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Intimate life with God is our destiny, Fr. Diekmann told us


Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann died Feb. 22 at age 93, in the health care wing of St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minn. His life encompassed over 75 years of vowed religious life, a six-decade teaching and publishing career, a priesthood that began in 1933 in the fixed world of Trent and ended in the still-expanding universe of the post-Vatican II church he helped create.

Several hundred friends, perhaps representing the tens of thousands of clergy, religious and laity who had crowded into Diekmann’s lectures, summer school classes and retreats in the years following the council (1962-1965), came to St. John’s to join his monastic brothers in saying goodbye to the tall, white-haired monk.

Coming full circle from his birth in 1908 in tiny Roscoe, Minn., to his burial just up the road in the abbey cemetery, Diekmann had tried to witness to another, less visible but far more significant journey, from baptism to the spiritual maturity he believed was the joyful purpose of every Christian life.

In active retirement since the early 1990s, Diekmann had honed his own story into a kind of mantra that became familiar to anyone who knew him, encapsulating what for Diekmann was the essence of the Christian life and which, he often lamented, was still the best kept secret of the church: that at the heart of the gospel is the amazing truth that, by virtue of baptism, the Christian is destined to share in God’s own divine nature.

In 1926, when he was an 18-year old novice in the abbey community, Diekmann was exposed for the first time to the potent Pauline image of the church as the body of Christ:

“It was a complete revelation to me, and I might say that I suffered a conversion -- something that simply grips you and influences your whole life,” he said.

Diekmann’s conversion mirrored a growing consciousness flowing from the revival of biblical and patristic scholarship at the beginning of the 20th century, which deeply informed the liturgical movement, first in Europe and then in the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s, surfacing in key official church statements about the nature of the church and culminating in Pope John XXIII’s surprise call for a worldwide gathering in Rome of the church’s 2,500 bishops.

The council marked a dramatic -- Diekmann would say miraculous -- shift in ecclesiology, in the church’s understanding of itself, after centuries of entrenchment as a kind of highly centralized and clericalized institutional monarchy to a recovery of the more egalitarian and charismatic model of community evident in the New Testament and in the writings of the early church.

Diekmann was one of two Americans who served on the 55-member commission that, in the time leading up to the council, prepared the document on the liturgy. Atlanta Archbishop Paul Hallinan took Diekmann to the council as his personal theologian.

As exhilarating as was the structural reform the council promised, the real intent of the council, in Diekmann’s eyes, was the more fundamental recovery of pure spiritual energy and apostolic zeal in restoring the idea of the body of Christ and that every baptized Christian (and implicitly every human being) has direct access to the divine life revealed in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“He became human that we might become divine,” Diekmann never tired of saying. We are, in some barely conceivable but actual way, true sons and daughters of God, he insisted. The dignity bestowed by that outpouring of divine love, together with every charism necessary to the redemptive mission of the church, was the assumption underlying the council’s mandate that collegiality replace authoritarian attitudes and practice at every level of church life. To obstruct or delay this reform could only be, in Diekmann’s words, a “sin against the Holy Spirit.”

The council for Diekmann was the “Magna Carta” of the laity, the long-awaited recovery of their proper place at the Lord’s Table in the church’s worship and real acknowledgement of their indispensable role in extending the transforming power of the Word and Eucharist. In his view, an unprecedented but inspired transfer of responsibility to the laity was meant to free those in orders, including bishops, from their historical captivity to power and privilege to find the servant leadership roles Jesus explicitly assigned to them in the gospels.

It was no surprise to many of the seasoned clergy and sisters who filed past Godfrey Diekmann’s casket, many of them stopping to touch him, that the church they had hoped might spring from such a renewal is still not here almost 40 years after the close of Vatican II.

Diekmann, who learned patience as he postponed heaven one health crisis after another into his 90s, knew from church history that change would be difficult and slow. While he never hesitated to roar out of semi-retirement to answer those claiming that the council had never intended radical change, his focus shifted to preparing himself to meet face to face the mysterious God he had tried to share with others. As for the state of the church he had been faithful to all his life, he said over and over, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

He made deals with others of his generation (including my father, a high school classmate at St. John’s in the 1920s, then at an area nursing home) that whoever died first would help the others home. His mantra never changed: “We are sons and daughters of God, destined for intimate life with God.”

The committal ceremony at the end of every monastic funeral has a stark beauty. There is the open grave, the lowering of the casket as the reader proclaims one of the last parables Jesus told in John 12:24, days before his own death: “In truth, in very truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.”

Godfrey Diekmann knows things now he would have loved to share with us in life. In death, his counsel, as always, is to hold fast to hope.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s sister publication on liturgy.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002