Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the leader of the Catholic Church in Liechtenstein Wednesday, paving the way for potentially significant changes in the tiny principality.
The Holy See press office said Sept. 20 that the pope had accepted Archbishop Wolfgang Haas’ resignation as the Archbishop of Vaduz, an archdiocese created specifically for him in 1997.
Haas, who was obliged to submit his resignation after he turned 75 years of age Aug. 7, has overseen the Church in Liechtenstein for more than 25 years.
The Vaduz-born prelate originally served as the bishop of the Swiss Diocese of Chur, which then included Liechtenstein. But following a breakdown of relations within the diocese, he was appointed as the head of the newly created Vaduz archdiocese, which was formed out of Chur’s territory and extends to Liechtenstein’s borders.
Vaduz is the capital of Liechtenstein, a mountainous microstate sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria. The wealthy tax haven, where German is the official language, is a constitutional monarchy ruled by Prince Hans-Adam II. More than 70% of the population is Catholic.
He said that the archdiocese was so small that its roughly 28,000 Catholics were already able to discuss issues with one another and the synodal process risked “being ideological.”
Catholics belonging to the Association for an Open Church, a local group founded in 1998, decided to hold their own synodal listening sessions, producing a report that Haas dismissed as being motivated by Church politics.
In a Sept. 20 farewell message to members of the Vaduz archdiocese, the outspoken archbishop said: “Looking back on my term of episcopal office, I am well aware of my personal inadequacies, indeed of many shortcomings and limitations. I humbly and trustingly leave the judgment on this matter to the mercy of the just Eternal Judge.”
“With a clear conscience, I can say that I did not want to harm anyone. Perhaps at times I simply did not realize that this or that word or behavior might have hurt. Nevertheless, I ask for forbearance and forgiveness from all those who have experienced or felt something like this.”
The Vatican said Wednesday that the pope had named Bishop Benno Elbs, head of the neighboring Diocese of Feldkirch in Austria, as Vaduz’s apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis (“the see being vacant and at the disposition of the Holy See”).
Commenting on his appointment, Elbs said: “We live in challenging times. It is up to us to shape these times. It is with this inner attitude that I would like to begin my service as apostolic administrator in the Archdiocese of Vaduz and thank already today all those who accompany me on this path, which can only succeed together.”
“Pope Francis means nothing else when he wants to lead the Church on a synodal path: Traveling together, listening to one another, being there for one another, and looking to Christ.”
He added that he hoped to “walk a part of the way with the people of the Archdiocese of Vaduz” in a spirit of trust in God.
As Haas approached his 75th birthday, Catholics in Liechtenstein questioned whether the Vatican would name a replacement or reintegrate the Vaduz archdiocese into the Diocese of Chur or another neighboring diocese.
But during an April visit to Liechtenstein, the Vatican’s “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher reportedly rejected speculation that the Vaduz archdiocese would be suppressed when Haas’ tenure ended and said that a good pastor would be named as his successor.
Catholic media have speculated that the late Benedict XVI’s private secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who is currently living in Germany without an assignment, could be considered for the post.
Haas’ tenure has been marked by clashes with Liechtenstein’s political establishment over same-sex marriage and proposals to alter the country’s Church-state relationship. The constitution enshrines Catholicism as the state religion.
A consultation period on a draft Church-state law in Liechtenstein ended in August. The proposed law would change the present situation, in which only the Catholic Church is recognized by the state or public law, while other religious communities operate under private law.
Proponents say the law would establish a new framework in which religious communities are treated equally, without severing historic ties between the Catholic Church and the state.
In his farewell message, Haas said that he hoped to spend his remaining years “primarily in more monastic seclusion.”
“This offers me an increased opportunity to continue to ask for God’s blessing and the special assistance of Mary, the main patroness of our archdiocese,” he said.
“I have also promised this to the apostolic administrator appointed by the pope, Bishop Benno Elbs, to whom I wish a good reception and the success of his mission in this country.”
“Together we want to pray fervently for a replacement pleasing to God for the vacant archbishop’s see of Vaduz.”
The Vaduz archdiocese also published a Sept. 15 letter from Haas to Elbs.
Haas told the Austrian bishop that he had offered his resignation to the pope in a letter dated Aug. 7, his 75th birthday. He personally presented the letter Aug. 15 to the apostolic nuncio, who told him Aug. 29 that it had been accepted.
Haas said that he met with Elbs Sept. 6 at his residence in Schellenberg, “and had a clarifying conversation in a brotherly spirit, during which I was able to discuss a number of questions with you.”
The archbishop added that, following his retirement, he would “not respond to any inquiries from domestic or foreign media representatives.”
“Thus, as has been the case for years, I will not give any interviews or participate in any media events (press conferences, etc),” he said.
Editor’s note: This report was updated Sept. 21, 2023, with quotes from Archbishop Haas’ letter to Bishop Elbs.