What’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:
“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.
There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.
On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.
On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.
But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”
The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.
Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in 1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.
Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”
Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:
“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.
Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”
From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.
“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”
Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.
The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.
With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.