What Do You Know About the Life of this Holy Cardinal?

Mary M. Dillon

What Do You Know About the Life of this Holy Cardinal?

Cardinal Joachim Meisner, age 83, archbishop emeritus of the diocese of Cologne, Germany, died peacefully July 5, 2017 while praying his breviary in the morning before offering his daily Mass. Retired Pope Benedict XVI, a personal friend, noted that he died a “happy man at peace with the Lord and his will for the universal Church” (Catholic World Report, July 16, 2017).

Pope Francis upon hearing of his passing, wrote that Cardinal Meisner “stood for the good news out of a deep faith and a sincere love for the Church.” Cardinal Burke reflected that personally, Cardinal Meisner was an inspiration because of  “his profound love of Christ and of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.” Others noted that the Cardinal was “a prayerful man with a deep love for the sacraments, for the Eucharistic Lord and for the Church of eastern Europe.” He was to the end of his life “a champion of Catholic orthodoxy” (Jon Anderson, Catholic Herald, July 6, 2017). He was outspoken against abortion and assisted suicide, and a faithful devotee of our Lady of Fatima and the Rosary.

In his own spiritual testament of 2011, Cardinal Meisner noted that his own life spanned three social systems: “twelve years of Hitler's reich, forty-four years of communist rule and  . . . more than twenty years of free democracy.” Each of these three helped shape his life and spirituality.

Early Life and Ordination

Joachim Meisner, born into a devout Catholic family on Christmas Day, 1933 under the Nazi regime, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in southwest Poland), post-World War II, his family settled in eastern Germany which came under Communist rule. He credited his widowed mother for having cultivated his love for the Blessed Mother and the Rosary throughout his childhood and youth. Sharing powerful testimony from his life experiences, he relates how she always turned to Mary and was never disappointed, despite many extremely difficult circumstances. He also credited the courageous and faithful Catholic witness of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, “the great Hungarian martyr of Communism.” In a homily Meisner stated, “And in me grew the desire that I, one day wished to be like the cardinal, a Witness to Christ who also has the courage to stand up to the powerful of this World” (Maike Hickson, “Cardinal Meisner’s Witness Concerning Fatima and the Dubia”).

At 29 years of age, Joachim was ordained a priest, serving the small Catholic minority in a traditionally Protestant region of Eastern Germany and in 1962, still governed by atheistic Communists. He received his doctorate in theology at Gregorian University Rome 1969 and was appointed bishop in East Germany in 1975 at 42 years of age.

It was at the Vatican in 1977 that he renewed a friendship with then Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II). The friendship was first formed while on pilgrimage together with Catholics in Germany in 1975. There Cardinal Archbishop Wojtyla heard Bishop Meisner of Erfurt’s homily on the theme of the pilgrimage —Spiritual renewal to change the world—(Edward Pentin, National Catholic Register, July 2017). This theme was to remain significant to each of them throughout their priestly ministries.


Pope John Paul II, subsequently, appointed him as Berlin’s bishop in 1980. Berlin as a diocese at the time was one of the “most politically difficult in the world” due to the division of the city into eastern and western parts, as a result of terms with the Soviets at the end of World War II. The Berlin Wall was built and heavily fortified with barbed wire and minefields. It was guarded by snipers in towers on order by the communists to ‘shoot to kill’ in order to prevent mass defections from the East to the West. As Bishop of Berlin, Meisner was able to travel between both parts of the divided city, becoming known as “the bishop who passed through the wall” always trying to secure whatever freedom he could for the faithful.

It is notable that during his 40 years in communist East Germany no Catholic was ever allowed to travel to the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal. Cardinal Meisner, speaking years later at a conference remarked, “We were not allowed to talk much about Fatima because it would always be interpreted as anti-Soviet propaganda” yet for Cardinal Meisner this was a sign that “the devil smells when he seriously gets into trouble” (Hickson).

Elevation to Cardinal

In 1983, Pope John Paul II elevated Bishop Meisner to the position of cardinal. Cardinal Meisner presided over the Dresden Catholics’ Congress of 1987, where huge numbers of Catholics were in attendance out of  the total East Germany population, and was credited later on for having been a part of the “peaceful revolution which brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989” (Anderson). In his own words at the Congress: “The Church, the Christians in our country want to give their talents and competencies to our society without following a different star than the one of Bethlehem” (taken from Christoph Kösters, European Integration and Catholicism in Germany (1945-1990), 1999).

In 1988, Cardinal Meisner was appointed Archbishop of Cologne, “the largest and wealthiest diocese in Germany,” serving in this position for 25 years until his retirement at age 80 on February 28, 2014. As opposed to the atheistic Communism and all it entailed in Berlin, in Cologne Cardinal Meisner faced different but no less daunting challenges: secularism and cultural relativism. As Archbishop, he represented the mostly passed-on “conservative wing of the German hierarchy.” He found himself  “often crossing swords with the country’s politicians, as well as taking conservative approaches to liturgy and religious art” (Anderson).  

In 1990, Pope John Paul II, who himself believed that our Lady of Fatima’s intercession spared his life in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, invited Cardinal Meisner to Fatima to offer Holy Mass on May 13, “the first Fatima Day without the Bolshevist Empire . . . in thanksgiving for the liberation from Communism.” The Cardinal believed that is was through Fatima that the political change in 1989 was achieved in Eastern Europe. Thus, on this first ever visit of his to Fatima, he gave a stirring homily on Mary and why she came to Fatima: “In our old Europe which was once the homeland of Christendom, Jesus Christ barely appears in public anymore . . . From Fatima, Mary could start her path in order to carry Christ back to Europe . . . Not Marx has given man his greatness and dignity, but Mary (Hickson).

In 2010, the Year for Priests, in Rome, Cardinal Meisner expressed regret over the decreased practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation pointing out that this has wounded both the church and priests. ” 'Where a priest is no longer a confessor, he becomes a religious social worker. In fact, he is missing the experience of the greatest pastoral success, which is when he can collaborate to ensure that a sinner leaves the confessional as a sanctified person,' ” (Carol Glatz, Archdiocese of Baltimore, July, 2017).

Fatima Connection

Again in 2013, Cardinal Meisner gave a memorable homily at Fatima recounting the story of visitors from the Soviet Union attending Mass for the first time in 30 years in his parish church in Germany in 1975. His beautiful, but simple explanation to them of having “the key” to passing on the faith, (they were not allowed to bring religious books back) through praying the Rosary along with its Mysteries was understood by the Russian visitor, who, holding his rosary, exclaimed, “Then I have the whole Catholic Faith in one hand!” (Hickson)

In September, 2016 he added his name to the questions referred to as the “dubia” or “doubts” regarding disputable passages of Chapter 8 of the recent encyclical Amoris laetitia along with (the late) Cardinal Carlo Caffara, Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. Cardinal Meisner himself said in 2016, regarding his private concerns about the encyclical and the approaching Fatima Year 2017, that “the Mother of God would not let us drown in confusion and sin” (Hickson).  


Cardinal Meisner stood out as one of the most influential Catholic figures in Germany. Passing away in this centenary year of the Fatima apparitions of 1917, it is said of Cardinal Meisner that “he is more closely connected with the message of Fatima than any other German bishop,  . . . having met Sister Lucia, the seer, several times.” In this month of November—the month of the Holy Souls— let us pray for his peaceful repose— thanking God for his holy life and remembering his words underlying the importance of praying the Rosary, “When I will have died, then the canons will come and take away my ring, my crosier . . . But I have written my testament: you have to leave me my Rosary! I want to take it to my coffin! I wish to show it to the Mother of God, so that she may show me, after this exile, Jesus, the Blessed Fruit of her life!” (Hickson).

May we hold fast to all of Cardinal Meisner’s words in order to “become full Christians” courageously witnessing to our faith, as he did, in season and out.


What else do you know about Cardinal Joachim Meisner? Leave a comment!



Header Image Attribution: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)