Father Godfried Leo Diekmann, O.S.B.
died: February 25, 2002
One of Saint John's most illustrious and revered members had a humble beginning in the village of Roscoe, twenty-five miles southwest of Collegeville. Leo Diekmann was the sixth of eight children (five boys and three girls) of schoolteacher John Conrad Diekmann and his lovely wife Rosalie Loxtercamp. Given the family nickname "Pechvogel," the bad-luck bird, for his dare devilish demeanor, young Leo grew up amid the books he loved to read, the sports and the flute he loved to play, and the Church he first came to fear more than love.
In those frigid, rigid years of intimidating pastors and blood and thunder sermons, Leo's buoyant spirit was overshadowed by scrupulosity resulting from what he worried was his "bad" first confession. Dread of the wrath of God hounded him through his years at Saint John's Preparatory School and University and into the novitiate until the saintly Athanasius Meyer, the abbey's novice master for thirty-two years, introduced his neophytes to the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. Serenity returned to the soul of the novice who had appropriately received the name Godfrey, meaning "the peace of God."
Two years after his first profession Godfrey was sent to Rome to prepare for the priesthood and a doctorate in theology at the International Benedictine College of Sant' Anselmo. He delighted in the cuisine, the music and the ancient sites of Rome and responded successfully to the rigor of his course work. He was privileged to make his profession of solemn vows on July 11, 1929 before the Abbot-bishop of Monte Cassino. Also present were the Cardinal of Naples, seventeen bishops, four abbots, two hundred priests, the monastic community and a church full of visitors, all who had gathered to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the founding of that abbey by St. Benedict.
Godfrey broadened and deepened his education through the lectures and writings of such theological giants as Anselm Stolz, Karl Adam, Ildefons Herwegen, Odo Casel and Matthias Scheeben, as well as early Christian writers like Augustine and Tertullian. He was attracted to the "theology of the heart," a loving approach to God with open mind and heart that was to characterize his own teaching. A year of study at the Liturgical Institute of the Abbey of Maria Laach in Germany allowed Godfrey to participate in that community's pastoral liturgical movement, and thus a mustard seed was planted that would soon produce an abundant harvest. On June 28, 1931, Godfrey was ordained to the priesthood by the cardinal vicar of Rome. Writing to his mother after the four-hour ceremony, Godfrey expressed his joy: "To think of it! I am now an alter Christus, 'an other Christ.' I have been incorporated in His mystic Body in a most special way ...." He defended his doctoral thesis, "On the Image of God in the Human Person according to the Writings of Tertullian," in the summer of 1933 and returned to Saint John's.
Godfrey's teaching career began modestly enough with classes in religion and German literature at the Prep School. The following year he taught a college theology class and his initial course in patrology at Saint John's Seminary. He understood his teaching task as an obligation to share not only his knowledge but also his love of Christ, his enthusiasm for God. The latter was contagious and his teaching was described as "infectious theology" and "an explosive intellectual adventure." His students sometimes wondered whether he might not drop dead in the classroom, so exuberant and exhausting were his presentations!
The liturgical retreat was soon added to Godfrey's ministry. Priests and religious privileged to make a retreat under his direction considered it "the retreat of our lives." Godfrey preached with a passion, ex abundantia cordis. A confrere recalled the time Godfrey and he were to lecture at the same conference. The confrere spent weeks preparing and fine-tuning his remarks. On the plane Godfrey scribbled notes on a few three-by-five cards. The confrere's presentation was met with polite applause; Godfrey's with a standing ovation!
But it was his association with Virgil Michel, a pioneer of the liturgical movement in the United States, which set the agenda for much of Godfrey's future work. Working as Michel's assistant in the publication of Orate Fratres, Godfrey came to know well this energetic leader who was involved in so many facets of a Catholic restoration. When Michel died at the age of forty-seven in 1938, Godfrey became the editor of this premiere journal of liturgical and pastoral renewal. Godfrey brought new vitality to the journal through the introduction of popular American contributors and a host of international scholars such. Their articles stressed the essentials: praying and living with the Church, for the greater honor of God.
Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, in her splendid biography, The Monk's Tale (The Liturgical Press, 1991), has thoroughly documented his leadership in the drafting and implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as a peritus during the Second Vatican Council. He was the founder and member of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, a member of the Concilium for Implementing the Liturgical Reforms of Vatican II and a consultor to the American Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.
Godfrey's interest in the unity of Christian Churches prompted his membership in the National Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue. He was a founding fellow and professor at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies at Tantur, Israel, and co-founder of the Ecumenical Institute of Spirituality. He gave witness to the intrinsic bond between worship and social justice by taking part in the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, where he carried a banner that read, "Selma is in Minnesota, too."
Ten honorary degrees and a batch of prestigious awards such as the Cardinal Spellman Medal of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Berakah Award of the North American Academy of Liturgy served to confirm the length and depth of his contributions. In 1997 the Saint John's School of Theology-Seminary honored him by establishing the Godfrey Diekmann, OSB Center for Patristics and Liturgical Studies.
With almost a dozen near-death experiences to his credit, Godfrey could never deny his terminal condition. He grew impatient over his persistent knocking at the Gate of God's Glory and its not opening. But he accepted the delay as a time for repenting, especially for not heeding sufficiently St. Leo's famous dictum: "Christian, remember your dignity," of sharing the divine nature, of truly being sons and daughters of God. He envisioned heaven as experiencing God with the ecstasy of honeymoon love. "Heaven," he said, "is eternal, supreme life--not just eternal rest." The door to that life opened for Godfrey on the Feast of the Chair of Peter when he went to sit with the first Vicar of Christ to discuss the state of the Church on earth. How pleased Peter was to meet one who, like himself, was like a rock.
Father Godfrey is survived by his monastic community and his youngest sister Marie. The Mass for Christian Burial was celebrated for Father Godfrey at Saint John's Abbey on Wednesday, February 27, 2002, with burial in the abbey cemetery.
We commend our brother Godfrey to your prayers.
Abbot John Klassen, OSB,
and the monastic community.
For further in formation on Godfrey, see the Abbey website: