Professor Erich Leitenberger, a pioneer of the ecumenical movement and a deeply valued Non-Resident Fellow of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination (LISD) for over 10 years and an active participant in the LISD’s Program on Religion, Diplomacy and International Relations (PORDIR), died in his home in Vienna, Austria on January 18, 2021. He was 76.
Leitenberger, born in Vienna on August 7, 1944, was an expert on ecclesiastical affairs, with a brilliant and quick mind. Leitenberger was a tireless defender of ecumenical faith relations, both between the Eastern and Western Churches and across faith groups.
Leitenberger worked from 1967 to 1974 as the editor of the local newspaper Die Presse. He was appointed by Cardinal Franz König to the position of spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna until 2011. Leitenberger served as the editor and chief of KathPress for nearly three decades, from 1981 to 2009, and served as a spokesperson of the official assembly of the Roman Catholic bishops of Austria between 1981 and 2009. For the last ten years, he volunteered as spokesperson for the ProOriente Foundation in Vienna.
Across five decades, Leitenberger was a major source of information for colleagues, journalists, and religious communities across Austria and Central and Eastern Europe. Reflecting on these contributions, Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, acknowledged that Leitenberger was “his indispensable advisor and indeed the voice of the Catholic Church in Austria.” In 2012, Leitenberger received the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria. Susanne Raab, Austria’s Secretary of Culture, noted that his death represents a “huge loss for ecumenical relations” in Europe and beyond.
Leitenberger was a great teacher in the best sense of the word. He conveyed his profound expertise with great kindness and openness––doing so with an inimitably Viennese style and in High German. He brought a vast cultural and theological background to all of his work. Leitenberger had an ability to connect people, events, and history over centuries and throughout the continent with an immense sensitivity to differing religious and ethical beliefs. This was always in service of educating the next generation on how to manage disagreement with grace.
Since 2009, Leitenberger graciously hosted Princeton University students in unique conference locations during several PORDIR Liechtenstein Colloquiums (LCMs) from Vienna to Rome. Jacqueline Gufford, Princeton University Class of 2017 and former PORDIR fellow and administrator of the PORDIR seminar in The Holy See and Rome in 2017, recalled Leitenberger’s efforts to support the seminar. She noted, “Professor Leitenberger always made the greatest effort to join our seminars, and in the case of our PORDIR Seminar at the Vatican, he identified and chose the perfect colloquium setting suffused with a sense of peace and spirituality. He was a man of few words, but it was clear that he was kind. When he spoke during PORDIR, it was always to refocus the group on the implications of key historical events, to which he added a layer of nuance, and whose significance he interpreted with clarity.”
Leitenberger guided and educated many Princeton students and alumni––just as he engaged with faculty and colleagues during a special seminar in 2015 on “The Congress of Vienna: 1815/2015/2115” and in the memorable Liechtenstein Colloquium on “Religion, Values, and Spirituality” during the 2017 Austrian Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Michael Schoenleber, Princeton University Class of 2011 and former PORDIR fellow, reflected on Leitenberger’s impact. He remembered “fond memories of Professor Leitenberger hosting us for PORDIR in Vienna and being with us in the Liechtenstein Colloquium. He certainly carried a spiritual glow and deep wisdom with him everywhere.” Without a doubt, a deep sense of loss is felt in the Princeton community.
Leitenberger was a patient listener, always willing to grapple with the complexities of issues and pay close attention to the placement of facts and judgements. Leitenberger was able to articulate, with great modesty, areas of agreement and disagreement as a means to diffuse tensions rather than amplify them –– often with just the right dose of humor. Rana Ibrahem, Princeton University Class of 2015 and former PORDIR fellow, reflected on Leitenberger’s legacy. She recounted, “Professor Leitenberger was a man of grace, culture, and quiet kindness. He always listened carefully and reflected on colloquium contributions with earnest intent to further the conversation. He shared stories and anecdotes throughout our seminars and offered us a window into a unique part of Viennese and Central European history and culture. While his presence will be sorely missed, his impact on PORDIR fellows will reverberate well beyond his years with us.”
Father Bryan Emerson Page, Pastor at Our Lady of Czestochowa, former Catholic Chaplain at Princeton University, and LISD Non-Resident Fellow, reflected on the impact of meeting Leitenberger for the first time. He explained, “After hearing about Professor Erich Leitenberger and his incredible legacy for quite some time, I was rather surprised when I first met him. I expected a man over two meters tall with broad shoulders and commanding presence. Instead, I encountered a man so in tune with the Gospel, that his humble spirit had a power beyond words. He was a magnanimous man, who lived for something greater. With just a few words, he could bring clarity to confusing conversations. His passion for his faith compelled him to work for unity among believers, which is one of the only specific things we hear Jesus pray for in the Gospel (John 17:21). Erich Leitenberger’s wisdom and love of music and culture enabled him to cross generational, racial, and cultural boundaries. His impact on me has not been without effect. As he lived a humble and powerful life with gentleness and humility, his example and support have made such an great difference.”
In the wonderful words of my current graduate student, Abyssinia Lissanu, Princeton University Class of 2016 and former PORDIR fellow, “Professor Leitenberger was a person of immense intellectual and moral stature. May the memory of Erich Leitenberger be a blessing!”
Princeton, New Jersey, January 2021
Photo Credit: Richard Trenner, 2018.