Although not unexpected following the prayer request for his health, issued last week by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, the death of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, early yesterday morning, is a sad conclusion to a long lifetime of service to the Church, one that coincided with and shaped the past decades of her life and development.
Cardinal Lehmann had been bedridden since suffering a stroke last September, weeks after consecrating his successor, the aforementioned Bishop Kohlgraf. After serving for 33 years at the helm of the Diocese of Mainz, it seems sad that his well-earned retirement was so short.
The life of Karl, der Grosse
Karl Lehmann was born in 1936 in Sigmaringen, the son of a teacher and his wife. After his school years, which partially overlapped with the Second World War, he went to study philosophy and theology in Freiburg and Rome. In 1963 he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome by Cardinal Julius Döpfner, then the archbishop of München und Freising. In the 1960s, Karl Lehmann earned two doctorates in philosophy and theology, but his most noteworthy work in that time was as assistant of Fr. Karl Rahner at the the universities of Munich and Münster, and also as the Second Vatican Council. At the age of 32, in 1968, he was appointed as professor in Mainz and three years later also in Freiburg im Breisgau.
Karl Lehmann became bishop of Mainz in 1983, vice-president of the German Bishops’ Conference in 1985 and president of the same body in 1987. He was re-elected as such three times and stepped down, for health reasons, in 2008. In 2011, he was named a cardinal with the title church of San Leone I. Cardinal Lehmann participated in the conclaves that elected Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. He submitted his resignation as bishop of Mainz to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, but this was only accepted upon his 80th birthday by Pope Francis.
He held numerous other positions as a priest and bishop of Mainz as well. A short list:
- 1969-1983: Member of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK)
- 1971-1975: Member of the General Synod of German Dioceses
- 1974-1984: Member of the International Theological Commission in Rome
- 1986-1998: Member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
- 1993-2001: First vice-president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE)
- 1997-2011: Member of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See
- 1998-2012: Member of the Congregation for Bishops
- 2002-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
- 2008-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications
- 2008-2014: Member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches
In his lifetime, Cardinal Lehmann received eight honourary doctorates, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the honourary citizenship of the city of Mainz.
Over the course of yesterday the tributes to the late cardinal poured in, from bishops, priests, prelates of other churches, lay faithful and politicians alike. Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, who broke the news on social media, remembered Cardinal Lehmann as “a great personality, a great loveable human being.” Later on the day, after the Vespers of the dead had been prayed at Mainz cathedral, he commented: “I am grateful for the many meetings and conversations, his warmth and affection. He gave me a lot of courage for a difficult task.”
On Monday, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Bishop Kohlgraf:
“What sadness I received the news of the passing of Cardinal Karl Lehmann. I assure you and all the faithful of the Diocese of Mainz of my deepest sympathies and my prayer fort he deceased, whom God the Lord called to Him after serious illness and suffering. In his many years of work as theologian and bishop, as well as president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Lehmann has helped shape the life of Church and society. It was always his concern to be open to the questions and challenges of the time and to give answers and direction based on the message of Christ, to accompany people on their way, and to find unity across the boundaries of confessions, convictions and countries. May Jesus, the Good Shepherd, grant His faithful servant the completeness and fullness of life in His heavenly Kingdom. A gladly grant you and all who mourn Cardinal Lehmann, and remember him in prayer, the apostolic blessing.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, currently president of the German Bishops’ Conference, characterised Cardinal Lehmann as a “great theologian, bishop and friend of humanity.” He added, “The Church in Germany bows its head to a personality who has significantly shaped the Catholic Church worldwide.’ Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin shared Cardinal Marx’s comments: “I bow my head to a great bishop and theologian, who has always been an example to me.”
The passing of Cardinal Lehmann is something of an end to an era, as Bishop Felix Genn of Münster also acknowledges. “After the death of Joachim Cardinal Meisner last year, the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann equally marks the end of an ecclesiastical era, which he significantly helped to shape.” Considering the cardinal’s personal history, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck saw him as “a walking and commenting lexicon of [the Second Vatican] Council.”
Cardinal Lehmann is also seen as a major player in ecumenism. Limburg’s Bishop Georg Bätzing said: “With him the Catholic Church in Germany loses a great bridge builder. The bridges that he has established are solid and can be strengthened further. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the chairman of the Evanglical Church in Germany, shares these thoughts, saying, “In the past decades he was a very important partner for the evangelical church and co-advocate for ecumenical cooperation.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel also reacted to the death of Cardinal Lehmann, saying, “I am greatly saddened by the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann. Today, I think with gratitude of our good conversations and meetings over the course of many years. He has inspired me with his intellectual and theological strength and always also remained a person full of eartly vitality”. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier characterised the cardinals as “a man of clear words who, despite his thoughtfulness and conciliation, did not shy way from political controversy.” It was clear to people who met him, the president added, that the cardinal did not only rely on his own strength, but also on the grace of God.
Another important thread in Cardinal Lehmann’s life was Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, lauds the cardinal as a “true friend of Europe”. He showed us the way as a moral compass and reminded us of the values that make Europe special.”
The many faithful who visited Mainz cathedral to share their condolences unanimously remember “our Karl”, as he was affectinately known in his diocese, as “sympathetic”, “human, open […] and with his humour”, “a fine Christian”, “a man who acted what he preached”.
Cardinal Lehmann will be buried on Wednesday 21 March. The spiritual testament he has left behind will be read out on that day, Bishop Kohlgraf said yesterday.
Photo credit:  Bistum Mainz