Heiner Wilmer, Bishop of Hildesheim © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Heiner Wilmer has been bishop of Hildesheim for a good two and a half years. He has earned a nationwide reputation as a reformer in the Catholic Church. For his statements, the 60-year-old liberal Jubilant but also often reaped criticism.
He can drive a tractor and speaks English, French, Italian and Spanish as well as Low German. Thanks in part to his down-to-earth nature, Heiner Wilmer, who has been bishop of Hildesheim since 2018, is popular with many people. On 9. April the order man, who comes from a farm in the Emsland and traveled much in the world, becomes 60 years old.
Wilmer made a name for himself in office as a champion of reform
In just over two and a half years in office as bishop, Wilmer has already made a name for himself nationwide as a champion of reform in the Catholic Church. "For me personally, 'just keep it up' would be a betrayal of the gospel," he said, urging a greater say for the faithful, a breakup of the "male bonding" and a stronger role for women in the church.
Wilmer also sees a need for reform in celibacy, because many priests are lonely. In the circle of German bishops, he also meets with criticism from some with these convictions. His statement that the abuse of power is "in the DNA of the church" attracted attention beyond the church.
Clarification of abuse written on the flag
From his first day in the bishop's office, Wilmer has taken up the cause of relentlessly clearing up sexual abuse of minors. To investigate allegations of abuse against former Hildesheim Bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen (1907-1988), appointed an independent commission of experts in 2019. The group, led by former Lower Saxony Justice Minister Antje Niewisch-Lennartz (Greens), has access to all the diocese's files and wants to conduct a comprehensive study.
The presentation, originally planned for 2020, has been delayed because of Corona and will now take place this year. In an interview in January, Wilmer described the mishaps in the abuse investigation in the archdiocese of Cologne as "unspeakable and very regrettable".
A good connection to Pope Francis
The Lower Saxon has a lot of experience in the world church: As a 19-year-old, he joined the Dehonian Order – also known as the Sacred Heart Priests – and studied theology, Romance studies and French philosophy in Freiburg, Paris and Rome. As a teacher, he taught in New York's Bronx and later headed the order's own high school in Handrup, Emsland. In 2007, he became provincial of the German religious province of the Dehonians before moving to Rome in 2015 as superior general with worldwide responsibility.
From this time comes the good wire to Pope Francis. Wilmer belonged to an informal circle of religious superiors in Rome who championed the reform concerns of the first Jesuit in the papacy. Shortly after his election as bishop, the pontiff called Wilmer personally to persuade him to take on the new job. He last paid the pope a visit at the Vatican in October.
Austerity measures in the diocese of Hildesheim
In his diocese of Hildesheim, Wilmer is forced to continue the austerity measures begun by his predecessor Norbert Trelle. Just in February, he again profaned a church, which is now being converted into a residential building. The planned closure of three educational houses of the diocese met with criticism from many Catholics. The bishop admitted that the participation process had not gone well and announced that a diocesan pastoral council would be set up as an advisory body. "I am a learner."
Wilmer is open to new formats and forms of worship. Before taking office, he took young people on a pilgrimage through his new diocese to hear them tell him how he should be a bishop. When church services were limited last Christmas because of the Corona pandemic, he celebrated a devotion in the pub with his Protestant counterpart, Hanover Bishop Ralf Meister – as a place that offers people a home.
Bishop Wilmer's free time
In his scarce free time, Wilmer likes to read, ride his bike and even watch the occasional soccer game. His club is the FC Schapen 27 in his home village in Emsland, as the bishop once confessed with a wink. He will probably have to do without cinema and theater visits, which are also dear to him, for some time due to corona.
Speaking of Corona: Even in the crisis, Wilmer never lost his courage despite all the challenges. This is evidenced by his book published last summer "Carries. The Art of Believing in Hope and Love," in which he calls for more trust in God: "Trusting in God means knowing that risks shape our lives and that we cannot take out existential insurance."