VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican has appointed the archbishop of Berlin, seen by German media as part of a "new generation" of less dogmatic clergy, to take over the Cologne archdiocese, the largest and richest in Germany, it said on Friday.
The move makes Rainer Maria Woelki, who turns 58 next month, one of the most influential Roman Catholic cardinals and is an indication of the type of person Pope Francis wants to see in prominent Church roles.
Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper called him "the prototype of a new generation of bishops … not grumpy and dogmatic … these men speak of mercy and mean it. They're open to people, even their critics, to a point and have a heart for the disadvantaged. Still, they're theologically conservative."
Woelki is a Cologne native and served there for years under his retired predecessor, the staunchly conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner, before becoming bishop of Berlin in 2011.
When his Berlin appointment was announced, some politicians and Catholics in Berlin said he was too conservative for a city with such a large gay community, pointing to comments he had made that homosexuality was against “the order of creation”.
They also noted that he did his doctorate in theology at a pontifical university in Rome run by the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei.
But Woekli surprised Berliners by saying he respected all people and would gladly meet with gay activists.
A year later, in 2012, he said: "If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations."
Berlin's Alliance against Homophobia nominated him for its Respect Prize that year, an honor he politely declined by saying it was normal for a Christian to respect all people so he should not receive an award for it.
In July 2013, the newly elected Pope Francis changed the tone of Vatican comments on homosexuality in comments on the plane returning from a visit to Brazil, saying, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"
The German Catholic Church is one of the richest in the world and helps fund Vatican activities as well as missionary work in poor countries.
Its financial strength and long history of theologians and leading Church personalities, including the now retired Pope Benedict, give it considerable influence in the Vatican.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of Germany's other powerful archdiocese, Munich, is a member of the pope's group of cardinals working out proposed reforms for the worldwide Church.