My Tribute to Auxiliary Bishop Dr. Bernd Uhl

I miss Bernd.

There are many wonderful online tributes to Auxiliary Bishop Dr. Bernd Uhl, for example:

From the Archdiocese of Freiburg,

From the Konradsblatt (weekly diocesan magazine of the Archdiocese of Freiburg),

I can only confirm all the good things that the tributes say about the priest, theologian, canon, member of the archbishop’s council, and bishop Dr. Bernd Uhl. However, beyond all that, I miss my good friend. I had so hoped that I could enjoy his entertaining and intelligent company for many more years to come.

I remember his kindness during our mutual time in the chancery office as well as after retirement, specifically his acts of kindness. I remember the chocolates on my birthday and at Christmas. I remember his constant encouragement.

I always considered him a friend, but my definition of friendship may not match expectations in Germany. As an American in Germany, I never really understood or integrated myself into the two-class system of forms of address in Germany, i.e. the formal you with surname (“Sie” as address) and the familiar you with first name for friends (“du” as address). The “du”-form is similar but not quite the same thing as being on a first-name basis in the U.S. The “du” has more emotional baggage, i.e. it often means more to the person who offers it.

As for me, both forms of address always turned into “you” in my mind when I heard them. I can’t always remember if I am on a “du” or a “Sie” basis with someone. I also always considered anyone who treated me well to be a friend, my feeling being “do me one favor/kindness, and you have a friend for life; screw me over even once, and you are dead meat for all eternity”. I’m loyal.

Every morning when I went to work in the chancery office, I had to remind myself with whom I was on a “du” status and with whom “Sie” so that I didn’t use the wrong form of address and incorrect verbs by mistake. There are various rules for who decides which basis is allowed. Generally and theoretically, only the older person can offer the younger person “du” as a form of address, but people of equal status and approximately equal age can freely suggest a “du” relationship to each other. However, there is also a hierarchical and a status element involved. The 60-year-old secretary can’t offer her 40-year-old boss “du” as a form of address.

In a work environment, especially in a highly bureaucratic structure, things get messy, higher-ups often not wanting to show even the faintest hint favoritism to individual subordinates.

Although we got along spectacularly, my first boss, Dr. Hundsnurscher, director of the archdiocesan archives and library, didn’t offer me the “du” until long after he retired. That didn’t matter to me; he always was and remained my wonderful boss from the day I first met him. No matter what went on, I knew he had my back.

Bernd was just as loyal a supporter of the library and of my efforts. I trusted him, and this trust was never betrayed. He was also generous in his praise and gratitude. He was kindness personified.

Bernd was a voice of reason and sanity in the chancery office.

Bernd offered me the “du” in the fall of 2022. I can only hope I fulfilled any expectations that he might have hoped for. He was one of my favorite people in the chancery office. I honestly admired and liked him. He was compassionate and thoughtful (unfortunately often an exception in this particular workplace), simply put, one of the good guys of this world.

Before I reflect on specific memories, I’ll add one explanatory note. I include the real names of the good people I was privileged to encounter in the chancery office in Freiburg. The villains of the story will remain anonymous (a variation on the Dragnet saying, in this case, “to protect the guilty”).

I worked for a year in the archdiocesan archives (from 1973-1974), another long story. Dr. Franz Hundsnurscher, my wonderful boss, then managed to get me a job in the newly formed archdiocesan library in 1976. From 1974 to 1976 my husband and I earned our respective masters degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

From 1976 to 2008 the offices and open stacks of the archdiocesan library were located in the architecturally impressive chancery office building on the ground floor, room number 6. We had a little corner there in back of the bookshelves with a few tables where people could read newspapers and magazines.

Bernd was from Karlsruhe and often came into the library to read the Badische Neueste Nachrichten, the Karlsruhe paper. After his parents moved into his canon’s residence in the Herrenstraße, his father also came to our library to read the paper.

Bernd was ordained a priest at the age of 28 in 1974, the same year he completed his dissertation. He started his career in the chancery office in 1977. The then vicar general, Dr. Schlund, had wisely chosen Bernd from a number of young priests as a potential successor. He wanted Bernd to learn the chancery office inside out, from the bottom to the top. Bernd, conscientious and hard-working by nature, achieved this goal quickly and easily.

However, things didn’t quite work out the way Vicar General Dr. Schlund planned.

I need to add one more bit of background information. Dr. Schlund and Dr. Hundsnurscher were both so good to me, unbelievably and consistently generous with their appreciation, praise, and support. Unfortunately, for reasons I never understood, they both despised each other with a passion. This resulted in numerous conflicts that sometimes involved the library.

Bernd had the well deserved reputation of being painstakingly honest in all regards and under all circumstances as well as being unfailingly courteous. I often thought that this might come from having his parents live with him. So many of the priests in the chancery office either live alone or have housekeepers who worship the ground they walk on. My theory is that Bernd’s parents kept him grounded in the real world. He had absolutely no delusions of grandeur or importance, not even after his consecration as bishop.

He was responsible for many different areas in the chancery office and Archdiocese of Freiburg, communications, public relations, press and publications, and finally, the area closest to his heart, the Catholic charities. Due to his public relations responsibilities, he became the face of the Archdiocese of Freiburg, something that was no doubt noted in Vatican circles.

However, he also got saddled with extra tasks in the chancery office, over and over again.

From its grudging beginnings in 1975, the library always had to justify its existence in the chancery office. Before 1975, there were just books lying around in all the offices, in the archives, and in the storerooms. Back in the bad, old days, when the people in the finance department didn’t have enough real work to do, one persistent employee took it upon himself to prove that the library was throwing away the chancery office’s money. Instead of doing something useful, he would pore over every bill the library submitted, pondering every title before deciding that certain books were unnecessary purchases. Then he ran to the vicar general with the bill and complained bitterly.

Dr. Hundsnurscher had been burdened with the responsibility for the library when it was founded (with the explanation that a library contained paper, just like the archives), and he delighted in getting his revenge by having the library purchase books that the finance department wouldn’t like. There is a German phrase about making the billy goat your gardener (more loosely and accurately translated as “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse”), which he quoted fairly often. He often asked the library to purchase valuable books, many of which were then only available in our library for researchers in Freiburg.

After Dr. Hundsnurscher had the library purchase a book of photographs of Greek sculptures entitled “Homosexuality in Greek Antiquity”, and the finance department minion ran howling to the vicar general, the vicar general struck back with the typical weapon of a bureaucracy. He established a commission that was to approve every book before the library could order it.

Bernd was named chairman of this commission which was made up of three other members, one lawyer, one elderly priest, and one representative of the school department (another long story; in Germany religion is taught in the public schools, and the church offices have the last word about what gets taught and who teaches it. This necessitates its own bureaucracy.). I had to attend commission meetings, not as a member, but as a lowly clerk who was to write down which books the library would be allowed to purchase.

The commission met once a month, and each meeting was a colossal waste of time, non-stop bickering for an hour and a half to two hours. The lawyer said the departments needed the newest legal books to keep the archdiocese from being sued. The school department theologian wanted the newest theology works. The elderly priest was against the library spending any money and always asked if we couldn’t just wait and see if someone might not give us books as a present. After about a year and a half of this nonsense, Bernd wrote a long report to the vicar general, recommending dissolution of the commission since the books the library wanted to purchase turned out to be justified. I was able to persuade Dr. Hundsnurscher to lay low with his book recommendations for a while.

Around the end of the 20th century, the archdiocesan library got a wonderfully generous offer from the university library in Freiburg. It would let our library join its network, have our books included in the university library’s online catalog, and use its cataloging software. All we had to do was pay for a separate telephone landline, a ridiculously small amount of money, about $20.00 a month. The new vicar general appointed a commission to decide whether we should be allowed to take this offer. Bernd again was named chairman. I made a detailed report of all the benefits our library would enjoy and the minimal costs involved. At the official meeting, two backstabbers didn’t support me, one of whom actively objected, claiming that costs might increase in the future, and the other one passively said nothing. Fortunately, Bernd said he would support the proposal, because he thought it sounded like a good idea.

Our catalog has now been included in the Freiburg university online library catalog since 2001, benefiting everyone who ever sought a book that can be found in our library.

In the year 2000 the Archdiocese of Freiburg had one archbishop and two auxiliary bishops. Archbishop Saier then requested a third auxiliary bishop, saying that he had health issues and needed the additional assistance. The Vatican consented, and we all wondered who the new bishop would be. Auxiliary bishops in Freiburg get named by the Vatican, unlike the archbishop, who is elected by the bishop’s council from a list of three sent by the Vatican.

So, speculation about the new bishop was a constant topic in the chancery office grapevine. Bernd mentioned to people offhand, that he couldn’t predict who the next auxiliary bishop would be, but he could only be certain that it wouldn’t be him.

Bernd had many talents. Predicting the future wasn’t one of them. The announcement of his selection came around the end of March, 2001. He was consecrated a bishop on May 1, 2001, which didn’t give him or the organizers much time. For his motto on his bishop’s coat of arms, he chose “Caritas Cum Fide”, loosely translated as “charity combined with faith”. Work with the Catholic Charities, which had always had the highest importance to him, would be the major focus of his time as bishop.

For his bishop’s ring, he wanted something that would symbolize acts of charity, and chose roses, referencing the legend of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary who secretly tried to bring bread to the poor, by hidding it under her cloak. When she got caught, she said she was only carrying roses (in the middle of winter), and miraculously the bread crumbs under her cloak turned to roses. What Bernd didn’t consider, and what none of his fellow bishops bothered to warn him about, was that as a bishop, he would often end up shaking many people’s hands, an action that made his fingers rub against each other. The sharp, metal edges of the roses petals engraved on his ring tore the skin off the neighboring fingers and left him bleeding until the sharp edges finally wore down in time.

Obviously, the job as bishop had its ups and downs.

Once he was a member of the German Bishops’ Conference, he took on responsibility for ecology and became an early expert on global warming. Conferences with worldwide experts meant that he had many trips to foreign countries. Every now and then he would ask for help with his pronunciation of English-language texts, but that was completely unnecessary. He was fluently multi-lingual.

He had relatives in Los Angeles and took part in one Bishops’ Conference fact-finding trip to northern California under the leadership of Bishop Marx, then bishop of Trier, who later became Cardinal Marx of Munich and chairman of the Bishops’ Conference. I enjoyed discussions about Bernd’s impressions of the U.S. His conclusions were benevolent, analytical, and spot on.

In November, 2006, Bernd celebrated his 60th birthday with a gathering of exactly 60 guests in the restaurant that was then in the Kolpinghaus. He had a large circle of friends and there were many people he had dealings with as a bishop, and so I was amazed that I got an invitation. I certainly didn’t expect one. In the invitation, he specifically requested that anyone who wanted to give him a present should donate the money they wanted to spend instead to the Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Freiburg.

It was a wonderful party with an excellent buffet, many speeches, wonderful music, including a fantastic singer. As a side note, it was fascinating to see which higher-ups from the chancery office were not present.

Music was always important to Bernd. He had a sonorous voice that reminded me of Carl Sagan. He sang beautifully and could easily have earned his living as a professional piano player. He said once that he only considered himself a hobby musician, though, since he couldn’t practice more than four hours a day.

One of my efforts to add a little American culture to the German chancery office in Freiburg was baking and distributing chocolate chip cookies twice a year (on my birthday and at Christmas). Bernd and his mother took a liking to my cookies and always praised them effusively, something I appreciated.

I looked forward to every opportunity to talk to him in the chancery office. He was a very thoughtful and entertaining conversationalist. Unfortunately, once he became an auxiliary bishop, he wasn’t in the chancery office as often as before. He had many more tasks outside the building.

When his parents’ health began to fail, first his father’s, and then his mother’s, he got them a placement in the Protestant nursing home around the corner from his residence in the Herrenstraße. By this time in the region of Baden in Germany, denominational differences no longer played a role with any church. The archbishop of Freiburg and the Protestant bishop for the Baden region have long since both agreed that with respect to denominational rivalry, the “clocks run differently”, i.e. harmoniously here.

When Bernd wasn’t on the road for his bishop’s duties, he always ate meals with his parents and spent all his free time with them. His father died in 2013, a huge loss for Bernd. He often talked about how his father always took him to soccer games as a child and to church every Sunday. After Bernd’s parents moved to Freiburg, Bernd’s father made the seminary church across the street from the chancery office his favorite church, the place where he found his new spiritual home.

Unfortunately, Bernd was hit with all kinds of health issues. Kidney cancer in 2002 resulted in his losing a kidney, which, however, didn’t incapacitate him. However, it did mean that he had to watch his nutrition and his health carefully. In 2013 he suffered his first bout of leukemia. Fortunately, the treatments with the harsh side-effects worked, and in 2014 he was in remission. He soldiered on with all his bishop’s tasks. In 2017 he was diagnosed with leukemia again and additionally with lymphoma. This time he decided to retire, which he was allowed to do in 2018. He wanted to recover as quickly and as completely as possible because his mother’s health was taking a serious turn for the worse.

The treatments worked again, and in 2018 he was in remission. When he retired that year, he moved into the assisted living section of the Protestant nursing home his mother was in, around the corner from the residence in the Herrenstraße. The balcony of his apartment provided an excellent view of the cathedral, something he had never had in the Herrenstraße. When Covid arrived in 2020, and visitors’ access to nursing homes was highly restricted, he was still able to spend hours with his mother since his apartment was in the same facility.

His mother died in 2021, and in the fall of 2022 Bernd was again diagnosed with lymphoma. Despite six rounds of chemotherapy, he wasn’t able to defeat the disease this time and died alone in his apartment in the nursing home on January 22, 2023.

I visited him in his assisted living apartment a few times after he moved there (Covid made this impossible and irresponsible in 2020 and most of 2021), and we were often in touch.

It was wonderful talking to him. He was highly intelligent, educated, and well-read as well as very interested in everything going on around him.

We never really discussed any theological topics. He did mention once that when he had trouble sleeping, often during and after his cancer treatments, he used the time to pray. He also said he kept an extensive diary. I pleaded with him to make sure that the archdiocesan archives would inherit it, since he said he included many comments about events in the chancery office.

However, he also enjoyed exchanging information from the chancery office. We often had heard different things since we had different sources.

Although he wasn’t a fan of science fiction, he always encouraged my writing efforts and tried to read my published stories. He only gave up on “hard science fiction” like “Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow”.

He sent me an e-mail on January 12, 2023, in which he said his blood work was now good again with no more cancer cells detected. His doctors said he could stop the chemotherapy. Bernd said he just needed to get his strength back and was looking forward to all the things he could now plan for the spring and summer of 2023. I was so relieved and happy that I forgot that Bernd was never very good at predicting the future.

Rest in peace, Bernd. You made the universe a better and kinder place for me and so many others.

Bernd’s bishop’s coat of arms:

Photo: Bernd and his mother in the nursing home


About maryjorabe

retired librarian, science fiction fan and writer
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