Vatican City, Mar 12, 2018 / 12:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Monday Pope Francis sent condolences for the death of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the retired archbishop of Mainz, Germany, who died March 11.  

Expressing his condolences for the death of the prominent cardinal in a letter to Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz March 12, Francis said he learned of Cardinal Lehmann’s death “with pain,” and is praying for him “who the Lord has called to himself after a serious illness and suffering.”

Cardinal Lehmann, who served as the bishop of Mainz for nearly 33 years, died in his home on the morning of March 11 at the age of 81. He retired in 2016, and in September 2017 suffered a stroke which left his health in serious decline.

His funeral Mass will take place March 21 at the Mainz Cathedral.

Cardinal Lehmann served as president of the German bishops’ conference for 20 years. Pope Francis said that in this long period of activity he “helped shape the life of the Church and of society.”

“He always had a heart open to the questions and challenges of the times, and to offering answers and orientations starting from the message of Christ, to accompany people along their path, seeking what unites…” he continued.

Lehmann was born on May 16, 1936 and ordained a priest for the diocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany in 1963. He was appointed bishop of Mainz in 1983 and served until his retirement in 2016. He was made a cardinal by St. Pope John Paul II in 2001.

While bishop of Mainz, he became a member of the circle for dialogue between representatives of the German bishops’ conference and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

From March 1986-1988 he also became a member, and later president, of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue between the World Lutheran Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

Lehmann was at the center of numerous controversies involving the Vatican.

During his tenure as president of the German bishops’ conference he clashed with Pope John Paul II over abortion. After years of political conflict, first-trimester abortion became permissible in Germany in 1995, as long as a woman received counseling first from a state-approved counselor.

Lehmann supported the Church's participation in that counseling through church counseling centers, despite objections from Pope John Paul II. In 1998, the pope banned the Church’s participation in the state’s counseling system.

In 1993, Lehmann was also one of three German bishops, alongside Walter Kasper and Oskar Saier, who issued a pastoral letter arguing that there should be room to allow divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive communion “in particular situations.”

The bishops also proposed that the decision to receive the Eucharist should be left to the individual's judgment, in discussion with a priest.

Following the promulgation of the letter, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called the bishops to attend a series of meetings at the Vatican.

The CDF also issued a corrective letter in October 1994, reaffirming Church teaching that the divorced-and-civilly-remarried may not receive Holy Communion “as long as this situation persists,” unless the couple decides to live in continence.

In  2015 Lehmann was identified as having belonged to a group of progressive reformer cardinals, who are said to promoted alternative candidates at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, and are rumored to have promoted the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis.   

rnIt was dubbed the “St. Gallen Group,” after the host of their discussions, the Bishop of St. Gallen, Switzerland, Ivo Furer.

The group is said to have also included Cardinals Godfried Danneels, Walter Kasper, Ad van Luyn, and Achille Silvestrini, as well as the now-deceased Cardinals Basil Hume, Jose da Cruz Policarpo, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Carlo Martini, and Lubomyr Husar.  

It met primarily between 1995 and 2006, discussing various topics, including papal primacy.

The group's meetings were first revealed in an authorized biography of Cardinal Danneels. At the book's launch in Brussels in Sept. 2015, Danneels said the group called themselves “the mafia.”

In 2005 Lehmann participated in the papal conclave that elected Benedict XVI, and in the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis.