Meisner was born in Breslau, Germany (modern Wrocław, Poland). He studied in East Germany at in the seminary of Erfurt from 1959 to 1962, and was ordained a deacon on 8 April 1962. On 22 December 1962, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Josef Freusberg, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Fulda.
Between 1963 and 1975, Meisner served as chaplain at St. Giles Parish in Heiligenstadt and Holy Cross Parish in Erfurt. He also served as diocesan director of Caritas. During his pastoral ministry, he studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, earning his doctorate of theology in 1969.
In 1975, he was elected titular Bishop of Vina and auxiliary bishop to the Apostolic Administrator Erfurt-Meiningen. He was elected as a delegate to the Fourth Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in 1977, where he renewed a friendship with Karol Wojtyła, who in 1980 as Pope John Paul II appointed Meisner Bishop of Berlin and made him Cardinal-Priest of Santa Pudenziana in the consistory of 2 February 1983.
In 1988 after the death of Joseph Höffner, Meisner was named Archbishop of Cologne, a post he continued to hold until he retired. He was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 2005 papal conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI. Meisner was the bishop in charge for the XX. World Youth Day in August 2005 in the archdiocese in Cologne that attracted more than one million people.
On 18 September 2012, Meisner was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a Synod Father for the October 2012 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
In January 2013, two Catholic hospitals refused to provide a "morning after pill" to a rape victim based on Church policy that treats such medications as abortifacients. Meisner apologized and approved the use of some such pills for rape victims based on the belief that they prevented fertilization and did not induce abortion. He said that if "a medication that hinders conception is used after a rape with the purpose of avoiding fertilization, then this is acceptable in my view." The German Bishops' Conference endorsed his policy on 21 February, distinguishing between different types of morning after pills.
Meisner participated in the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis. At Pope Francis' inauguration, Meisner was one of the six cardinals who made the public act of obedience on behalf of the College of Cardinals.
On 25 December 2013, Cardinal Meisner turned 80 and lost the right to participate in future conclaves and he submitted his resignation, which Pope Francis accepted on 28 February 2014. Diocesan administrator Stefan Heße led the archdiocese until a successor, Rainer Woelki, was appointed on 11 July and installed as Archbishop on 20 September 2014.
Meisner died on 5 July 2017 while vacationing in Bad Füssing in Bavaria.
Meisner was known for his support of the Pope and of the teachings of the Church. Pope John Paul asked for Cardinal Meisner to see him when he was in the Gemelli Hospital in Rome. Meisner had a very close relationship to Pope John Paul II and was a long-time friend of Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.
He said that Benedict "has the intelligence of 12 professors and is as pious as a child on the day of his first communion."
In 2009, Meisner "approached [Pope] Benedict on behalf of a number of cardinals to ask him to dump his Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone." "According to the interview in the Frankfurter Rundschau, Meisner told Benedict: 'Your Holiness, you have to make Cardinal Bertone resign! He has the responsibility, like in a secular government.' According to Meisner, Benedict's response was: 'Listen to me carefully. Bertone will remain! Enough, enough, enough.'"
"Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies in ritualism and culture becomes degenerate", said Meisner at the blessing of his own archdiocese's new art museum, the Kolumba, on 14 September 2007. His choice of words recalled the phrase "entartete Kunst" ("degenerate art") used as the title of the exhibition opened by Adolf Hitler in Munich on 19 July 1937 and provoked strong negative reaction.
It was widely recognized that Meisner was criticizing the stained-glass window in Cologne Cathedral by Gerhard Richter, which was unveiled just weeks before and of which he disapproved.
In April 2016, Pope Francis issued the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. Meisner and three other cardinals (Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller and Raymond Leo Burke) submitted dubia (doubts) in private, followed by a public letter ("Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia") in November 2016, asking Francis to clarify various points of doctrine. The first dubia asked about the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried. The public letter asked about fundamental issues of the Christian life and referenced Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor. In April 2017, following no reply to their letter, the cardinals requested a meeting with Francis, but there had been no response to this request by June 2017.Die Fürstin und der Kardinal: Ein Gespräch über Glauben und Tradition, with Princess Gloria of Thurn and Taxis (Verlag Herder, 2008) ISBN 9783451298714