COLOGNE, Germany — Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has been appointed archbishop of Cologne, the Vatican announced July 11.
The Cologne Archdiocese has more than 2 million faithful, the largest number of Catholics in any German diocese. Its territory covers a significant part of the industrial Ruhr region and includes the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bonn.
Cardinal Woelki replaces Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who resigned Feb. 28, upon reaching age 75.
The choice of Cardinal Woelki as successor of Cardinal Meisner has been seen as a choice of continuity. In 2011, the prelate was appointed archbishop of Berlin. His path was similar to his mentor Cardinal Meisner, who had headed the Berlin Diocese before becoming archbishop of Cologne in 1988.
Cardinal Woelki was born in Cologne in 1956. He became personal secretary to Cardinal Meisner in 1990. With the support of Cardinal Meisner, Cardinal Woelki was appointed auxiliary bishop of Cologne in 2003.
The archbishop of Cologne is elected through a rather unique method.
Cologne is one of 13 German dioceses where a chapter of diocesan representatives is part of the process which selects new bishops. The diocesan chapter first creates a list of possible candidates and forwards this list to Rome through the apostolic nuncio. The Holy See considers this list and returns a list of three names. The chapter is then tasked with choosing the new archbishop from this list.
The 1988 process that led to the selection of Cardinal Meisner took 14 months, since none of the three candidates on the Holy See’s list won more than half of the chapter’s votes. The selection process has been reformed recently in order to streamline the process and to better adapt to the contemporary life of the Church.
Cardinal Woelki was in any case a likely pick from the chapter of Cologne, despite the media frenzy pushing for a more "liberal" candidate for the Cologne Archdiocese.
When he was appointed archbishop of Berlin in 2011, Cardinal Woelki faced difficult times. Berlin’s homosexual community and liberal media reacted to his appointment with dismay, describing him as “backwards-minded” and saying he was the wrong man for the job.
Cardinal Woelki reacted to the accusations of homophobia, stressing that he is simply a Catholic. He said, “The Church is not a moral institution that goes around pointing its finger at people. The Church is, for me, a community of seekers and believers, and the Church aims at helping people to find happiness in life.”
In the course of the years, Cardinal Woelki increased his popularity among Berliners.
A video by the broadcaster DeutscheWelle portrayed him as a humble archbishop who makes his own breakfast and does his own laundry, not forgetting his origins. The video depicted him as someone who places a priority on meeting with the people of his diocese.
From this point of view, he might be considered the German version of Pope Francis.
Andrea Gagliarducci is Catholic News Agency’s Vatican observer.