Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cologne, Germany, died peacefully on July 5, 2017, while on vacation in Bad Füssing.
He had served as Bishop of Berlin during the final years of the Cold War and was one of the four cardinals who in 2016 requested clarifications about the teaching in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
The Cardinal’s Life
Joachim Meisner was born in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) on December 25, 1933. During World War II his family fled Thüringen. He studied philosophy and theology in Erfurt and was ordained a priest in 1962. He completed a doctorate of theology in Rome in 1969. In 1975 he was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Erfurt and took as his episcopal motto: “Spes nostra firma – Our hope stands firm.” Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Berlin in 1980 and elevated him to the rank of cardinal in the consistory of February 1983. Cardinal Meisner was appointed Archbishop of Cologne in 1988 and spent a little more than a quarter of a century as the chief shepherd of that German archdiocese before retiring in 2014.
Meisner’s character was a study in contrasts. Personal acquaintances of his agree that he had a childlike faith in Jesus Christ and love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet he was a staunch and articulate witness to the faith who cared little for political correctness. Bernhard Luthe, a publisher in Cologne, compiled some of Cardinal Meisner’s more memorable statements. Several of them are quoted in the more detailed account of his episcopal ministry that follows.
Integration of Faith and Society
Bishop Meisner was acquainted with Cardinal Karol Wojtyła and shared with him a keen sense of the interdependence of Christian faith and the moral fabric of society. “Without God there is no culture.” He became close friends with Pope John Paul II and, like him, was a fearless defender of the sacredness of human life. “With the de facto legalization of abortion [in Germany], we have led society onto a path that leads to inhumanity and barbarism.”
In Berlin, Meisner never hid his mistrust of the Communists and kept his distance from them. “Godlessness is like a house without a roof.” As the post-conciliar Church in Germany poured money into international charities and social services, Cardinal Meisner in his preaching constantly emphasized the sacraments as the wellspring of Catholic life. “Anyone who wants to meet God eye to eye kneels down before him.” “Holy Mass outshines everything and is the strongest light.” “I always leave the confessional happier than I went in.”
In Cologne, Meisner’s efforts brought the German National Eucharistic Congress to his Archdiocese. He proclaimed traditional Catholic teaching about marriage and the family even when it was considered old-fashioned or un-ecumenical to do so. “The family always has a religious dimension, too, and no one may lay hands on the family; it is sacred.... Man is the likeness of God, and the family is the likeness of the Trinity. This theological dimension is the foundation for our Christian understanding of the human being and the family.” In 2005 Cardinal Meisner hosted World Youth Day in 2005 in Cologne and the visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
A Member of the Roman Curia
Even after retiring as chief shepherd of the Archdiocese of Cologne in 2014, Cardinal Meisner continued to hold several positions in the Roman Curia. In September 2016, together with Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra and Raymond Burke, he formally submitted to Pope Francis five dubia about passages in Amoris Laetitia concerning divorce, “remarriage,” and the reception of Holy Communion. During his lifetime they received no answer to their letter, and no response to their subsequent request for an audience with the Pope.
On the last day of his life Cardinal Meisner reportedly spoke by telephone with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. His successor, Cardinal Rainer Woelki, says that Meisner died early Wednesday morning, July 5, while preparing to celebrate Mass. He was holding a Breviary.
A Life of Service to the Church
Pope Francis sent a telegram to Cardinal Woelki with his condolences, saying that Cardinal Meisner “was dedicated to the proclamation of the Good News” with “profound faith and sincere love for the Church.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, recalled Cardinal Meisner as someone who “understood his office as a service to God and to the Church.... [His] piety and theological argumentation always impressed me.... His experiences in the early Germany Democratic Republic [East Germany] made him an intrepid fighter for the faith.” Marx went on to note that, after the political reunification of Germany, Meisner worked also to unify the Church in Germany as the Berlin Conference of Ordinaries was integrated into the German Bishops Conference.
Cardinal Burke recalled his late brother prelate in these words: “He has inspired me deeply by his profound love of Christ and of His Mystical Body, the Church. He spared no effort in showing that love clearly and courageously in practice. May he be granted the reward of the good and faithful servant.”
Despite his conservative leanings, the late Cardinal, admittedly, was not a friend of Tradition and was not favorable toward Summorum Pontificum. Moreover, he was also critical of the SSPX’s activities, particularly within his former diocese. Even so, Meisner remained a stalwart champion of a conservative approach to Catholic moral teaching despite criticism from his fellow German churchmen. May the courageous and public defense of the family and morals in these troubled times obtain a merciful judgment to Cardinal Meisner!