it down, but we have no choice!”

Mosques were closed for around 3-4 months during the first lockdown. Similar to other communities, prayers moved online but for some older worshippers, this was not feasible as they lacked access to the internet, leaving them isolated from their communities.

“We Muslims do understand that what is happening is in the course, the will, of Allah and the time and duration that is prescribed, so people make sure they repent and look back toward their creator, getting back in touch with their prayers and devoting more time to their religion because such a thing will help in uplifting.” 

“Has your devotion or faith become stronger over the past year?,” I asked.

“Personally, yes. Because this is something that has happened with the decree of Allah. There are many views on what’s happening, but this is my own. Yes, people are affected badly by the pandemic, we have no other solutions except to repent to our creator.”

During the previous lockdowns, the mosque offered classrooms and hall spaces to the government for schools and other institutions who couldn’t easily socially distance. “This is not affecting any specific group, minority; it doesn’t matter the background, culture, religion, we all need to help one another. We are all human beings and children of Adam,” as Dr. Al Mofareh put it.

I thanked him for his time and left with the early Spring sun on my face, feeling a sense of contentment and relief. 

Friday

I had contacted the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG) a few days earlier hoping to visit a temple, but was told this wasn’t possible and that I should instead send an email requesting to speak to someone. Much to my surprise, the next day I promptly received a call from the Chief Rabbi of the IKG, Jaron Engelmayer, during my breakfast. I dropped my buttered bun and ran to my room. 

“It was challenging,” he said. “‘Is this a test?’ Yes. As a person of faith, I feel it is one of the tasks to ask ourselves what is it about this change? We overcame a lot during our history, and it opened up a lot of new changes, new chances, new ways of thinking. There are positive things we can take out of this time where there is pain and difficulty all around, which also challenges everyone.”

Engelmayer became Chief Rabbi in August of last year and speaks several languages (German, Yiddish, Hebrew, French, English, Italian and Russian); while born Swiss, he integrated himself into the Viennese community over the last few years through holy visits. 

The biggest challenge he sees is the long-term effect that holding religious services online will have on younger members of the faith. “A lot of people are staying at home and maybe they won’t come back, which is a challenging thought. I’m a little concerned. I’m much more worried about our youth, who are much more used to staying at home – which is not good, because they already spend a lot of time on screens.” This weighs on his mind, as he had previously talked about plans to “incorporate secular Jews and young people into community life” prior to becoming Chief Rabbi, according to the Jewish News from Austria website.

That same day, I spoke with a young secular Jewish woman over the phone on how her faith had been doing over the past 12 months. A 19-year-old photography student, Yaël Esztl strayed when she was younger, thinking it wasn’t “cool” to be Jewish, but the past year had given her time to think, reflect and learn about Judaism. Her next photography project will focus on Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath – a spiritual purification, to mark the passing of potential life that comes with each menstrual cycle. 

“I missed the Jewish holidays that I really enjoy this year, because I wasn’t able to travel,” she said. She had planned to visit her family in Belgium for Passover but couldn’t. So, I felt I had to compensate; so I did more research”.

In addition, she has also added aspects of her faith into her routine. “I would say one other thing I have taken with me from the past year,” she continued, “is the idea of Sabbath, the day of rest, because this whole situation is draining for me, and I started to include it in my life.”

Tiktok has been a big factor in reconnecting the young, with users such as @kittenqueen and @therealmelindastrauss exploring and explaining Jewish practices and theology. With over 150 thousand followers combined, this allows not only the education of people like Yaël but also of gentiles as well. 

I was glad to see Yaël learning more about her faith; she even stated that she wants to return to the synagogue after so many years away. Unfortunately, Rabbi Engelmayer wasn’t around to hear the good news. Perhaps it would have put some of his concerns to rest. 

Sunday

Finally, I opted to go to St. Stephens Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, OP. After sitting through Sunday service, I attempted to approach the Cardinal, but he quickly fell out of sight. Instead, I asked members of the flock what led them to the church. 

“I pray, to keep myself sane,” said Christoph, who is turning 58 this year. “This is why I come to church in the first place. In your house all the time, you cannot think or do anything, but here? Well, it’s a whole other way of looking at the way the world is right now.” Christoph has always been religious but admits that he only returned to the fold during the pandemic. “It’s a form of meditation for me,” he said. “A quiet reflection on my life, my future and what’s important to me. I feel calmer, more…happy when I leave the church every week.” 

With tape blocking entry to every second pew and no holy water to make the sign of the cross, todays church looks extremely different to that of a year ago.

Miriam, a 35-year-old English teacher living in the 2nd district, admitted she had suicidal thoughts during the first lockdown. “I tried a lot of things, but nothing really did anything. It wasn’t until a friend of mine invited me to a service that I began to respond positively to what someone was saying. The sense of belonging really took a hold of me and I didn’t feel so alone, so beat up.”

The sun had not come out that day, yet it was encouraging to see the smiles of the community when they spoke to each other. Although they could not embrace, there was still a sense of happiness and contentment. 

Throughout the week, I spoke with many people from different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, but what was particularly uplifting was the overwhelming sense of unity, care and selflessness that many had. The positive teachings resonated with so many, and community leaders stressed cooperation and worried about bringing their communities back together after such a long absence, even amidst their own personal anguish. 

It seemed the elderly went to church to bring the normality back into their lives, something they always have done and always will; and many younger members were rediscovering religious faith as something new and enlightening. For both, faith stands as something reliable and concrete in this whirlwind of a year, bringing teachings of love and, more importantly, a sense of community and belonging. 

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Daniel Harper
Daniel Harper is a British multimedia journalist. After graduating in International Politics and History he studied International Journalism MA at City, University of London. Writing about culture, society and human stories. Instagram: @simonpaulphotos

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