He reports on his resistance in GDR times and his turbulent move to Cologne. Some confreres he praises, others Joachim Cardinal Meisner accuses of betrayal in his “memoirs of life”. A look at the autobiography.
The former Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, has been dead for three years – and is still good for surprises. After almost 600 works of art were found in the cardinal’s estate and auctioned off for 1.2 million euros for a good cause, his legacy is once again attracting attention: an autobiography was published on Monday by the Freiburg publishing house Herder.
Meisner dictated the 272-page “memoirs” to a journalist “in her formative pen” in the months before his death, according to executor and Cologne cathedral chaplain Markus Bosbach. While the memoir covers the entire lifespan of the conservative as well as contentious cardinal, it deals more closely with his childhood and career as a priest in the GDR, auxiliary bishop in Erfurt and bishop of divided Berlin. Meisner devotes relatively few pages to his time from 1989 in Cologne.
“Whoever adapts, can pack up right away”
The title “Whoever adapts can pack right in” does not refer to the church reform debate, but to the Catholic opposition behind the Iron Curtain. Partly the book reads like a thriller. From Berlin, Meisner maintained intensive contacts with the oppressed Czechoslovak Church. He describes how he is questioned after a meeting with Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek and the frontiersman fights back with fury: “In any case, we did not discuss anything that could call into question the existence of your republic.”
The cardinal not only provided practical help for the underground church, for example by organizing photocopiers inconspicuously. He classifies the 60 or so secret priestly ordinations as “highly dangerous”. Always on a Saturday afternoon, the candidates would have visited him in pairs, where they had to identify themselves with an identifying mark, a small Nepomuk figurine.
“I then performed the consecration at night in my tiny house chapel in Berlin.”
Executor Bosbach struggled with when and how to publish the memoirs. For corrections were also necessary, which he incorporated after receiving advice from experts and companions. But he refrained from commentaries or church- and contemporary-historical classifications. According to the cathedral chaplain, they would have to do something else.
This is especially true with regard to two churchmen: the secretary of the then Berlin Bishops’ Conference, Prelate Paul Dissemond, and the Berlin “church-political” prelate Gerhard Lange. Meisner does not leave a good hair on them. He accuses the clergy, who already under his predecessor Alfred Bengsch had to maintain contacts between state and church, of being too close to the GDR regime. He even speaks of “betrayal” in the case of Lange, who died in 2018 and was buried with an episcopal blessing. That they view church politics differently than Meisner was already no secret in the 1980s. Why the cardinal nevertheless left Lange in office until the end remains his secret.
Cardinal Lehmann or Pope Francis are not mentioned
As in all autobiographies, the “blanks” are striking: While Meisner takes pains to present himself as the desired successor to his predecessors in Berlin and Cologne, he finds no appreciative word for his own successors there. Other names are also missing, such as that of his longtime counterpart in the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, or Pope Francis.
Meisner “reloaded” – that’s how the passages about his withdrawal of the church from pregnancy counseling or his closeness to Pope John Paul II read. His comments about the “politicians of the West” sound new: Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who, according to him, visited the cardinal twice a year, he considered to be a “humanist with a metaphysical background,” until the politician came out as an atheist.
Helmut Kohl had been faithful, but also “incapable of dialogue”. And Angela Merkel? For Meisner, she was a red rag as a divorced woman living with a divorced man. He let them feel this unabashedly. On a visit to Cologne, he greeted her like this: “Well, Ms. Landsmannin, I guess you”ve come to me for bridal lessons.”