Appreciated as speaker and advisor

Appreciated as speaker and advisor

Joachim Wanke, Bishop Emeritus of Erfurt © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

Joachim Wanke's words still carry more weight today than those of almost any other former Catholic bishop in Germany. More than eight years after stepping down, the former Erfurt chief pastor is in demand as a speaker. Now he turns 80.

Wanke was one of the defining bishops of the Catholic Church in eastern Germany, if only because of his unusually long tenure at the helm of what is now the Diocese of Erfurt. When he stepped down in October 2012 after more than 31 years, his episcopal peers attested to his special "theological expertise and pastoral empathy".

At that time, Wanke gave his "unstable health situation" as the reason for resigning from office. In the preceding two decades, he had undergone two heart surgeries. That he did not resign earlier was probably due to Benedict XVI's visit to Germany. in 2011. It was thanks to Wanke in particular that the Pope also came to Thuringia.

Modest and determined

Benedict XVI. thanked the East German Christians for their loyalty to the church during the GDR period and afterwards. Wanke had contributed to this like few others. Modest in appearance but firm in his statements, the Erfurt bishop proved himself under two opposing social systems: nine years under the SED regime and 22 years in reunified Germany.

Being a bishop in the GDR – according to Wanke, that meant above all keeping the Catholic minority together. An activity beyond the church walls into the – state-imposed – atheistic society was hardly possible. After the "Wende", the challenges of a free society arose. "So after a certain initial euphoria, there was soon also disillusionment and, above all, the anxious question of whether we could exist at all as a church in central Germany in the face of so many upheavals in society," Wanke recalled. However, he always encouraged Christians to preserve their autonomy.

Balancing act between two systems

Wanke had to perform the balancing act between two systems even in his young years as bishop. At the age of 39, Pope John Paul II. appointed him auxiliary bishop in Erfurt in 1980. After his episcopal consecration, he succeeded the late Hugo Aufderbeck in the Erfurt bishop's chair just two months later.

Before that, the son of a civil servant from Wroclaw faced a career in higher education. He was a professor of New Testament exegesis at the Philosophical-Theological College in Erfurt, the only academic training school for priests in the GDR and now a university department. Later, he headed the governing body that undertook a revision of the "Einheitsubersetzung" of the New Testament on behalf of the German-speaking bishops.

Appreciated for his rhetorical skills

During his long tenure as bishop, Wanke was also called to other inter-diocesan assignments. From 1995 to 2001 he was chairman of the Association of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), and from 1998 to 2010 he headed the Pastoral Commission of the German Bishops' Conference. Wanke had already made a name for himself with unconventional pastoral offers – such as "celebrating the turn of life" in Erfurt Cathedral as an alternative for unbaptized young people to "youth consecration".

Wanke is also respected for his rhetorical skills, which earned him the "Preaching Prize" of the German business community in 2001, among other awards. To this day, "his words are heard in society and in politics," emphasized Wanke's successor in office, Ulrich Neymeyr, on the 40th anniversary of his episcopal ordination. Anniversary of his episcopal consecration last November.

For to this day, the former bishop also takes a stand on hot topics. Thus he admitted to the case of a priest, who was already under suspicion of abuse during Wanke's time in office: "I wish the accusations had been investigated as carefully then as they are today." Then he might have had to draw other consequences. "I am responsible for that," Wanke emphasized. This Tuesday, the former bishop now turns 80 years old.

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