Ministering to a bishop’s ailing mother in a Salzburg, Austria, hospital. Encouraging missionaries gathered from three different missions. And recalling the memories of Germany’s Görlitz Branch, where a Latter-day Saint apostle a half-century earlier promised all the blessings of the restored gospel despite the branch’s location deep behind the Iron Curtain.
Through those experiences and others of his April 11-29 assignment in Germany and Austria, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles found a common thread — “that the gospel, the plan of salvation and the promises given to those who live by the covenants bring great peace to the heart,” he said.
That peace can be found at all times and in moments of disappointment or uncertainty — whether one feels isolated, one wonders if missionary efforts are accepted of the Lord, or one reflects on life as it comes to a close, he said.
“This feeling that we have done everything we can,” Elder Uchtdorf said, “should give not only the peace we talk about at funerals but also the peace in normal-life situations.”
The assignment returned Elder Uchtdorft and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, to their homeland. “There is a palpable sense of excitement among the members and missionaries whenever Elder and Sister Uchtdorf come to Europe,” said Elder Gary B. Sabin, a General Authority Seventy and counselor in the Europe Area presidency who accompanied them as they went from Salzburg to Germany’s Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Dresden, Berlin and Görlitz.
The Uchtdorfs learned, while attending a Salzburg Ward sacrament meeting, that Bishop Elischa M. Grünauer’s aged mother was hospitalized. But Bishop Grünauer was hesitant to impose on the visitors. “I said, ‘Bishop, you should know that is why we are here,’ ” said Elder Uchtdorf, emphasizing the focus on ministering.
“I was overwhelmed by the endless love I felt when Elder Uchtdorf suggested to visit my mother in the hospital,” Bishop Grünauer told the Church News. “He had never met my mother before. But he was so compassionate with her situation. It felt just like the Savior Himself as He was going around doing good — doing good to people he never met before.”
At peace with the prospects of passing, Isabella Grünauer seemed more interested in having her grandchildren meet the attending apostle. Her husband, Markus Grünauer, however, was struggling with accepting the inevitable, wondering if he had done all possible for his wife as a husband and priesthood holder. “I hoped an apostle could make the difference,” he told Elder Uchtdorf.
Said Markus Grünauer of the experience: “I secretly hoped it might be possible that Elder Uchtdorf would find time to visit and give a blessing to my seriously ill wife, Isabella. … I was very surprised when Elder Uchtdorf knocked on the door of the hospital room and asked if he could come in.
“He showed a special love and caring for my seriously ill wife, taking over a half hour to talk to her, to take her by the hand and even to offer to give her a priesthood blessing,” Markus said. “It was a special honor for me to join hands with an apostle. We were all very moved and thankful for this special experience.”
Touched and near tears as he recounted the experience, Elder Uchtdorf reminded Markus that the two men held the same priesthood and then found words and ways to comfort, console and encourage both wife and husband. Markus soon recognized that his priesthood blessings for Isabella had indeed extended her life and alleviated much of her suffering.
“Now I know I have tried everything — it is the Lord’s will,” he said, as recalled by Elder Uchtdorf. “Whatever comes now is good.”
The apostle added: “He felt at peace.”
Elder and Sister Uchtdorf met with three missions on as many days — the Alpine German-Speaking Mission in Salzburg and the Frankfurt Germany and Berlin Germany missions in their respective headquarters city. Each gathering totaled just shy of 200 missionaries.
Elder Uchtdorf underscored the importance of continuing to learn the German language and speaking with confidence. “Have the confidence that you are speaking for the Savior as a representative and disciple,” he charged, “so that even if your language is not good, you can say what you have in your heart. … Trust in the Lord that He will fill in the empty places, and the Spirit will do the rest.”
He encouraged the missionaries to be creative in contacting and effective in listening, as well as to communicate spirit to spirit and find common ground. Europeans know the basics of religion, he said, so missionaries should teach the basics and remind and reconnect others to those basics.
“It was especially tender for the missionaries in Frankfurt to hear Sister Uchtdorf tell her conversion story as a young girl living in Frankfurt,” said Elder Sabin. “It gave the missionaries a renewed sense of purpose.”
The Uchtdorfs also made an unexpected appearance at the Europe Area mission leadership seminar being held at the same Frankfurt hotel where they were staying.
“All 26 mission presidents and their wives were gathered in Frankfurt to begin their mission leadership conference for the 38 countries they cover in Europe, and Elder Uchtdorf surprised them, much to their delight,” Elder Sabin said. “His message was very uplifting regarding their calling and purpose and that success is a matter of the heart as opposed to numerical.”
While in Frankfurt and on the eve before Easter Sunday, the Uchtdorfs participated in a regional Face to Face broadcast to all German-speaking members, answering submitted questions. They were joined by Elder Sabin and Area Seventies Elder Michael Cziesla, Elder Thomas Hänni, Elder Markus Zarse and Elder Helmut Wondra.
Sister Uchtdorf spoke on unity among members and Elder Uchtdorf on missionary work. “This was a wonderful meeting encouraging the Saints how to share the gospel in a normal and natural way,” Elder Sabin said.
Walking from a bishop’s office in the building to the podium for the broadcast, Elder Uchtdorf noticed two items — a Lindt chocolate bunny and a small Christus statue.
“So, I took them both to the pulpit and said, ‘These special events in Christianity, in our religious life and in our Church life — let them shine to the outside,’ ” he recalled, then posing a question while holding the two objects in outstretched hands: “This weekend, are we focusing more on the bunny, or on the Savior?”
Missionaries arrived in Görlitz in 1899 and soon established a branch; after World War II, the city found just inside what then was the German Democratic Republic, just west of the Oder River separating East Germany from Poland.
Görlitz is well-known in Latter-day Saint history as the branch then-Elder Thomas S. Monson visited on Nov. 10, 1968, offering the members isolated behind the Iron Curtain what seemed to be an impossible promise: “If you remain faithful to the commandments of God,” he said, “every blessing which the members of the Church enjoy in other countries will be yours, too.”
Little by little, those blessings came — the arrival of missionaries, the calling of local members to serve missions and the longed-for patriarchal blessings. Then in the mid-1980s, a temple was built in Freiburg, followed a few years later by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist era in Europe.
In 1995, Elder Uchtdorf — then a General Authority Seventy — accompanied President Monson — then a counselor in the First Presidency — for the dedication of a new meetinghouse in Gorlitz. Then as a counselor in the First Presidency in 2015, President Uchtdorf returned to commemorate the meetinghouse’s 20th year.
For their recent visit, the Uchtdorfs joined the branch — now celebrating the 120th anniversary of its existence — for a sacrament meeting and branch conference. “It was very emotional and special to be there, to see these members again,” Elder Uchtdorf said, adding, “I looked into a lot of familiar faces — and a lot of new faces.”
Similar to his planting a rose bush on the meetinghouse property during his visit four years ago, Elder Uchtdorf was invited to commemorate the branch’s 120th year by planting a yellow-flowering bush in German called “ginster” (also known as ulex or gorse).
Gathered with the branch members were members from both Germany and Poland and mission presidents from Berlin and Warsaw. “For me, it is always a symbol of the power of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ — even in the most difficult circumstances … the gospel binds you together,” Elder Uchtdorf said.
“There was a unity, a reconciliation in the highest degree because of the gospel and the Church,” he added. “Here you see a reconciliation in action because of gospel values and truths.”