Tuesday, January 15, 2008

End of an Era

After 20 years at the helm of the influential German bishops' conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz is stepping down.

Lehmann, 71, said he was resigning for health reasons, according to wire reports. The cardinal was hospitalized late last year with an irregular heartbeat and said today that he would preside over the conference's spring assembly in mid-February before departing the post on the 18th. At his election to a fourth term in 2005, he announced that the six-year renewal would be his final one.

The spring assembly will elect Lehmann's successor, the conference announced.

The early departure "makes sense," Lehmann wrote in a statement, adding the latest waves of episcopal appointments in Europe's largest country made for a "necessary generational shift" of the conference's chairmanship. He also said he wanted to devote more of his energy to the 800,000-member church in Mainz, where he marks his 25th anniversary as bishop later this year.

In the name of the conference, deputy chair Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff of Aachen, praised Lehmann for his "indefatigable" service, "theological knowledge [and] intellectual openness."

The leader of the German episcopate's liberal-progressive wing, the Mainz prelate suggested publicly in 2000 that Pope John Paul II "would have the courage" to resign if ill health prevented him from "lead[ing] the church with authority." A year later, after Lehmann protested that his remarks were taken out of context and said he wasn't calling for John Paul's departure, the late pontiff elevated him to the college of cardinals.

Before this morning's announcement, the mantle of the chairmanship's "heir apparent" has long fallen on the incoming archbishop of Munich and Freising, Reinhard Marx. Named in November to the post held by Pope Benedict from 1977-81, Marx's installation in Munich is scheduled for Candlemas Day, 2 February.

Last week, the Pope received his closest adviser on his homeland's affairs, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, in an evening audience.