P. Cyrill Schäffer, OSB

Monk of St Ottilien (Germany)


Viktor Josef Dammertz, OSB:

Archabbot, Abbot Primate, Bishop, Monk



Damertz2Josef Dammertz was born on the 8th June, 1929, at Schaephuysen in the Lower Rhine area. His mother’s family were originally from the Netherlands. His father, Wilhelm Dammertz grew up in a farm in Schaephuysen until he took over, after his marriage to Engeline Schepens, a bakery which his father-in-law, now dead, had set up. There were two children, Joseph and Marga.

Joseph, already strongly linked to the Catholic association of Neudeutschland young people, where he deepened his faith and developed the art of service, when he reached the final year of secondary education announced to his parents that he wanted to become a priest.

Thus it was that in the second semester of 1950 he entered the Collegium Borromaeum, the seminary of the diocese of Münster. He pursued his studies at Innsbruck, where he lodged at the Jesuit college, the Canisianum. At the university he had the opportunity to attend lectures of well-known professors such as Andreas Jungmann, and Hugo and Karl Rahner. Already at this time in the third year of study he had got to know the missionary monastery of Sankt Ottilien in Upper Bavaria, and felt drawn by the spirit of the universal Church and the religious life which reigned there.

On 12th September 1953 he entered St Ottilien, where he was given the name Viktor, in memory of the ancient Christian martyr Victor of Xanten. After his first profession he pursued theological studies at the Benedictine university of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. When he had completed his Roman studies he was ordained priest in 1957.

His motto as Abbot Primate clearly expresses his vision of priestly service, ‘Priest of Jesus Christ, to the service of mankind’.

He was asked to study canon law, for the current abbot, Dom Suso, needed a secretary with skills in this material. He obtained his doctorate summa cum laude with a thesis on ‘The Constitutional Law of Benedictine monastic communities in history and in the present’. Obviously with this thesis and in view of his intellectual capacity an academic career could have been offered to him, but it seems never to have been seriously envisaged.

At the sixth General Chapter of Sankt Ottilien in 1960 Fr Viktor was called to the post of secretary of the Congregation, and at the same time Archabbot Suso nominated him his personal secretary. Even if the role of abbatial secretary seems somewhat secondary P. Viktor was able to exercise a moderating influence in many respects on his superior, and balance out the tensions between the archabbot and the community. As an expert in the canon law of the Congregation P. Viktor played an essential role in the revision of the Constitutions of the Missionary Benedictines, adopted in 1970. His consultative collaboration was also much appreciated by other Benedictine and non-Benedictine Congregations. He participated notably and intensively in the elaboration of the post-conciliar Leges Propriae of several Benedictine Congregations.

At the beginning of 1975 Archabbot Suso was forced by a serious cancer to leave his post. It was no surprise when P. Viktor was elected to succeed him. As the new abbot of the monastery P. Viktor continued to lavish his personal service on his predecessor, who had held up till the election but died a few days afterwards on 12th February.

The Archabbot Dammertz chose as his motto ‘Iter para tutum’, a programmatic phrase taken from the ‘Ave Maris Stella’. In one part it expresses his Marian piety, but also his consciousness of living in a time of tumultuous reversals in which a guiding star is necessary.

In taking up his functions Archabbot Viktor entered upon a whole network of obligations and especially of meetings, especially attendance at events in the Diocese of Augsburg, such as solemn Masses, confirmations, all kinds of manifestations, in the monastery itself with its many annexes such as the school, the parishes, the five dependent houses, and of course in the other houses of the Congregation which expected directions from the President of the Congregation, especially in the young Churches. Even though the mandate of Archabbot Viktor was to last only two years and eight months, he was able to contribute a certain stability to the Congregation in the turbulent world after the Council. In his own monastery he was able to put in place a Lyceum for the diocese of Augsburg, which ensured the permanence of the school.

In September 1977 Archabbot Viktor took part in the Congress of Abbots of the Benedictine Confederation in Rome, where for some years he had been the secretary of the Canonical Commission, and had played a significant part in the review of the proper Law. Beside the question of the future of the College Sant’ Anselmo the congress worked on the new religious law of the Benedictines. Archabbot Viktor as canonist gave a forceful and novel lecture on the subject. A little later, on 20th September, Abbot Primate Rembert Weakland surprised the assembled abbots by announcing that he had been nominated Archbishop of Milwaukee and was resigning his office with immediate effect. New elections were organized to find a successor. From 22nd September the voices of the abbots focused on the archabbot of St Ottilien who was not only the head of one of the largest of the monasteries of the Benedictine Order, but also possessed the competence which was so much needed in the matter of religious law. The community of St Ottilien was informed of the operations under way in Rome, but by the time Prior Paulus Hörger had sent a fax in the name of the community, saying, ‘Do not accept on any pretext’ the archabbot had already responded favorably to the vote of the Congress and thereby laid down his function as abbot of the monastery and president of the Congregation of St Ottilien.

In the following years Abbot Primate Viktor succeeded in calming somewhat the agitated relationships within the Benedictine College. He had at his side collaborators highly qualified such as the Rector Magnus Löhrer (1928-1999) and prior Gerhard Békés (1915-1999). Despite the diminished number of students from the Order, the University experienced a period of scholarly prosperity thanks to a number of professors of high quality who worked out together, among other things, the post-Conciliar reference-work Mysterium Salutis.

Dammertz3Abbot Primate Viktor was able to give significant help on many occasions at the time of the necessary revision of the Constitutions of the Congregation; he took part in the revision of the religious law and was a member of the Commission for the authentic interpretation
of Canon Law. In the course of the 14 years which he spent at the head of the Benedictine Confederation, twice re-elected, Abbot Viktor visited more than 750 male and female communities in the course of innumerable journeys all over the world. One of the strong points of his mandate was the organization of the great jubilee of St Benedict in 1980, in the course of which the 1500th anniversary of the Benedictine Order was celebrated. On this occasion 500 abbots of the Benedictine family gathered in Rome. In Sant’ Anselmo itself his principal architectural heritage is the library in the ancient crypt of the Abbey Church.

In an interview in 1992 he expressed his conception of his ministry by saying that the Abbot Primate should promote in Benedictine monasteries the awareness that all formed part of a ‘great worldwide community’. Facing up to the centrifugal forces at the heart of the order, the Abbot Primate tried to promote unity without reducing legitimate and vital diversity at the heart of the Order. His service of mediation included the construction of bridges between sisters and monks of the Order who, in the conception of the time, were separated into different worlds, In his mediation the Abbot Primate preferred mutual recognition of legitimate Benedictine principles, which he compared to Martha and Mary. He suggested that the two separated secretariats for Benedictine monks and nuns should be joined together. This constituted an important step towards the ‘Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum’ which now exists.

At the congress of abbots in 1992 the Abbot of Collegeville, Jerome Theisen (1930-1995) was chosen to succeed him. After the expiry of his mandate on 20th September 1992 P. Dammerts had looked forward to a more tranquil retirement in his monastery, although there was question of his nomination to the Vatican Congregation for Religious. However, in the middle of a private retreat before Christmas 1992 the Apostolic Nuncio rang him up to tell him that Pope John-Paul II had nominated him 78th Bishop of Augsburg.

In his official residence, the episcopal palace opposite the cathedral of Augsburg, Bishop Viktor set up a little domestic community with his secretary, Dr Christian Hartl, his sister Marga and two Franciscan Sisters of Maria, with whom he celebrated the Office and the Eucharist. He himself described the arrangements as ‘a little convent’ and he found it agreeable to continue something of monastic community life in the episcopate.

Damertz JPIIAmong the events which marked his mandate it is appropriate to mention some which Bishop Viktor Josef himself held particularly dear. Among them was the signing of the ‘Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’, 31st October 1999 at Augsburg, the great day of
faith on the occasion of the Holy Year 2000 in the Rosensaustadion of Augsburg, and the canonization of Crescentia von Kaufbeuron at Rome on 25th November 2001, and just at the end of his mandate the ‘Year of Vocation’ which he proclaimed in December 2003, in the course of which it was certainly important to pray for priestly vocations, but above all to discover every way of life as a vocation and a gift. As such a wide diversity of events shows, Bishop Viktor wanted to play and succeeded in playing on different registers which included both popular piety and new theological and ecclesiastical developments in the world.

On his 75th birthday, 8th June, 2004, Pope John-Paul II accepted his request to retire from the office of Bishop, and he was able to withdraw to a place which had become for him a familiar place of rest after many holidays there: the convent of Benedictine sisters and the village of children of St Alban, where he served the sisters as spiritual director. His sister Marga accompanied him into his retreat at St Alban. Many friends and companions visited him there until in January 2015 increasing infirmities of old age suggested to him to move to the infirmary of St Ottilien. There one could frequently find him in the large common room, where he would be running through a pile of books and reviews placed beside him.

A sudden loss of strength prevented him from assisting at the episcopal ordination of his second successor, and after several days of increasing weakness he took his leave in full consciousness. His funeral took place in the cathedral of Augsburg, presided by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, while his successor, Bertram Meier, pronounced the homily. He now lies in the crypt of the cathedral.


After this biographical sketch we must examine more closely the Benedictine stamp of this religious bishop. At his first interview after episcopal ordination he was asked slightly provocatively whether an enclosed monastic life was a useful preparation for the vast responsibilities of a bishop. The new bishop agreed that the space of a monastic life was very different from a diocesan pastorate. However, he mentioned also the advantages linked to the experience. Among them he mentioned the importance of a deepening of spirit for the future of the Church, and the appreciation of diversity in unity, since this demands mutual acceptance and dialogue. At the end of his mandate Bishop Viktor underlined these advantages even more massively:

‘Monastic life according to the Rule of St Benedict has marked me profoundly, and the values and fundamental attitudes transmitted to me have equally helped me as a bishop. The image which Benedict gives of an abbot can be adapted to a bishop quite easily. The search for a balance between ora and labora, between prayer and work, is also a permanent challenge for a bishop. The virtue of wise moderation – Benedict calls it discretio and considers it the mother of all the virtues (RB 64.19) – prevents the bishop from embracing extreme positions.’

On the basis of the Benedictine image of the abbot, Viktor-Joseph was able to establish a little mirror of a Benedictine bishop, and even reckon that the direction of a parish was, for fundamental questions, not all that remote from that of a monastery.

The bishop’s way of life, always revolving round meditation, attracted a certain number of objectors, who held that it lacked energy and decisiveness. But on the whole the speaker for the council of priests of the diocese expressed the feeling of all by these words, ‘Life according to the wise Rule of St Benedict is for us an example and an encouragement, especially in its spirituality and style of guidance.’

In what follows I would like to take up this appreciation even while questioning it gently: should a Benedictine official in the 20th and 21st century follow effectively the directions of St Benedict or enter upon the open field of a creative and personal re-interpretation?

Bishop Viktor describes thus his conception of ministry:

‘It is one of the most important tasks of an abbot to preserve, promote and ceaselessly re-create the unity of the community against all opposition. This is no less true for a diocesan bishop in a Church which suffers more and more from polarization. Different groups rapidly come to accuse one another of no longer being ‘catholic’ or of constituting a ‘sect’. The task of the bishop is to restrain excess on both sides and for the rest to hold together groups which stray, and bring them to mediation.’

From this declaration two conclusions may be drawn. Firstly, to describe the task of Church leadership Bishop Viktor has recourse to the Benedictine image of the abbot in chapter 2 of the Rule, according to which the superior of a community should ‘serve the character of each one’ (section 31). On the other hand he makes much of the wise consideration of human diversity by a fundamental desire for unity and mediation, whether in monastic communities or in the local and universal Church. Even if this corresponds entirely to the Benedictine attitude, such a service of the truth is never explicitly expressed in the Rule.

Another marked trait of Bishop Viktor Josef which is often praised was his capacity for teamwork. The people involved stress his capacity for listening, his patience and the time he gave to others. Thus they were able to explain their point of view and experience his appreciation, even in cases of persistent divergence. It is well known that the Rule begins with an invitation to listen. It recommends the monks to listen to the words of the Master, that is to say the words of Christ, and to be open to them. On this basic principle the abbot is invited to listen to the advice of the brothers (RB 3.1). Further on it is laid down that he should himself decide what is the right path. It must therefore be granted that the Rule of Benedict holds certain traces of democratic decision, although its model of domination remains essentially that of a monarchy. The present restrictions on abbatial power by the Chapter and the Council are later developments. The pictures of the search for truth by dialogue which to us seem so obvious do not correspond to the reflexes of primitive monasticism.

Damertz1These brief remarks are not intended to deny the undeniable Benedictine stamp of the lifestyle and direction of Bishop Viktor Josef, which he himself stressed. But they do invite to a reflective application of the formula so often stereotypically used of ‘Benedictine spirituality’. The Rule offers almost unlimited possibilities of interpretation. Traditionalist and integrist circles refer to them as much as Christians liberal and open to dialogue. In the case of Bishop Viktor Josef it was a question of a very personal application of the Benedictine charism which resulted from his own character, experience and of his life and wisdom. It is perhaps more closely related to Viktor Dammertz than to St Benedict. Perhaps more in accord with the Benedictine tradition, Bishop Viktor liked to characterize this tradition by the expression ‘diversity in unity’. Both are important, diversity as well as unity, but as Viktor Dammertz underlines by putting diversity first, diversity receives a head start.