Oskar Bühler – On the hundredth birthday of Msgr. Wilhelm Wissing (1916-1996) on 31 January •
“What sort of greenhorn have the bishops sent us now?” That was the question the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenaur, put to one of his ministers after the new director of the “Catholic Bureau” in Bonn had introduced himself. The new representative of the German Bishops to the German government and parliament, Wilhelm Wissing, who at the time was 42, was a priest of the Munster Diocese who had been in charge of the Catholic Country Youth Movement. A year later the same Chancellor remarked to the same minister, “Wissing isn’t unspiritual, but he understands the world.” When he was reminded of his judgement just a year previously, he said he couldn’t remember saying anything like take.
Who was Wilhelm Wissing?
On 31st January we were commemorating the hundredth birthday of Msgr. Wilhelm Wissing. Who was he? Why are we remembering him here today? A few clues: Successor of Karl Leisner as the Diocesan Youth Leader in the Munster Diocese; youth chaplain and close associate of Heinrich Tenhumberg, at that time head of the Diocesan Pastoral Office; Chaplain to the Catholic Country Youth and builder of the Klausenhof Academy; Director of the Catholic Bureau in Bonn, which was the commissariat of the German bishops; Director of the Catholic Mission Work “missio” in Aachen. In addition to these tasks he was Spiritual Director of the Women’s Institute of our Lady of Schoenstatt, assistant to Bishop Josef Höffner who was “Moderator et Custos” (Leader and Protector) of Schoenstatt as a whole; Apostolic Administrator of the Schoenstatt Work; first Superior General of the newly founded Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Fathers; Consulter to the Congregation for Religious with regard to Secular Institutes.
“The world doesn’t end at the borders of Germany”
Wilhelm Wissing was strongly influenced not only by his family in Köckelwick. Vreden, but above all by the Catholic Youth Movement of the 1930s. Working with the Catholic Youth at that time necessarily meant being in opposition to the Nazis. Wilhelm Wissing was fully committed to the Catholic Youth from an early age. His great example was Karl Leisner, the first Diocesan Youth Leader in the Munster Diocese and today one of the Dachau martyrs. “When he visited us in Vreden he passed on to us via Bible texts, and helped us to experience, what he himself described in his diary: ‘Christ is my passion …’ The situation in the Vreden Youth, which was often not very easy, would not have been overcome without Leisner’s zest, his enthusiasm and his readiness to suffer and take the greatest risks in opposition to the state. He detested the lies of the system and often said so when we were gathered around the camp fire”, the 73-year-old recalled during an extensive interview in his hometown of Vreden. He went on, “When he was with us and explained the Scriptures, I had seldom heard anything better during our youth meetings, or experienced anything more joyful. Karl Leisner told us about a greater Germany and about Europe. He described his journeys with enthusiasm, for example, to Flanders or Switzerland. At a time when everything was so nationalistic and small-minded, he kept us aware that the world didn’t end at the borders of Germany. He wandered through the countries of the ancient continent and we couldn’t get enough of it. We even began to become enthusiastic about Europe.” In the autumn of 1936 Wilhelm Wissing took over the office of Diocesan Youth Leader from Karl Leisner. It wasn’t an easy time to do so. He had only passed his Matriculation examination because, on the day he was called for his oral examination, the representative of the State school administrative board was not present. According to the alphabetical order he should really only have been called on the third day when the inspectors would have been present.
Wilhelm Wissing related that his life had been saved because illness prevented him from doing active military service. He was sent back from the front on account of this illness, while most of his comrades died in battle. His comment, “God does nothing else than act.”
Based on actual people
After his ordination to the priesthood on 21 December 1946, Wissing spent three years as assistant priest in Coesfeld. The youth work he built up there marked him out for higher things. In October 1949 he was appointed Diocesan Youth Chaplain for the young men in the Munster Diocese. He had already recognised in Coesfeld that it was essential to have a clear concept for youth work. He now had the opportunity to bring it about. In close contact with his friend, Heinrich Tenhumberg, head of the Diocesan Pastoral Office, he developed a concept that placed the emphases somewhat differently from the Central Office in Duesseldorf under Msgr. Ludwig Wolker. The latter wanted to maintain the customary ecclesial structures (parish youth), while Tenhumberg and Wissing presupposed that the interests of young men between 17-18 would be strongly influenced by their working lives. As a result, they started the Catholic country youth movement (KLJB), and Wissing played a central role in building it up. Their concept, in its turn, was influenced by the Christian Working Youth (CAJ) and the Kolping Work, which was still strongly oriented to supporting artisans.
Also this work on the diocesan level marked Wilhelm Wissing out for higher things. In 1952 he was appointed to lead the whole German country youth movement. Here he continued to develop the concept he had designed in Munster and applied it on a national level. The main emphasis of the five years he spent in this office was building up the Klausenhof Academy (www.akademie-klausenhof.de).
The idea of international solidarity
Even before he had completed this task, Wilhelm Wissing was chosen in 1958 by the Fulda Bishops’ Conference (as it was called at that time) for another task – he was to become the head of the “Catholic Bureau” in Bonn. It meant changing from the pastoral to the political field, even though he had said he had never been particularly interested in politics. However, when he asked the Bishops for a job description before he began his work, he showed that he was completely capable of carrying out his task.
The work in this new position was very varied. I would only like to highlight one main point. It was the time when the German bishops became aware of their responsibility for the universal Church as the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) began to unfold in Germany. So they founded the aid agencies MISERIOR (“To combat hunger and sickness in the world”) and ADVENIAT (“For the pastoral needs of Latin America”). At the same time ‘development aid’ was being discovered as a new task in the political field. As is usual in politics, the question as to a country’s own financial benefit played a not insignificant role in this. Wilhelm Wissing recognised it as an opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of their work through the collaboration of the Church and state development aid agencies. He also saw that the goals of state funded development aid would not be so strongly oriented to its own economic benefit if the Church was involved, but would highlight commitment to people in their dignity and needs. Wissing described the development of his idea as follows:
It was “one of the main tasks of the Catholic Office to take the initiative in helping the suffering people in the Third World. The idea of international solidarity had to become practical in the Federal Republic of Germany also through the collaboration of Church and State. Admittedly, it was an unusual process for both sides; admittedly, it was also a risk for both parties. To start with, no one knew how this collaboration was to take place, nor what obstacles they would meet up with and how they were to be overcome.” In his memoirs Wissing wrote in detail about the many and varied discussions and negotiations that were needed to get the whole project off the ground, and make it a useful and permanent instrument of humane development aid. What Wilhelm Wissing started at that time, and then built up carefully and thoroughly, has survived the various coalitions and political constellations. Today it is an important vehicle of Church-State development aid. As Foreign Minister Schroeder wrote in his letter of congratulations for Wissing’s fiftieth birthday, “The richly blessed impact of the State supported development aid of the Church is largely the result of your activity.”
An additional task: Schoenstatt
It was in this time at the Catholic Bureau that his dedication to the Schoenstatt Movement became an “additional and freely accepted” task. In his memoirs, which he wrote in the final year-and-a-half of his life, Wissing described how it came about: “During one of our fortnightly meetings he [Cardinal Frings, at that time chairman of the Fulda Bishop’s Conference] asked me whether I would be prepared to take on an additional, more pastoral task, that is, to be the co-leader and pastoral assistant to the women’s Secular Institute of our Lady of Schoenstatt.” This was the start of a series of tasks that required a “credible diplomat”.
For Wissing, Schoenstatt was an area he had never encountered before. It is possible that he felt at times that it was a “minefield”. Two ecclesial Visitations – one by the bishop and one papal – had brought Schoenstatt as a whole into a very difficult position. In 1951 the founder had been banished to the USA by the Holy Office. Via the Pallottine Superior General, who had been appointed by the Holy Office in 1953, the highest authorities in the church tried to influence the various communities belonging to the Schoenstatt Work. Their aim was that Schoenstatt should develop not according to the mind of the founder, but of the Visitator. The Pallottine Fathers who worked in keeping with the spirit of the founder were withdrawn from the Schoenstatt Movement. Other Pallottine Fathers, and also priests from outside the Schoenstatt Movement, were appointed to lead the various Schoenstatt communities.
The fact that in the case of the “Institute of our Lady of Schoenstatt” they thought of Monsignor Wissing could be attributed to his good connections to Auxiliary Bishop Tenhumberg. However, it also meant that Wissing would not allow himself to be simply used for what they had in mind. He saw through the situation, and the leaders in Schoenstatt began to trust him.
A godsend for Schoenstatt
During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) attempts were made by Schoenstatt – mainly by Auxiliary Bishop Tenhumberg and also Bishop Adolf Bolte – to enter into intensive negotiations with various members of the Roman Curia. Towards the end of the second session a solution to the “Schoenstatt Question” (although not the founder) began to appear, and the authorities again turned to Wilhelm Wissing. This solution was addressed in a letter from the Congregation of Religious of 3 December 1963 to the Bishop of Munster at that time, Dr Joseph Hoeffner. It stated: “1. Reverend Fr Albers OP is appointed delegate of this Holy Congregation to examine the present state of the various associations in Schoenstatt, and report on it. 2. You Excellency is appointed Leader and Protector (Moderator et Custos) of the whole Schoenstatt Work until Rev. Fr Albers’ OP task has been carried out. 3. In order that you may be better able to carry out this task, Your Excellency is asked to appoint Msgr Wilhelm Wissing as your assistant and delegate …” (H. Tenhumberg, Council Diary 03.12.1963). As a result Msgr Wissing was officially commissioned to become active in the “Causa Schoenstatt”. This opened the doors of relevant Curia officials to him. For Schoenstatt his appointment was a godsend – he himself would have said, as he often did, “God does nothing else than act”.
The goal of his work as Moderator et Custos was to bring about the independence and autonomy of the Schoenstatt Work from the Pallottine Society. The biggest obstacle that had to be overcome was the opposition of the Pallottine leaders at that time, who made use of every possible means to prevent this from happening. Schoenstatt’s autonomy was declared on 6 October 1964 by a decree of the Congregation for Religious. It was made public on 18 October, during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations in Schoenstatt, by the Apostolic Administrator who had been appointed to this office in that decree. The Apostolic Administrator was Wilhelm Wissing.
To the limits of his strength
His new position – he had direct access to the Pope and was directly responsible to him – gave Msgr Wissing the possibility to progress with solving the difficult questions still surrounding Schoenstatt. These problems included:
- the situation at Schoenstatt itself – the Original Shrine was the property of the Pallottine Society;
- the situation and future of the Pallottine Fathers who wanted to work according to the mind of the founder in building up Schoenstatt, or who saw it as their vocation. Connected with this was the formation of a community to take the place of the Pallottine Society.
- finally, the continued exile of the founder, for which the Holy Office was still responsible.
In his Council Diary Bishop Tenhumberg commented on this appointment as follows: “Msgr Wissing is well aware of the difficulty of the task that awaits him, but he is prepared to take it on for the sake of the matter on hand. In his time as Assistant General to the ‘Institute of our Lady of Schoenstatt’, and as assistant to Bishop Hoeffner for Schoenstatt as a whole, he had experienced that this is a work that is really important for the Church” (11 October 1964). Wissing set to work with zest and skill, and especially with a commitment that, in addition to his work in Bonn, took him to the limits of his strength. “It was a task”, Wissing wrote, “that cost a great deal of time, the drafting of many legal documents, and endless discussions in Germany, Switzerland and Rome. There were some months when I flew three times in thirty days to Rome – out on Friday and returning on Monday morning to take up negotiations and my actual work in Bonn.” Bishop Tenhumberg’s Council Diary records that Wissing’s colleagues in Bonn were very worried about their boss’ health. On one occasion his representative expressly asked that Wissing be relieved of his task for Schoenstatt, because he was completely over-worked and his health was endangered. (5 December 1965)
In his memoirs Wissing had this to say about the content of his work: “My negotiations with the Holy Office concerned two main questions: The question of obedience and the question of charisms. In actual fact, Fr Kentenich had an understanding of obedience that had a more family-like character, which was not in keeping with what was usually accepted in the Church. [In this connection Fr Kentenich used the concept “family-like obedience’ – O.B.] With regard to the charism, the suspicion in the background was that Fr Kentenich attributed greater value to his mission than to the mission of the Church, and that he maintained that he personally had the last word. I was able to clarify these problems in many discussions and explanations, and in the end nothing prevented the return of the founder.”
The subject: Kentenich
Yet further difficulties were to arise. Msgr Wissing had managed to reach an agreement with the Holy Office that Fr Kentenich would be summoned to Rome in October 1965, during the fourth session of the Council. On the first day of this session, however, on 13 September 1965, something happened that changed the situation considerably and at first made it very much more difficult: Fr Kentenich received a telegramme instructing him to go to Rome immediately. It was signed by the representative of the Pallottine Superior General. When he arrived at the Generalate in Rome on 17 September, he was told that no one there had sent the telegramme. Despite intensive investigations by Schoenstatters in Rome and Milwaukee, the origin of the telegramme was never discovered. The confusion was great. In the Roman Curia the suspicion arose that Schoenstatters, or even Fr Kentenich himself, could have sent the telegramme. The Apostolic Administrator was challenged. With the energetic support of Bishop Tenhumberg, he was able to allay these suspicions after many discussions. He had to prevent Fr Kentenich being sent back to Milwaukee (which the Cardinals in the Holy Office had already decided), and also on this account he conducted many discussions. On 20 October the Cardinals of the Holy Office decided to hand the Causa Kentenich to the Congregation for Religious, which meant that Fr Kentenich was free. On 22 October Pope Paul VI confirmed this decision and ratified it. Fr Kentenich saw the developments that followed the unexplained telegramme as a dispensation of Divine Providence. The Apostolic Administrator could only agree: “God does nothing but act”.
Superior General of the Schoenstatt Fathers
In addition to the discussions relating to the Causa Kentenich, many other questions had to be answered. Following many negotiations, the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Fathers had been founded in July 1965. Wilhelm Wissing reported on what happened, and how he acquired a further office:
“After I had recovered from a serious operation, I spent four weeks in Rome in order to carry out this decree [of 6 October 1964], and I engaged in negotiations day after day. The final result shows that God has a sense of humour: The new community of priests came into being, their Statutes were approved, but there was still no superior. The Cardinal concerned told me, ‘There is no community in Rome that doesn’t have a superior. It has to have a superior, otherwise I cannot present this community to the Pope.’ When I looked at him in dismay, he said, ‘So I suggest that you become the superior of this community.’ I objected, ‘But I don’t even belong to Schoenstatt, nor do I belong to the priests, and I have no intention of joining them.’ The Cardinal replied, ‘At this moment that doesn’t matter. Either you say yes, or I close the file and I won’t suggest the foundation to the Pope this afternoon.’ So overnight I also became the superior of a community of priests in Schoenstatt.”
Within the framework of this article I cannot show in detail how many problems and questions had to be clarified in the many and varied discussions – questions about the place Schoenstatt, questions about the Pallottine Fathers (in Germany, Switzerland, Chile) who wanted to transfer to the Institute of the Schoenstatt Fathers, etc. Let me only mention a special gift of both Fr Kentenich and Msgr Wissing. The decree appointing Msgr Wissng the Apostolic Administrator also empowered him to appoint the Rector of the Original Shrine, although this was the property of the Pallottine Society. After long negotiations between the Apostolic Administrator, the Chairman of the General Presidium, Auxiliary Bishop Tenhumberg, and Fr Kentenich, the founder, on the one hand, and Fr Wilhelm Moehler, the Superior General of the Pallottines, on the other, a modus vivendi for the Original Shine was worked out. They agreed upon which Pallottine Father would be appointed Rector of the Original Shrine by the Apostolic Administrator. When these negotiations had almost been concluded, and were ready to be signed, Fr Kentenich suggested that should do without a signed agreement and leave its application to the generosity of both parties, that is to say, they should do without a “juridical means of exerting pressure”. This suggestion also contained the request to the Apostolic Administrator that he abstain from appointing a Rector for the Original Shrine, because this would impinge radically on the property rights of the Pallottine Society, which had to experience it as a humiliation. Msgr Wissing agreed to this suggestion. He said that he would give up his right to make the appointment, that is, that he would not exercise it in practice, in order to contribute to Fr Kentenich’s desire for a profound peace settlement at Schoenstatt. A sign of the trust that existed between the Apostolic Administrator and the founder. Unfortunately in the time that followed this peace settlement did not come into effect.
Wilhelm Wissing continued to exercise his office as Apostolic Administrator of Schoenstatt until 31 May 1966. However, he remained attached to the Schoenstatt Movement and was a member of the General Presidium in an advisory capacity until his death.
Msgr Wissing had to end his activity at the Catholic Bureau in 1967 on account of serious illness. It was only in 1969 that he had recovered sufficiently to undertake a new task. This was in Aachen at the “Society for the Propagation of the Faith”. It would go well beyond the framework of this article to present even a summary of Wissing’s work in this field. Allow me simply to mention how he approached this new task in Aachen. What he said to his collaborators not only sheds a light on the situation of the Society at that time, but also on Wissing himself. Karl Hoeller, a longstanding collaborator reports:
“The new President gathered all the staff in the chapel, the biggest room in the Society’s, Centre in Aachen, and presented them with some bitter truths: The Society of the Propagation of the Faith is a sinking ship. Donations for the missions are no longer forthcoming. The number of members is decreasing.
The newer bodies, Misereor and Adveniat, with their attractive subjects of social development aid and pastoral work in Latin America, have left the 130 year-old Society, with its aim of converting the pagans, far behind.
‘Unless we soon catch up with advertising for donations and members, as well as with intensive educational work’, Wissing told us, ‘you can all look for new jobs’.
We owe to Wilhelm Wissing the fact that the Society for the Propagation of the Faith was transformed into the ‘missio’ we know today. Not only Schoenstatt owes him a great debt of gratitude!”
Wilhelm Wissing, Gott tut nichts als fügen. Erinnerungen an ein Leben in bewegter Zeit, edited by Karl R. Höller, Mainz 2001.
Heinrich Tenhumberg, Beim II. Vatikanischen Konzil, Tagebuchnotizen 1962-1966, published by Joachim Schmiedl, Münster 2015.
Original: German. Translation: Mary Cole, Manchester, England