Apparently he did a good job in managing the transition from Meisner to Woelki, good enough to be entrusted with shepherding the flock in the nation’s largest pasture. Msgr. Stefan Heße (pronounced as “Hese”) succeeds Archbishop Werner Thissen as ordinary of Hamburg.
Shortly after Friday’s announcement that Hamburg’s cathedral chapter would name the new archbishop on Monday, the name of Msgr. Heße appeared in rumours, first in the Bild newspaper and later also in various Catholic media. In the past, these rumours have proven to be accurate more often than not, and so in this case. They point to a serious leak in the otherwise secret and complex process of electing a bishop in most of Germany.
The Archdiocese of Hamburg is the largest diocese of the country, covering the states of Hamburg, Schleswigh-Holstein and the western part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In number of Catholics it is, however, among the smallest of dioceses. Its 400,000 faithful are a sharp contrast with the 2 million Catholics in Msgr. Heße’s native Cologne.
Hamburg fell vacant upon the retirement of Archbishop Thissen in March of last year. His successor will be the third archbishop of the see as it was reestablished in 1994.
Msgr. Heße was born in 1966 in a suburb of Cologne. Aged 48, he will be the youngest ordinary of a German diocese, and by far the youngest archbishop. He studied philosophy and theology in Bonn and Regensburg and was ordained a priest in 1993, by Cardinal Joachim Meisner. From 1993 to 1997 he worked in the parish in Bergheim, just west of Cologne, and from 1997 to 2003 he was a tutor at the archdiocesan seminary in Bonn, which was headed at the time by Msgr. Rainer Maria Woelki, the current archbishop of Cologne. In 2001 he became a doctor of theology. He led the pastoral care office of the archdiocese from 2003 to 2005 and was diocesan representative for radio and television until 2012. Msgr. Heße received the honorary titles of Chaplain of His Holiness and 2005 and Honorary Prelate in 2010. He subsequently became substitute to the vicar general and head of the personnel department of the archdiocese in 2006. In 2011 he joined the cathedral chapter. When Dominik Schwaderlapp became an auxiliary bishop of Cologne, Msgr. Heße succeeded him as vicar general. He was confirmed in that office after Cardinal Woelki became the new archbishop of Cologne in 2014.
Reputation, as fickle as that can be, indicates that Msgr. Heße is somewhat liberal, if such a qualification has any merit, and he has been generally praised for his work towards financial transparency of the Archdiocese of Cologne, an example that has since been followed by several other dioceses in Germany. In Hamburg he inherits a diaspora Church where ecumenical contacts are much valued. This is also visible in Hamburg’s best-known sainthood cause: that of the Martyrs of Lübeck, three Catholics priests and one Lutheran pastor, who were beheaded in 1943 for listening to enemy broadcasts, treason and demoralisation. Eyewitness reports state that there blood ran together on the floor, which has since been seen as a potent symbol of ecumenism, not least by Pope Francis.
Msgr. Heße became known to the wider world when he was elected as diocesan administrator following the retirement of Cardinal Meisner, and it is said that his was one of the names on the final list from which the cathedral chapter elected the new archbishop. An archbishop he eventually becomes, if a bit farther from home than originally intended.
The consecration and installation of the new archbishop will be on 14 March.
As an aside, this is the third Stefan to be appointed as a bishop in Germany in less than a year, following Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau and Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg.
^Msgr. Stefan Heße with Cologne auxiliary Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp, whom he succeeded as vicar general, during the German Bishops’ Conference spring plenary of 2014.