Cardinal Frings

"Fringsen"- how a cardinal sanctioned emergency theft

It was bitterly cold in Cologne on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1946. On this 31st December, the Archbishop and Cardinal Josef Frings gave his end-of-year sermon in the Church of St. Engelbert in the District of Riehl. He spoke about the ten commandments but, when he came to the seventh commandment “Thou shalt not steal", he said: "We live in times when a person in dire straits should be able to take something necessary to maintain his life and his health if he or she is unable to achieve it in another way by work or by begging."

At this moment, a new word was born, which made his name immortal: “fringsen”, i.e. a verb meaning to steal out of dire need. The Archbishop had been in office since 1942 but had worked as a pastor in Cologne for 23 years on and off, and was extremely popular with the people of his diocese – never more so than following this sermon.
Frings gave his sermon in a time of extreme deprivation. In March 1945, Cologne was a wasteland of rubble due to air raids and fierce battles, and it was full of refugees from the East. For everyone who still lived there, survival was all about covering their basic needs: Eating, drinking, heating. For decades, there had not been such a cold winter – between December 1946 and March 1947, the temperature at eight o’clock in the morning was below freezing for 64 days.

In this emergency situation, many Cologne residents “organized” freight cars and trucks to bring coal for heating from the mines of the Ruhr. Rumours had spread among the population that the majority of coal mined in Germany was being diverted abroad by the Allies – a false assertion, but one that people were only too happy to believe as justification for helping themselves.
Then came Frings’ New Year’s Eve sermon. The news that stealing coal had been deemed if not approved at least sanctioned by the highest holy office spread through the city like wildfire. The local dialect coined a new word for this special form of self-help, referring to it as “fringsen”.

However, they tended to ignore the words spoken by the cardinal immediately after those famous sentences: "But I think that in many cases people have gone far beyond that. And there is only one path open to them: Return the stolen goods immediately without delay, otherwise there will be no forgiveness from God.”
Frings instantly came into conflict with the British occupation forces. Their leader, Regional Commissioner William Asbury, sent word from Düsseldorf that the sermon had been misunderstood. He claimed that it could be understood by the population as an invitation to "take the law into their own hands". He therefore demanded a public clarification.

Naturally, the Archbishop was not a man to back down. Even the Nazis had failed to intimidate him – even though the German newspapers had not reported his ceremonial investiture in 1942 on the instructions of the Ministry of Propaganda and he had been monitored by the Gestapo.

"I did not think that this sentence that would cause such a fuss among the civilian population," said Frings, before adding laconically: "What I said is the teaching of Catholic moral theology. I myself would get briquettes from the wagons if I had no heating material.”
Asbury found this reaction just as irritating as the sermon itself. They agreed a date for a meeting: Friday, 16th January 1947 at 3 pm in Asbury's office at the Stahlhof in Düsseldorf. When Frings arrived on time, Asbury was not yet there; a colonel informed Frings that he would be there any minute.

After waiting for just quarter of an hour, the cardinal stood up and offered his best regards to the governor. He beckoned to his chauffeur: "Drive off as fast as you can, it couldn't go any better!" He was not invited to a further meeting.
According to the research by Josef van Elten, employee in the historical archives of the Archdiocese of Cologne, there’s a lot to suggest that Frings uttered his famous sentences deliberately. The many corrections and edits to the handwritten version of his sermon show that "he struggled long and hard with the formulations". And he was not sure whether he acted correctly, according to van Elten: "The serious consequences, the dispute with the authorities, his popularity among the people reflected by the use of his name as a verb, made Frings reflect on whether his words of New Year's Eve in 1946 were really the right thing to do."

The cardinal remained in office until 1969 and died, highly respected in his city, in 1978 at the age of 91 – when the deprivation of the immediate post-war period was long forgotten. His message is still relevant today, however, said the current Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki: "The cardinal was aware of the people's distress. And people are always the main priority.”


Source: (Status: 31.12.2016), "„Fringsen“ – When a cardinal permitted the theft of food for personal consumption"
Author: Antonia Kleikamp


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