The Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is deeply touched by the death of Joachim Cardinal Meisner. ACN mourns a highly valued friend. The retired Archbishop of Cologne died unexpectedly on 5 July at the age of 83 years, as he prayed the breviary before the celebration of Holy Mass.
Cardinal Meisner shared a lifelong and intensive friendship with the founder of ACN, Father Werenfried van Straaten OPraem. For both of them, concern for the oppressed and suffering Church behind the Iron Curtain and worldwide was a matter of the heart. They were both joined by their love of and loyalty to the Pope, especially the holy John Paul II. With him they collaborated intensively – in different positions but united in their mission. They were both joined by their love of the truth of the Gospel and of clear, unmistakeable words. The one gave inspiration, the other gave orientation in a sea of opinions and slogans.
As a native of Silesia, Cardinal Meisner shared the fate of millions of Germans who were driven from their homeland. A fate that moved our founder Father Werenfried, exactly 70 years ago, to satisfy the bodily and spiritual hunger of the uprooted with a gigantic aid action. Among those uprooted was Joachim Meisner, as he himself repeatedly recounted. As a 14-year-old in his diaspora in Thuringia, he heard for the first time of the “Bacon Priest” Werenfried van Straaten. A Dutchman’s support for his former German enemies after a war, the scars of which had not yet healed, moved him so much that he cut out a photo of the founder of ACN and hung it on the wall of his bare mansard room beside those of the bishops Alojzije Stepinac and József Mindszenty – both martyrs of Communist oppression of the Church behind the Iron Curtain. Looking back, Meisner once acknowledged: “The great work, ACN, is not firstly to be counted among the big relief charities of the Catholic Church in Europe, but rather it belongs among the spiritual movements that emerged in the Church after the disaster of the Second World War.”
When the young refugee Meisner became a priest and bishop in the dictatorship of the GDR, he and the “Bacon Priest” met frequently. Together they sought to aid the oppressed Church in Communism and in many other regions of the world – as discretely as possible but as concretely as necessary.
When the wall and barbed wire came down, Cardinal Meisner was already Archbishop of Cologne. His joy at the regained freedom was mixed with anxieties about godlessness, moral arbitrariness and a materialism that neglects humanity. This insight, together with concern for the new evangelisation of Europe, was a further unifying bond between Cardinal Meisner, Pope John Paul II and Father Werenfried.
Every year until his retirement in 2014, the Archbishop celebrated a memorial service in Cologne Cathedral on the anniversary of Father Werenfried’s death. In one of these sermons he said: “God’s instruments are often poor and held in contempt. Almost no one knows their names. But they achieve great things when they have faith. With the Grace of God we have discovered such a giant of God’s Realm as Father Werenfried.”
In 2016, Cardinal Meisner was a guest of ACN for the last time. At a day of encounter in Cologne he spoke about the meaning of the Marian apparitions of Fatima for the fall of the Berlin Wall. This too was a subject that united him, as a former Bishop of the divided city of Berlin, with the Pope from Poland and the “Bacon Priest” from the Netherlands. May the fact of his death in the Year of Fatima represent his personal fulfilment of the promise in which he believed throughout his life.
Following the death of our founder, Joachim Cardinal Meisner requested a pen as “heirloom”. With it he wrote in ACN’s guestbook: “Do not become an authority that simply administers donors’ money for the recipients, but remain a movement that calls people to come closer to God and thus also closer to others. For every co-worker, their lives must not be separated into private and public spheres, such as even some politicians in Christian parties demand for themselves. … The Christian view of humanity knows no such differentiation.”