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Obituaries

Cardinal Franz Koenig, 98; Helped Set Postwar Policy at the Vatican

March 15, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Cardinal Franz Koenig, a church diplomat who helped set Vatican policy toward other religions and postwar communist regimes, died Saturday. He was 98.

Austrian radio reported that Koenig died in his sleep in Vienna. No precise cause of death was given.

The famed Pummerin bell in Vienna's downtown St. Stephen's Cathedral rang Saturday morning in honor of Koenig, who was widely revered in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Austria even after his age-mandated retirement in 1985.

"He was long a moral authority in our country, open to cooperation with all people of goodwill," President Thomas Klestil said Saturday. "He worked for Christian spiritual renewal in Europe and to build bridges with our neighbors. I have lost a fatherly counselor."

Pope John Paul II sent a message of condolence praising Koenig for "his work for peace and reconciliation far beyond the borders of his homeland" and for showing "remarkable concern in supporting believers in Eastern Europe during the unfortunate political division of the continent."

Koenig is known to have facilitated the papal nomination of Polish-born Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978. At the time, he once recalled, Poland's top churchman voiced misgivings that the pontiff-to-be was "too young and too little-known."

Koenig was Vienna's archbishop from 1956 until 1958, when Pope John XXIII elevated him to cardinal. He was president of the papal Secretariat for Non-Believers from 1966 to 1981 and played a key role in preparations for the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

Born on Aug. 3, 1905, in the Lower Austria village of Rabenstein, Koenig studied at the Gregoriana papal university in Rome and later at its Bible Institute, where he specialized in old Persian languages and religion.

He earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1930 and another in theology in 1936, three years after being ordained priest.

After years as a chaplain and teacher during World War II, Koenig became a professor in Krems, Austria, in 1945 and a university professor in Salzburg in 1948. His many publications included a three-volume work titled, "Christ and the Earth's Religions." Dispatched by Pope John XXIII, Koenig in 1963 became the first Catholic prelate to visit Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who had taken refuge at the U.S. Legation in Budapest after the Soviets crushed a 1956 uprising. Subsequent visits ultimately led to Mindszenty's departure to the West.

After that journey, Koenig also visited Poland and Romania and later the Orthodox Church of Serbia.

Koenig's funeral was scheduled for March 27.

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