German ex-Catholic head Cardinal Karl Lehmann dies at 81

BERLIN - Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the former head of Germany's Catholic Bishops Conference, has died. He was 81.

The Catholic group said in a statement that Lehmann died Sunday at his home in Mainz.

Lehmann had a stroke last September and in recent days, as his death seemed imminent, Catholics across the country had prayed for him.

"The church of Germany is bowing humbly in front of a personality who influenced the Catholic church worldwide," the current head of the Bishops Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, said in a statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she's very sad about Lehmann's death and called him one of the most prominent faces of the Catholic Church in Germany.

"I'm deeply grateful for our good conversations and meeting over the years," Merkel said. She called him "an exceptionally gifted mediator, between the German Catholics and Rome, in the spirit of the economical movement between the Christian churches, but also between Christians and believers of other religions."

Lehmann was born on May 16, 1936 in the southwestern German town of Sigmaringen. He was a professor of theology and appointed as Bishop of Mainz in 1983.

As president of the German Bishop's Conference, he led the country's more than 23 million Catholics for 20 years.

His funeral Mass is set for March 21 at the Mainz Cathedral.

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