He is good with people. This ability has proved to be the greatest strength of Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser during the five months at the head of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Since Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki’s return in early March, there has been calm around the former interim leader, who is celebrating his 70th birthday on May 12. At the same time, the debates in the diocese of Germany, which has the largest membership, have boiled over again.
In the 140 days of his tenure as so-called apostolic administrator, Steinhäuser had actually managed to initiate something like an approximation between the church base and the diocesan leadership. From October 12 last year, at the instigation of Pope Francis, he temporarily headed the Archdiocese of Cologne. A few months earlier, the church leader had intervened in the crisis of confidence in the archdiocese and ordered an investigation into the situation on the spot. Woelki then went on a sabbatical for several months.
No harmless greetings
Steinhäuser started his service with a greeting via video. He wanted to renew and reconcile, explained the native of Cologne with the gray-speckled curls and the Rhine dialect. In recent years, the auxiliary bishop has never particularly stood out alongside his colleagues Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff. He speaks quite slowly and usually has a friendly smile on his face. The fact that he is often underestimated could be his other great strength.
For Steinhäuser turned out not to be the harmless greeting uncle that some had expected. He published the costs that Woelki and his deputy Markus Hofmann spent on lawyers and PR consultants in dealing with the abuse: 2.8 million euros. The question of whether the diocesan leadership ignored two important bodies in the archdiocese when granting these orders was examined by two canon lawyers in Steinhäuser. Their unpublished reports are in the Vatican. Steinhäuser also suggested having additional orders checked. But Rome stopped him. Such a step should only be taken when Woelki has returned from his break, it said.
Steinhäuser also attracted attention with his communicative style, which was praised by several committees and associations. The representation of the Catholic lay people – the diocesan council – again proved to be more cooperative. Months earlier, the committee had terminated cooperation with the diocesan management. Even now, the Archbishopric can still hear how well the collaboration with Steinhäuser went. On the other hand, Woelki, who resumed his official duties on March 2, must continue to receive criticism – for example, due to the unclear funding of a university that two years ago was sponsored by a foundation set up by the archdiocese.
Steinhäuser, however, is hardly in the center of public attention anymore. As was his custom, he performed with Woelki at services during holy days and Easter days. Observers, however, consider it unlikely that the cool relationship between the two has changed. The cardinal and he did not exactly have a friendship, Steinhäuser said shortly before the end of his term as interim administrator. “It’s a much more matter-of-fact relationship.” When he became auxiliary bishop under Woelki in 2016, Steinhäuser was surprised. “I need a stake and miter now so I can believe I’m a bishop,” he said at the time. Just two years earlier, he had had to undergo serious heart surgery.
Responsible for Cologne, Leverkusen and the Rhein-Erft district
As auxiliary bishop, Steinhäuser fits the pastoral area of Mitte with Cologne and its world-famous cathedral, with Leverkusen and the Rhein-Erft district. He is also responsible for ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. In 2020, together with Cologne’s rabbi Yechiel Brukner, he presented plans for a new work of art at Cologne Cathedral on the relationship between Jews and Christians. “We did not stand still, we continued together and approached each other,” he said of the rapprochement between the two religious communities.
The pastor puts heart and soul into mission initiatives. He will not find himself in the Christian faith reaching out to fewer and fewer. As city dean of Düsseldorf, Steinhäuser tried to address those far from the church with “Missional Düsseldorf”: During the 2009 eleven-day campaign, about 70 priests took to the streets with lay people to talk to passers-by about faith. That is why Steinhäuser chose the missionary motto as the episcopal motto: “Open the doors to Christ!”
For almost two decades he was the face and voice of the Catholic Church in Düsseldorf. There he got a former Franciscan monastery in the old town extended to a culture and meeting center – as a point of contact for “townspeople on religious search”. For him, modern urban pastoralism also includes “helping people in need” – especially in the glittering world of Kö and Co. “In the city of Düsseldorf, wealth and open poverty meet very hard,” Steinhäuser once said, referring to. the beggars, the homeless and drug addicts. With his commitment, the Rhinelander knows that he is completely in line with the pope: “Francis says we must go to the edge, reach out to all.”
“You must have a genuine interest in people”
In 2010, the theologian became politically involved in the controversy over the crosses of the new Düsseldorf courthouse. He vehemently contradicted the view that the Christian symbol was contrary to the state’s requirement of neutrality. On the contrary, it refers to the human image on which the Constitution is based. Eventually, Steinhäuser and the evangelical superintendent reached a compromise: a cross was hung in court. However, it is not in a courtroom but in the office of the President of the High Court.
Steinhäuser handles complex situations like this with perseverance and openness. This probably helped him during his time as an apostolic administrator. He spoke about this office in February last year during an event at the Karl Rahner Academy in Cologne. There were also two sentences that serve as a program for his self-image as a priest. Asked how he was able to enter into a dialogue in the archdiocese in less than five months, the auxiliary bishop replied, “You must have a genuine interest in people. You must like people.”
By Anita Hirschbeck and Andreas Otto (KNA)