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Diekmann says hold fast to hope

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Collegeville, Minn.

Vatican II, regarded by some as one of the most revolutionary councils in church history, is now the subject of video retrospectives and historical overviews that pronounce who won, or where the pendulum has come to rest. If anyone is watching or reading, the easiest verdict is that the council is fading in both time and influence, its prophets either gone or all but silent.

With at least one notable exception.

Even at 90, Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann carries his 6-foot-3-inch frame straight and tall behind the aluminum walker he is pushing swiftly down the long monastic corridor at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. His face -- large, sculpted and serene -- glows above his black turtleneck.

He is a man on a final mission, made all the more urgent by a doctor’s verdict last August that he could die or be incapacitated at any moment by a host of heart troubles that have left him too fragile for any further medical remedy.

Diekmann, regarded by many as one of the giants of the American church and a key participant in the work of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), has been using his borrowed time since August to reassert that the most important goal of the Second Vatican Council was to recover for everyone full and confident access to an intimate life with God through Jesus Christ. The key to opening up the institutional church to this life was to restore an understanding of the church as the body of Christ. This single reform held revolutionary implications for every aspect of the church’s governance, worship, spirituality and mission. (See accompanying story.)

The body of Christ

For Diekmann this is no worn cliché but Christianity’s best-kept secret, a startling revelation conveyed in the prayer offered daily during the preparation of the wine at Mass: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

In his 63 years teaching patristics -- the rich treasury of writings from the first centuries of the church -- Diekmann has struggled to convey to his students the meaning of the patristic adage: “He became human that we might become divine.”

“My main point in teaching was to make my students realize what Christianity is -- that it’s not just being good with the grace of God helping us, but it means real transformation, that you are sharing the divine nature. This must be taken seriously.

“What does it mean to say that we are members of the body of Christ?” Diekmann asked. “It means that in some absolute, almost contradictory way, we are sons and daughters of God, and not just as a figure of speech. The very fact that we casually keep on talking about being adopted children of God is proof that obviously we don’t have the faintest idea what this is about, because adopted, by itself, in present usage, can only mean a matter of the law.

“We acknowledge that Christ, of course, is the true Son of God. But we are now also true sons and daughters of God, but by a gift -- by adoption -- and this is actually sharing the life of God. That is a staggering thing, and for many Catholics it is completely new.”

For Diekmann, these “glad tidings” so exceed the claims of ordinary religion, are so stunning in their implications, even theologians fail to comprehend them. The language of Western philosophy has never been able to adequately express what the Eastern church has always celebrated through symbol, music and ritual in its liturgy, Diekmann said.

For all the controversy that swirled about Vatican II, this is what it was basically about -- to re-animate the church and its members as the body of Christ.

Diekmann believes that we cannot overstate the importance of this restored ecclesiology and must not allow it to languish. It was the soul of the 40-year pastoral liturgical movement that helped prepare the church for the Vatican Council, and it is the one image of the church that has the power, lacking in other images, to inspire us to embrace the gospel’s call to become participants in the life of God.

Resistance to the council

The main source of conflict during and after Vatican II was that the ecclesiology being displaced, a highly centralized and hierarchical model based on Robert Bellarmine’s image of the church as a “perfect society,” was well entrenched in 1959 when Pope John XXIII surprised everyone by convening the council.

The pre-Vatican II church most older Catholics remember, enshrined by the Council of Trent in 1563 and bolstered by Vatican I in 1870, was a proud if isolated medieval cathedral/fortress at the height of its triumphalist stature. The Catholic church was the oldest, largest, wealthiest, authoritarian institutional religion on earth. For many, it was also divinely ordained, infallible and changeless.

Diekmann shares the view held by many church historians that such a structure was rooted not in the New Testament but in Emperor Constantine’s decision in 313 to advance Christianity as the state religion. The church went from being a countercultural force and catalyst to being guardian of the status quo. Bishops became territorial, or diocesan, governors, a corruption of their original servant roles and a blow to collegiality, or shared authority among all bishops. “From the time of Constantine until Vatican II, you had an uninterrupted development of clericalism and centralization,” Diekmann said. By unplugging this ecclesiology, the Catholic church set a bold precedent for institutional change worldwide.

The laity, the Catholic church’s now nearly 1 billion adherents, had the most to gain by the council’s recognition that baptism entitles every member of the church to “conscious, full and active participation” in the worship and life of the church. Every Christian shares in the risen life and redemptive activity of Christ -- priest, prophet and king -- through the use of his or her own charisms.

Diekmann recalls the speech given by Cardinal Leo Suenens during the council on the charisms flowing from baptism: “Each one by baptism has his own charism and contributes something to the church, first of all to the local church, or ecclesia, to which you belong, and then to the entire church. In God’s plan you are indispensable. This is terribly important -- the importance of laity of themselves.”

The idea of lay charisms was little understood at the time of Suenens’ speech in the 1960s, even as the idea of the body of Christ was rejected by some in the 1920s as too dangerous, too much like the Protestant idea of the “priesthood of the faithful.”

While many council reforms are coming more slowly than supporters had hoped, Diekmann the historian believes in taking the long view. What the council adopted in principle still needs to be fully implemented: “But the momentum of 1,600 years cannot be reversed in a mere generation,” Diekmann cautioned. “The doctrinal foundations have been firmly placed by Vatican II, and, contrary to increasingly pessimistic evaluations, the substructures of renewal are being placed, often by trial and error if not by official initiative.”

Even apparent crisis and controversy can be interpreted positively. The shortage of ordained clergy, for example, has opened the way for non-ordained men and women to serve as parish administrators and has prompted creative extensions of the sacramental work of Christ through lay leadership and outreach. Diekmann said he is joyful in the freedom of the Spirit evident in such adaptive situations. He points to early church writings as an untapped treasury of solutions and models for today’s needs. The revolution will continue; there is no turning back. The full application of Vatican II’s vital ecclesiology will come because it is the will of the Holy Spirit.

Astonishing series of miracles

Diekmann’s confidence is rooted in his own experience at Vatican II, where he served as a member of the preparatory commission for the document on the liturgy. The council was for him and many other witnesses an astonishing series of miracles -- unforeseen events, opportune moments, dramatic interventions and come-from-behind victories that advanced the daring new ecclesiology, first in the liturgy document, then into the debate on the nature of the church itself.

One Protestant observer and close friend of Diekmann, the late Albert Outler of Southern Methodist University, expressed amazement at the council’s dramatic reversal of 1,600 years of church history: “My conviction is that never before in the entire history of Christianity has there been such an obvious intervention of the Holy Spirit as there has been here,” Outler said.

There were setbacks as well. The one Diekmann regards as doing the most damage to the intended impact of the council was the misapplied emphasis given to the phrase “the people of God” in the aftermath of the council.

An Old Testament designation, the phrase was used as the title of Chapter Two of the “Constitution on the Church,” and there only to indicate that the whole church is more important than any one part, including the pope or the bishops. Unfortunately, it was later received widely as the operative image for the church, supplanting the body of Christ.

This led to de-emphasis of the most important message flowing from the council. The bold assertion of divine life through baptism, real incorporation into God’s own nature, was conveyed as only a special closeness to God within the fellowship of the church. What the council had powerfully proclaimed it failed to effectively teach.

Liturgical buzzword

The idea of fellowship, or koinonia, became the buzzword of many liturgical reformers eager to replace the formal, vertical, divine worship in the old liturgy with the new, theologically horizontal and less formal celebration of a meal with the human Jesus in community. The result was a false evaluation of the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the liturgy. The former emphasis on transcendence became a one-sided stress on immanence -- we become pals with God. Both dimensions are essential. This misunderstanding created divisions within the reform effort and became a source of untold confusion and criticism in the wake of the council, and this has continued to distract and delay implementation of its deeper purposes.

For now, Diekmann is less interested in arguing than in appealing for an openness to the life that is meant to flow freely through the church to each member of the body of Christ. Any structure that blocks that life limits ministry within the church and blocks the urgent mission of the church to proclaim the gospel to the whole world.

As Diekmann anticipates his own face-to-face encounter with God, he has seized every opportunity to alert others to his concern that the gospel of divine life is not reaching the church or the larger world clearly and fully.

When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin attended graduation ceremonies at St. John’s University in June of 1996, just months before his death, he asked to see Godfrey Diekmann.

“Before Mass he called for me. He said, ‘You know I’m sick and I’m not sure I can finish with the Mass. I don’t want to just make conversation, but I asked for you so you could tell me what is closest to your heart.’ And for 35 minutes I talked about being sons and daughters of God, how that is the essence of Christianity, how that is the glad tidings. He took all of that it in, he listened. Then he said, ‘You are perfectly correct that we haven’t done enough to make that clear.’ ”

In recent interviews and letters to his many friends, Diekmann’s long story of the miracle of the council is being distilled to a kind of mantra he seems intent on proclaiming until the time silence claims him:

“Baptized Christian, remember of whose body you are a member.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999