Pope Francis speaks during a private audience with members of the International Diaconate Centre in 2016 at the Vatican. Courtesy

Rebuilding the Diaconate

Rumblings of a restored diaconate originated in Germany

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In a restless fall night in 1947, Hannes Kramer is touched to the innermost by the words in Acts 6:1-7. At breakfast the next day, his cousin’s wife told him she had a curious dream that night: A man in a simple brown robe belted like a Franciscan took him away. Later on, Hannes Kramer would make this addition, in red letters, to the entry in his diary: “Francis of Assisi.”

Hannes Kramer
Courtesy of the International
Diaconate Centre

Jesuit Father Otto Pies was sentenced by Nazis in 1941 and was interned in the Dachau concentration camp until 1945. Under the pressure of the highest ecclesiastical circles, approximately 2,000 priests, many from Poland and Germany, some from Austria, were crowded together in three barracks. Almost half of them were to die in the concentration camp. Their biggest privilege and, at the same time, indescribable consolation, for him and for his brother priests, were the chapel and the Mass. Masses were celebrated in the primitive barracks from 1941 onward. The Eucharist celebrated together by hundreds of priests on an altar improvised from pillows, bedsheets and cans was touching, more so than any other religious experience in the years before.

Father Otto Pies published his experience in Block 26 in the same fall of 1947 in which Kramer was touched by Acts 6. Father Pies thought that what he experienced, struggled with, suffered and prayed on in the concentration camp should influence the whole Church and could change the attitude and the action of its priests.

Toward the end of his article, he dealt with the expected shortage of priests and the diaconate. The Church should set apart its lay catechists and deacons so that they would help the very few remaining priests in their pastoral duties. The advantages of a diaconate exercised by married, professionally active and experienced helpers of the Church were obvious. Father Pies considered the delimitation of the diaconate from the presbyterate an easy task.

The ideas launched by Father Pies were zealously taken up by a Catholic judge whom the Nazis had punished in 1934 by sending him out to the countryside. Josef Hornef would be driven for the rest of his life by the keenness to see the diaconate restored. During a 2015 celebration in Strasbourg, France, of the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate in that diocese (and in the German archdiocese in Freiburg), his son gave a moving account of this. His father was concerned on the one hand with the difficulties faced by priests, but on the other hand he thought that the parish life in liturgy and evangelization would be strengthened by deacons.

Thoughts of Restoration

Hannes Kramer went to Freiburg, Germany, and started a formation at the German Caritas Association’s Seminary for Social Welfare Workers. As early as 1951, he formed the first diaconate circle with men who felt a sincere and profound need for the renewal of an ordained diaconate. During his formation at the Caritas Association, Kramer adopts the keywords “Franciscan attitude” and asks, “Should we, the social service providers of the Church, today, not also seek the diaconate, as it performed its mission in early Christianity and as we can recognize it symbolically in Acts 6:1-7?” His former close connection to the German Caritas Association will develop, in time, into a hub without which the renewal of the diaconate by the Second Vatican Council would not have taken place.

In the spring of 1952, Kramer wrote a thesis entitled “Bases of the Ordained Diaconate.” He had met Josef Hornef and wrote his reflections in the same year under the impression of this intense meeting. In these reflections, the deacon is seen as part of the ordo, responsible to the bishop and to the “representatives particularly put in charge of charity.” The deacon’s main task is seen as a variety of works of Christian charity. He is also to motivate the parishes to such works of charity. Kramer gives an unusual motivation for the dilemma in the ministry, as well as for the renewal of the diaconate: It is in vain that one seeks “to close the gap [with the priest] which emerged because of the absence of the diaconate.” That is to say, he sees this ministry as independent based upon its being rooted in the very salvific action of Jesus Christ, who reached out in love as diaconos to the person in need. Kramer didn’t want any auxiliary priests or delegates for priestly tasks; the ministry of the deacons should be marked by the carrying out of social and charitable services and by closeness to people in their various needs and worries. Was this to be merely a “specifically German way,” as one would later hear from various regions of the world?

In the same year, the two inspirers of the diaconate in Germany met again. In a conference on the situation of the Church’s ministry in Stuttgart, they both had interventions on the diaconate. At first, the different conceptions seemed impossible to harmonize. But slowly the two of them came closer together. The social-charitable service — the “service at the tables” — began to be understood as being a close connection with the Eucharist and cultic service in general, as “ministry of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy linked to the proclamation of the Faith.”

In 1954 Kramer went to Munich to take up a new job in the local Caritas Association. There he founded a second diaconate circle. Those interested in the diaconate and their wives met for prayer and discussions in Dachau’s Block 26 — the priests’ block. In his autobiographical report, Kramer wrote, “The initiative for the renewal of the diaconate started in the days of the Nazi regime, exactly from this place, from the starving and dying priests coming from all over Europe to Block 26.”

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Pope Benedict XVI pays respect to the dead as he visits the former Auschwitz death camp in this 2006 file photo. CNS photo/Peter Andrews, Reuters

‘A Son of the German People’

In 2006, 27 years after Pope St. John Paul II visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Pope Benedict XVI returned to his home country and visited the camp. He said, in part:

“Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here. …

“The Germans who had been brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau and met their death here were considered as Abschaum der Nation — the refuse of the nation. Today we gratefully hail them as witnesses to the truth and goodness which even among our people were not eclipsed. We are grateful to them, because they did not submit to the power of evil, and now they stand before us like lights shining in a dark night.”

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The Next Steps

In the next few years, the circle’s members realized how difficult it was to fulfill their ideal in their professional work without any connection to a parish and without an official mandate from the Church. The Caritas Association came to their aid, for through its international network it could build important bridges. Kramer became the assistant of Msgr. Georg Hüssler, the secretary general of the German Caritas Association, who supported the idea of a diaconate, together with Msgr. Jean Rodhain, the founder and, for many years, Secretary General of the French Secours Catholique. The Frenchman hoped that the diaconate could do away with the “crisis of charity.” But one would need some 50 years before being able to free the diaconate from its degradation to a transitional step toward priesthood. At the 1960 Eucharistic Congress in Munich, Msgr. Rodhain, who spoke in favor of an independent diaconate, said, “In the clergy of 1960, we are missing a Stephen or a Francis.”

Then in 1959 Kramer held a lecture on the issue of the diaconate during a Caritas Internationalis meeting in Paris. This is where the request to the Second Vatican Council for the renewal of the ministry of the deacon was prepared. Pope St. John XXIII, who knew Msgr. Rodhain from his years as nuncio to France, had the problem of the diaconate included in the list of council topics.

Eventually, it was the International Diaconate Circle, founded in the years before the council, that, even before the conclusion of the council, seized the opportunity and organized the International Study Conference on “The Deacon in the Church and World of Today,” held in October 1965 in Rome. More than 250 people from 27 countries participated — more than half were bishops and cardinals. Reports came in from every region of the world, which were subsequently published in the first issue of the Diaconia Christi magazine, which has been published regularly ever since.

The International Diaconate Circle, already before the council, came to have an enormous amount of tasks. For this reason, even before the conference, one came to the decision to found an International Diaconate Centre (IDC). It had its headquarters in the building of the German Caritas Association in Freiburg. Its first president was Msgr. Hüssler, and Hannes Kramer was elected as its first secretary.

Later that same year, the Centre began sending out information; models for formation were compiled; the first issue of the Diaconia Christi Magazine was published in 1966. In 1968 the first major diaconal conference took place in San Miguel, Argentina. Planned by the Conference of Latin American Bishops, it was prepared jointly with the IDC. Msgr. Hüssler and Kramer were among the participants. Five years after the foundation, the statistics were not as encouraging as the founders had hoped. At the time there were 97 deacons: two in Algeria, nine in Belgium, 13 in Brazil, eight in Cameroon, nine in Chile, five in France, 45 in Germany, two in India, one in Indonesia, one in Paraguay and two in South Africa.

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Paul VI on the Diaconate

In 1966, following the founding of the International Diaconate Center, Pope St. Paul VI was informed about the congress held on the diaconate and the founding of the International Diaconate Center. He expressed agreement and encouraged further work, saying:

“Venerable brothers and dear sons, we are happy to receive you and give you a warm welcome. … You have reflected since last Friday together with zealous pastors and illustrious theologians in an international studies meeting on the topic of what the deacon could and should be in the Church and in the society of today. … Who does not see the great importance that the diakonia can have in our Christian communities, in the proclamation of the word of God as well as in the service of the sacraments and in the exercise of charity?

“Surely the council acted in accordance with a providential inspiration of the Holy Spirit when it decided to renew the original ministry of diaconate at the service of the People of God. Now the hour has come for this decision of the council to be put into practice. May Stephen, the first deacon, Lawrence the martyr and all the deacon saints of the Church keep watch from heaven on those who are preparing themselves to receive the holy ordination to the diaconate.”

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Building the Order

The cooperation and support soon gained an international character and global dimensions — for example, as soon as 1970, a questionnaire was sent to the leaders of the African Bishops’ Conference asking if there was a place for the diaconate in the churches of the continent. In November of the same year, a conference was organized in Belgium. In the years around 1970, the IDC offered its assistance to many bishops’ conferences around the world, including Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Argentina, Canada, the United States, Italy, France, Cameroon and Switzerland.

In 1992 Kramer gave an interview in which he spoke about the beginning of his vocation and that of the diaconate movement: “The most important criteria for diaconate are the service of Jesus, at the tables of the poor, in — as I like to say — the diaconal Church. Has the Church as a whole converted to a God of the poor, to a Church of the poor and small ones, of the sick and enslaved ones? Even in her proclamation of the Gospel, in her diakonia, in her approach to her own riches and to power? What does this mean concretely today … in our context: To be able to see with the eyes of the other, of the asylum-seeker, of the immigrant, to see the ‘other Christ’ in him and act accordingly? We deacons are still on the way toward that, together with our Church.”

He and Pope Francis would understand each other very well today!

STEFAN SANDER is a deacon formator and manager of the International Diaconate Centre. For more on the organization and its work, visit diaconia-idc.org.

 

 
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