(...) Cardinal Meisner, who had a very vivid and warm way of giving his homilies, remembered also an encounter he once had, in 1975, as a young bishop, still in Communist Germany. There came to his Mass in Erfurt (East Germany) a group of visiting tourists which turned out to be Catholics from the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan) and who had not been at Holy Mass for 30 years! “We are homesick for the Church!” they told him after Mass. And one man put a very pertinent question to Meisner: “Could you give to me some very important information? Which doctrines of the Faith do we have to pass on to our children and to our children’s children so that they may attain to eternal life?”
Cardinal Meisner was still so touched by these words when he related them again in his 2013 homily: “Such an important question had not been put to me before, nor ever thereafter,” he said. However, when he had then proposed to this man that he give to him and to each of his companions a Bible and the Catechism, the man from the Soviet Union politely declined, saying that they are not even permitted to have religious books in their own homes. When asked about taking home a Rosary, the man responded: “Yes, we can do that. But, what does this have to do with my question?” And Cardinal Meisner answered – holding up his Rosary:
At the beginning of the Rosary is the cross, where we pray the creed which contains our whole Faith. Then come the three pearls: Faith, Hope, Charity – the whole teaching for life. That is what we have to live. Then follow the other pearls, the whole gospels in a kind of secret or blind script, which can only be understood by the praying hands and hearts.
The man took the Rosary into his hands and said: “What? Then I have the whole Catholic Faith in one hand!” [emphasis added] This description of that unexpected and abiding conversation, as related by Cardinal Meisner, should be savored in full in the original homily, in German, in order to see the fuller moral beauty of this true story. Would that we could know what happened to these Catholics from Russia ever since 1975!
Cardinal Meisner holds up his rosary as he tells the story of his encounter with
Catholics from the Soviet Union. (Screenshot)
Throughout this homily, for example, Cardinal Meisner used some beautiful poetic images and combinations of words that spring from his deep Faith and ardent Love of God. He said, for example: “When I reach out to the hand of God, I want to have something in my hand. That is the Rosary!” [emphasis added] And: “Whoever prays the Rosary again and again, will feel what the brethren felt on the way to Emmaus, when they asked each other: ‘Did not our hearts burn?’” And here Cardinal Meisner said: “The heart that is burning for Christ is the hope of the world. Mary brought this fire to our world in Fatima.” [emphasis added] “Not theories, but burning hearts will change the world,” added the prelate. He also used the beautiful image of the sick woman who touched the seam of Our Lord’s garment. “If I only touch this seam, I will be healed.” Thus said Meisner: “It is with the Rosary, that that seam of Jesus is given into our hands.”
For the sake of the beauty of this one homily, let me cite some other poetic images, as expressed by this prelate:
When we, along with these pearls, receive the words of His Life, then these spiritual seeds will bear fruit – 30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold, unto eternal life! Each pearl is a mysterious germ of life, because it brings us the Gospel into our life and [brings] our life into the Gospel. [emphasis added]
Cardinal Meisner’s ardent love for the Rosary becomes even clearer when he makes the following public testament:
When I will have died, then the canons will come and take away my ring, my crosier […] But: I have written my testament: you have to leave me my Rosary! I want to take it into my coffin! I wish to show it to the Mother of God so that she may show me, after this exile, Jesus, the Blessed Fruit of her life!
In his fuller spiritual testament, which has now been published in Cologne, Germany, Cardinal Meisner writes a letter to Jesus Christ as a testament of gratitude to God, first for having created him as a human being, then for having made him a priest and a bishop, “formed and consecrated by your wounds,” and for having “used me at your Cross, and for having made me worthy of your wounds.” Written in 2011 – during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI – he also implores his flock always to remain loyal to Peter and thus to remain in the Faith.
Let us now consider what Cardinal Meisner had to say about Our Lady of Fatima in 1990, when he visited Fatima for the first time in his life, and upon request of Pope John Paul II. Dr. Hesemann kindly made this homily available to me which Cardinal Meisner gave to him for publication for Hesemann’s own book on Fatima (Das Letzte Geheimnis von Fatima – The Last Secret of Fatima).
On 13 May 1990, Cardinal Meisner had thus stated
In our old Europe which was once the homeland of Christendom, Jesus Christ barely appears in public any more. Mary – and with her the Church – has been pushed to the margins of the European societies. Portugal, however, welcomed Mary 73 years ago – just like John under the Cross – into its own. In Fatima, this famous nation has given a realm and homeland to Mary. From Fatima, Mary could start her path in order to carry Christ back to Europe. In Russia and the other East European states, the Christian faith was nearly forbidden. The peoples of East Europe that highly venerate Mary were only able to give her very little space, since atheism had conquered almost all living space. That is why Mary came from Fatima in order to help the distressed disciples of her Son in the East European states. Fatima is, so to speak, the bridgehead of Mary from whence Mary subverted the East European people in order to bring them Christ, who truly liberates man. Europe must never forget to thank Portugal for having opened the doors to Mary so that she may convert the godless states in the East of our continent. […] In those years [of Communism], Mary was the most unassuming, but omnipresent companion in suffering and the helper of the distressed. […] Not Marx has given man greatness and dignity, but Mary.
When we read these words, we must remember that they were written under the deep impression of a final end of Communism in the East, after decades of oppression. The deep gratitude of this prelate is palpable in these words. (Let us remember that in 2016, almost twenty years later, he came to the conclusion that we still were in need of the assistance of Our Lady of Fatima.) But, there are even deeper reasons for Cardinal Meisner’s devotion to Our Lady. In a 2016 interview about his own life – he was born in 1933 under the Nazi regime, lived for more than 40 years under Communism in East Germany and then faced the challenges of cultural relativism and liberal Catholicism in the West as Archbishop of Cologne – it becomes clear that it was his own mother who taught him the love of the Blessed Mother and of the Rosary.
In 1945, his mother had to flee from the approaching Soviets from Breslau (which is today Polish) to the West, taking along with her not only her four own sons, but six other relatives – two grandmothers and four more children! (Meisner’s father was among the Fallen in Russia – die Gefallenen in Russland – and never returned home.) On their way to the West, the extended Meisner family endured terrible situations such as being abandoned in a van in a heap of snow off the main country road, in the winter, in freezing temperatures below zero. In the middle of this dramatic situation and after having even dropped down a slope in this van, the mother lifted up her Rosary, saying: “God is with us!” When later searching in vain for hours for a room at night in a little village in soon-to-be Communist Germany, the mother suddenly stood still and calmly explained to her four young sons that she, their mother, was now not able to provide for them and that thus they together now must turn to Mary for help. After saying a special German Marian prayer (Hilf Maria, jetzt ist Zeit) three times, a man came out onto the street to them, inviting them into his house with the words: “I cannot any longer watch upon a mother and her children standing out on the street at night.”
The whole story of Cardinal Meisner’s life is a story of warmth and courage. I have seldom seen such a unique combination of a warm heart and a strong conviction, which gained respect even among his professed opponents. Even Germany’s most prominent feminist, Alice Schwarzer, recently gave her tribute to Cardinal Meisner upon his death, saying: “Yes, I liked him.” She felt a friendship with him and she cherished “his humanity and child-like Faith” in spite of their differences of opinion, for example, concerning abortion, as Schwarzer wrote. She continued, saying that at their last meeting a year ago, Meisner gave her a little prayer card with a poem of St. Teresa of Avila. The lines “nothing shall frighten you, nothing scare you. Everything shall pass, God alone remains the same” touched Schwarzer especially as being quite “consoling.”
Is this not a true Catholic witness who stands firm in the truth and reaches out in charity with Christ’s touch to his own opponents? Is this not also the combination of Our Lord and Our Lady? The Truth and Love combined?
Some of the added inspiration for Meisner’s own courage and Catholic witness comes from none other than Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty himself, the great Hungarian martyr of Communism. It was on 6 May 2017, not long before he died, that Cardinal Meisner gave witness to this great man. In a homily in Budapest, Hungary, Meisner recounts how he as a 13-year-old boy happened to see a picture of Cardinal Mindszenty in a Communist Courtroom under accusation. Meisner was so touched by this image – which reminded him immediately of Our Lord’s own being so falsely accused – that he fastened this image at the wall of his bedroom and thus always looked upon this cardinal before he fell asleep, and when he woke up. “He was the model of a bishop for me,” explained Cardinal Meisner in his homily. He adds:
And in me grew the desire that I, one day, wished to be like the cardinal, a Witness of Christ who has the courage also to stand up against the Powerful of this world. [emphasis added]
Later, Cardinal Meisner happened to find the same picture of Cardinal Mindszenty again. He put this image then into his breviary – “so that I am connected with him in prayer every day” – and it was that same breviary which lay in Cardinal Meisner’s hands when he died. “When we bishops are not any more confessors, then the people of God are not in a good situation,” Meisner added, after first speaking about Mindszenty’s own courageous witness and engagement for mankind. Meisner showed himself especially grateful for Mindszenty’s compassion and solidarity with the 9 million Germans who had to flee their homeland after World War II – among them the Meisner family. “Except for Cardinal Mindszenty, no other bishop then defended us,” [emphasis added] added Meisner. “Bishops have not only to pay attention to a good response from the media, but especially to the proclamation of the truth which has been entrusted to them.”
Cardinal Meisner did not only challenge his own fellow bishops. He also challenged all of us Catholics when he once said, in 2016, that now is the “great chance to become a full Christian – half-Christians will perish!” “Now one responsibly has to hold up one’s head [den Kopf hinhalten], or one will lose it.” He saw a “great chance truly to witness that we are Christians!” And this witness – which we have also learned now from Cardinal Meisner and from his life and his final act of signing the dubia – we can only accomplish with the help of Mary, rooted in the love for Christ.