In Cologne, many people have said farewell to the late former Archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner in recent days. Among them was Sister Katharina Hartleib, a Franciscan from Olpe, Germany. She remembers him.
Interviewer: You knew Cardinal Meisner from a completely different time, namely from the GDR. Do you remember where you first met him as a priest??
Sister Katharina Hartleib (Olper Franciscan): Yes, I remember well. He was ordained bishop in 1975 and was then auxiliary bishop of Erfurt. I am from the diocese of Erfurt. As young people from the age of 14, we went every year to the huge youth pilgrimage to Erfurt Cathedral Hill. That’s when I first experienced it. I must say he made an incredible impression on me. We were completely surprised to hear something completely different – and so in plain language, as we were not at all used to in the GDR.
Interviewer: What, then, constitutes this "power"?
Sister Katharina: He called a spade a spade. He had been shaped by the Hitler era, by flight and expulsion, and by the period of emerging socialism, just as we and I were. And he had learned that you simply should not compromise with the communists. He knew exactly what people who were very faithful to the church and to their faith had been through.
That’s why he could very well relate to what families, teenagers and young adults went through when they were altar boys, in youth groups or committed to a parish. You had no chance to become anything in the state. He knew that very well, he could call that by name. We didn’t know that, so it was incredibly encouraging.
Interviewer: You were at the top of your class and could have made a career in the GDR. But in the end it was Joachim Meisner who prevented you from going. You do not regret that to this day, do you?
Sister Katharina: There was the youth dedication, which was a commitment to the socialist state. Throughout the years it had been clearly stated that Catholic youths could not make a consecration and a pledge of allegiance to socialism. That would not be possible. So we did not do that and many young people did not do that either.
But that meant, conversely, that you could be the best and the very best at school. If on your testimony was written: "Has no youth dedication", what was printed on it, you didn’t have a chance. I applied with the best report card in school to get into high school and got a rejection. That was not nice, I have to say.
But then to hear from Cardinal Meisner at the next youth pilgrimage: "I know about you, I know that many young people can’t graduate from high school because of this, can’t go to university. And I still maintain: try to use your skills in professions. We do not know what the future will bring."That was encouraging. In good German he said: "This system will not last a hundred years.
Interviewer: Let’s make a jump in your biography: at some point you decided to enter the monastery, but you had an employment contract that you had to fulfill. With this dilemma you went to the then Auxiliary Bishop Meisner and got a personal interview. How was that?
Sister Katharina: I had this work contract that I had to sign in order to take exams. That was a way of directing young graduates to state houses, so I had to sign that contract. I realized, however, that I would rather enter the order this year than next year.
I asked around a little bit and someone told me to go to Meisner. I had a day off and asked if I could come there. I got an appointment and went there by train. He brought in a legal advisor to take care of the contract while we talked for an hour about vocation and religious life, and how to live one’s faith as a young adult. The in-house counsel determined that the contract was nailed down and that I couldn’t get out of it.
We talked about how I could organize these two years that I still had to wait. What I could do to use the time already as preparation for the order. I got the tip to go to Poland and Czechoslovakia to see that we still had it relatively good in the GDR compared to the dictatorships there.
Interviewer: They met again later in Cologne. Could he remember you?
Sr: Yes, that was the interesting thing! "I took up the position of Vocations of the Church in 2002. It was so important to him that he wanted to know the people who work there. I had an appointment at eight o’clock in the morning, at which he always looked at me like this. He told me what he wanted from me – advice with regard to the priesthood and religious life.
I then frowned and told him that for me, pastoral work for vocations means helping young people to find their way and then to see what the good Lord has in store for them. He looked at me and said: "Sture Eichsfelder" and remembered where I came from and that I was with him many years ago. He had a phenomenal memory.
Interviewer: Cardinal Meisner was a great role model in the GDR, and he always stood up for persecuted Christians in Central and Eastern Europe. How do you see it – did he never really arrive in Cologne as archbishop?
Sister Katharina: This is a difficult question about which so many people have already pondered. Personally, I always felt sorry for him because I had the feeling that it was not the right place for him. He said from the outset that he did not want to go to Cologne, and had told Pope John Paul II that. also made it very clear. But the wanted him in this place.
You could already tell that it just wasn’t his collar width and his wavelength. I always thought that was a shame, as well as the later developments that I witnessed. After all, I knew him so very differently.
The interview was conducted by Verena Troster.