VIENNA - A new international network of reformist Roman Catholic priests is pushing to give lay people a bigger role in a Church that Pope Francis wants to bring closer to grassroots members.
Speaking as dissidents from six countries met in Austria on Friday for the first time, clergyman Helmut Schueller said the Church should draw on people in local parishes that are under threat of vanishing as the ranks of the priesthood dwindle.
The outspoken views of Schueller, head of a group of Austrian priests who openly challenge Church positions on taboo topics such as priestly celibacy and ordaining women, drew a rebuke last year from Pope Benedict, who resigned in February.
Church liberals are now placing their hopes in his successor Pope Francis, the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years and the first ever from Latin America.
"We want to address the most burning issue: the future of the communities. We want to be there for them, and their future is in danger from the shortage of priests," Schueller, 61, said in a telephone interview from the western town of Bregenz.
Francis is focusing on top-down change like reforming the Curia, or central administration, which is accused of being dysfunctional and riven with infighting that is blamed for much of the turmoil that plagued Benedict's papacy.
The Church has also seen its global reputation badly tarnished by child sex abuse and financial scandals and has suffered steep declines in church attendance, especially in its historic heartlands in Europe.
The vast majority of Roman Catholics engage with the Church in their parishes, so big problems loom if its web of faith communities at the local level is broken.