Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19
In the Frail Care Section of the Mission House in Limburg, in the late afternoon of 12 January 2018, the staff were taken by complete surprise by the sudden death of Rev. Father Johannes Rankel S.A.C.
He was 87 years old, had been a Pallottine for 58 years and a priest for 54 years.
Johannes Rankel was born on 26 October 1930 in Fürstenberg (today known as Eisenhütten-Stadt), in Guben District (or: County), in the Archdiocese of Breslau, Silesia. He and his six siblings were the children of the glass-maker-master August Rankel and his wife, Gertrud, née Tyborski. In the February of 1945 the family were expelled from their home in Silesia, and sought refuge in the town of Erms¬leben, in the Harz: a low mountain range in the Central Uplands of Germany. It was here that Johannes completed his primary education and was accepted as an apprentice to a baker. As a result of his activities in a Catholic Youth Group he incurred the displeasure of the Russian [post-war] Occupation Force and was condemned to several weeks in prison. He, however, succeeded in escaping, his route taking him via Berlin to Kiel and from there to Neuss, a large town opposite the major city of Düssel¬dorf, on the west side of the River Rhine. He was able to get work there and joined the Kolping Family. His family had, in the meantime, been able to move from the Harz and had found accommodation in Limburg on the Lahn River, where his father had found employment in a glass factory. In Limburg, the Rankels got to know and felt greatly attracted to the Pallottines. Together with his younger brother Paul, he applied for admission to the Pallottine High School, named after the great pioneer Pallottine Bishop in Cameroon: Bishop Heinrich Vieter. Fr Paul Rankel, as a missionary priest, also worked in South Africa, and at retirement age returned to Germany where he died on 11 October 2010. A third brother of theirs also entered the Pallottine Noviciate in Olpe, but felt himself called in another direction: after the novitiate he became a monk in the Trappist Monastery “Mariawald”.
Johannes was deeply impressed by the sermons given by Pallottine Father, Ernst Paul Rummel, and by his con-versations with Fr Rummel in Vallendar/Schönstatt. Having completed his high school studies at the Bishop Vieter College, he enter¬ed the Novitiate in Olpe, Westphalia, and began his novitiate on 1 May 1957. His first consecra¬tion followed on 25 April 1959 and finally, on 16 July 1963, he, together with his brother, Fr Paul Rankel, was ordained priest in Vallendar.
But there was never a doubt in his mind regarding the road ahead: his desire was to become a missionary priest. His superiors first sent him to England to learn English. Subsequently, he completed the training course in Pastoral Theology in in the Pastoral Theology Institute in Friedberg, gaining practical pastoral experience in the Parish of Saint Peter Canisius in Augsburg. He sailed from Antwerp, Netherlands, on the Steamship “Table Bay” on 9 June 1965. Drama awaited him, however, on his voyage, as the “Table Bay” was involved in a collision with a Swedish cargo ship in the English Channel. As a consequence, a great amount of time was lost, and to boot, Johannes was landed with a broken leg. Resulting from this, his first place of residence in South Africa was in the Pallottine Sisters’ Hospital (which, many years later, became the highly regarded “Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital”) in Pinelands, Cape Town. After his treatment in the in the Pinelands hospital, he was moved to Oudtshoorn to study Afrikaans. His first missionary assignment was the small town of Calvinia in the Great Karoo. There was, as yet, no presby¬tery there, so he had to begin by renting a small dwelling for himself. His enthu¬siasm and zeal knew no bounds as he laid the foundations for his missionary parish. Together with mem¬bers of this parish community he learned to make bricks… bricks: how? Making and burning bricks in a place, Calvinia, where it had not rained for five years! Heaven knows how he did it.
With the work in Calvinia not nearly completed—there still was much to do—he was transferred to Dysselsdorp, a small town 25 km east of Oudtshoorn. Since the early part of the 20th Century there had always been Pallottines, priests and brothers, and the Pallottine Sisters, in the Oudtshoorn area. This was “Pallottine territory”. Johannes, always the practical man, did not allow the grass to grow under his feet: he set about over¬coming the water and electrical problems in this very dry area of the Little Karoo.
The next thing was the construction of a Church. Johannes was never a minimalist, doing only what was absolutely necessary: the church he built was dedicated to Saint Conrad of Parzham, and it was clear that the one who built it was looking far into the future: the church is large and is truly magnificent: it was consecrated in November 1975. Until then, the parish church in Dysselsdorp had been a small poky little prefab building which had been donated by the English Military Forces after the war. There followed a large building for adult educational and training purposes: it mattered not whether those coming to use the facilities there were Catholic or not: Johannes always had the well-being and the advancement of the so-called “Coloured” People very deeply at heart.
In his care for priestly vocations the then Pallottine Bishop of Oudtshoorn, Bishop Manfred Gott¬schalk, established a “Minor Seminary” in Dysselsdorp which he placed under the care of Fr Rankel. Johannes was untiring in his work: next to his parish work—never neglected—he devoted himself to the young people in the institute called “The Marianum” which offered additional educational training to young people. Then there was the Kolping Institute which offered train¬ing in manual labour skills. Fr Johannes was the Kolping “Praeses” [the Head Official of the Kolping Organisation] from 1969–1993; during this same period, he was the National Praeses in South Africa of Kolping from 1989–1993. In all the huge amount of work he achieved in the Mission, he was always deeply grateful—and he said so!—for the assistance he was given by donors in Germany, especially those belonging to the Kolping Family.
1993 brought a great change into his life: he was elected the Regional Rector of the Pallottine Priests and Brothers in South Africa and moved to the Pallotti Farm, situated 16,5 km outside of Queenstown. He did not sit on his hands for a moment, but soon set about enlarging the facilities used for training and educa¬tion. Buildings for training courses in spirituality or apostolic formation or other purposes, but also for the use of other groups who were not religious in nature: this became an important source of income for the Pallotti Farm. The only restriction was that these facilities were under no circumstance to be used for gatherings of a political nature. Johannes Rankel arguably left his mark on the Pallotti Farm more indelibly than any single other person before him.
For the well-being of his spirit he was able to build something that he had probably thought and prayed about for many, many years: he built a “Hermitage”, which consisted of a chapel and a small one-room dwelling about one or two kilometres from the main farm buildings, in the alone-ness of farm land in a slightly elevated place. Here he was, both in the chapel and outside of it, able to look out over beauty of the farm land: here he was able to withdraw into prayerful solitude and peace…
In the case of one who has worked so hard and with such dedication as he did, it is clear that a human body and a human spirit can do just so much and not more. He was feeling the weakening of his human resources ever more inescapably when, in 2010, he asked to be allowed to transfer to the Frail Care Section of the Mission House Limburg, Germany. Here, it is said of him, he withdrew ever more into the inner, meditative, recesses of his soul. It was nevertheless a great surprise that he gave his carers when they found him lying lifeless in his armchair. He was as one who has just dozed off, as if falling asleep. It was indeed a sleep from which, in this world, he would not awaken again.
Fr Rankel was a person, a priest, of intense dedication. Having given himself to the following of Christ in the Mission of the Church he pursued this self-giving with total resolve. There was no turning back, no relaxation of the demands he made of himself. This was especially clear to those around him, his parishioners to whom he had been sent as their shepherd: his total dedication to people who had experienced the rough side and the injustice of an unjust political system. But never was he a mere social reformer who forgot what is the centre of the life of a priest: the celebration, daily, of the Holy Mass, the reading the Word of the Lord, his prayer in solitude
The Requiem Mass for Father Johannes Rankel will be celebrated in St Mary’s Church in the Mission House, Limburg, on Thursday, 18 January 2018, starting at 10h30, local time (11h30 South African Standard Time). The subsequent Interment in the Pallottine Cemetery in Limburg will follow the Requiem. I request all confreres to remember our Deceased Confrere in prayer, according what is laid down in the Provincial Statutes.
Given at Friedberg, 15 January 2018