VIENNA -- Cardinal Franz Koenig, Austria's highest moral authority and a former trendsetter for Vatican policy toward other religions and postwar communist regimes, died yesterday. He was 98.
The famed Pummerin bell at St. Stephen Cathedral in Vienna rang solemnly yesterday morning in honor of Cardinal Koenig, who was widely revered in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Austria, even after his retirement in 1985.
He died in his sleep in Vienna, Austrian radio reported.
Pope John Paul II sent a message of condolence praising Cardinal 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."
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the current leader of the Austrian church, said he felt "a great and deep sorrow" over Cardinal Koenig's death.
"The many years of the presence and service of Cardinal Koenig were a gift for the church in Austria and around the world," Schoenborn told the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress.
"He was long a moral authority in our country, open to cooperation with all people of good will," said President Thomas Klestil. "He worked for Christian spiritual renewal in Europe and to build bridges with our neighbors. I have lost a fatherly counselor."
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel hailed Cardinal Koenig for having worked "to overcome borders in the Christian spirit, long before this topic became a part of the European agenda."
Cardinal Koenig twice was considered a candidate for pope, first in 1963 and again in 1978.
He is known to have facilitated the papal nomination of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the Polish prelate who became Pope John Paul II in 1978. At the time, Cardinal Koenig once recalled, Poland's top churchman voiced misgivings that the pontiff-to-be was "too young and too little known." Cardinal Koenig became Vienna's archbishop in 1956. Pope John XXIII elevated him to cardinal in 1958. The cardinal 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.
No other churchman enjoyed greater prestige or managed to penetrate Austria's cultural elite and public life.
A renowned church scholar, the multilingual cardinal felt as much at ease among foreign dignitaries, actors and scientists as he did with young people and trade union functionaries.
"He was a pillar of confidence and faith," former president Kurt Waldheim said in a telegram to Schoenborn yesterday. "For decades, all over the world, I have felt respect and affection for this good shepherd."
Born on Aug. 3, 1905, in the Lower Austrian village of Rabenstein, Cardinal Koenig studied at Gregorian 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, Cardinal 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."
In a move considered bold at the time, he participated in a conference in Bombay, India, with representatives of three non-Christian religions in 1964.
In 1960, Cardinal Koenig was surprisingly granted a visa by Yugoslavia's communist authorities to attend the funeral in Zagreb of Cardinal Alojze Stepinac, a Croatian. Cardinal Koenig's car was involved in a serious accident en route to the funeral, and he recalled waking in a hospital decorated with a huge portrait of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito.
By staring for days at Tito's portrait, Cardinal Koenig said, he conceived the idea that the archbishop of Vienna should do more for the churches behind the former Iron Curtain.
Dispatched by Pope John in 1963, Cardinal Koenig became the first Catholic prelate to visit Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the Hungarian church leader who had taken refuge at the US legation in Budapest after the Soviets crushed a 1956 uprising. Subsequent visits ultimately led to Mindszenty's departure to the West.
Cardinal Koenig also visited Poland and Romania and later the Orthodox Church of Serbia. In 1975, he visited Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Christian leader in Egypt. Three years later, he met in Damascus with Syria's Orthodox patriarch and in 1980 in Moscow with the leader of Armenia's apostolic Catholic church.
Cardinal Koenig's funeral is scheduled for March 27.