“A giant”: that is how a high-ranking prelate in the Roman Curia describes Joachim Meisner, the German cardinal who died suddenly last week. He fell asleep while he was reading the Breviary, and never woke up.

“He was a good, strong man,” a curial cardinal who was friends with him told me. “The Lord took him at one of the most beautiful moments for a good priest.”

Meisner certainly was a benchmark for the German Catholic Church in the past century. “A wise old bear”: that’s the image offered with affection by one of his friends. Whenever problems arose, when there was a difficult point to face, it was customary to seek his advice.

His story is that of a fighter, true to Rome and to the Church. He was born in Breslau (now known as Wrocław and belonging to Poland) on Christmas Day, 1933. With his mother and his brothers, he lived through the tragedy of millions of other German refugees, chased westwards in the aftermath of World War II. His father, a soldier in the German army, disappeared on the Russian frontline.

Meisner was a reference point for the Holy See and the Pope in a period that now seems far away, but is relatively only yesterday, when Berlin, Germany and Europe were divided by a wall. In 1980 he was appointed Archbishop of Berlin, a city formally possessing a Protestant majority, but broadly de-Christianised with a Catholic minority. He was really John Paul II’s man in Berlin.

It is no secret that, since time immemorial, the German Church has harboured an “anti-Rome complex”. Joachim Meisner was one of the three “Ms” who supported the Vatican. The other two were Gerhard Müller and Reinhard Marx (the latter was then decidedly less “creative” than he is now from a pastoral and theological point of view).

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