Friday, May 08, 2015

Dachau and deacons

The diaconate as a permanent order almost disappeared after the sixth century, except for a few exceptions, including St. Francis of Assisi.

The Council of Trent promoted the restoration of the diaconate but nothing came of it. Catholics in Germany discussed it from the middle of the nineteenth century.

But it took the horror of Nazi Germany to bring the permanent diaconate to the fore and to give a impetus to its restoration.

Cellblock 26 at the Dachau concentration camp held a large number of priests. In that barracks Fathers Otto Pies, S.J., and Wilhelm Schamoni discussed the need for a permanent diaconate for a renewed Church.

They were not merely responding to a possible shortage of priests but to the need for the church to have men who were involved in what might be called “secular pursuits” to be part of the ministry – to serve, to preach, and to assist at the altar.

This was not a move to clericalize the church. Rather, as William Ditewig wrote in The Emerging Diaconate,
the pioneers of a renewed diaconate, incarcerated at Dachau concentration camp, saw the diaconate as a necessary component of a renewed church transforming the world so that tragedies such as the Second World War and the Shoah would not happen again.
In 1973 I visited Dachau during a summer bicycle tour of Europe. It was a sobering experience, which touched me deeply. There was what I felt was the smell of death in the crematoria. The barracks felt full of sorrow and suffering. But what most affected me was the trip to and from Dachau. Dachau is less than an hour from Munich. How could this be overlooked?

When I visited I had not known about Cellblock 26, the Priests’ Block. Until last year I didn’t realize that the restoration of the diaconate has one of its roots there.

That deeply touched me, because one of my concerns since high school has been the failure of the institutional Church to respond openly to the evils of Nazism and the Holocaust, a failure that has been repeated any number of times since then.

The witness of those who did speak out and suffered has been for me a source of inspiration and an incentive for courage.

In regard to the diaconate, these remarks from the concentration camp notes of Father Schamoni deserve to be shared:
3. The preaching of these deacons, who would be involved in the work-a-day world, would be particularly persuasive and down-to-earth. One perceives in current preaching that it is being done by individuals who are “segregate a populo” [“separated from the people”].
4. The Church has largely become a Church of authorities and officials. The feudal state and the civil servant state have rubbed off on her. The diaconate would be an effective means to return Holy Mother the Church to a Church of the people.
5. The Church has not succeeded in holding its ground among either the leading intellectual classes nor among those classes most easily led astray, the proletariat. In their own milieu, deacons from these classes for these classes could gain influence incomparably deeper than could any priest, since priests would never develop within this milieu the kind of rapport that deacons would have already established. One could develop the diaconate into a means to win back the de-Christianized milieu. An intelligent deacon from the working-class would, without any special theological training, be able to touch the heart of his worker colleagues with just the right words. 
The witness of Fathers Pies and Schamoni and their vision of the restoration of the permanent diaconate as a way to keep the Church in contact with the world struck a chord in me.

Fr. Schamoni’s vision of the diaconate as “an effective means to return Holy Mother the Church to a Church of the people” was reflected in the words of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council:
We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity…
Can the diaconate – and my presence in the order of the diaconate – be a sign of Christ the Servant who stands up against all the degrades God’s children in this world?

That is a challenge for me as I approach becoming a candidate for the diaconate.

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