by Harry Winter, OMI
In the April issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, Father Willi Henkel, O.M.I., was recognized for his many years of missionary research. Dr. Gerard Anderson, an American Methodist who spent many years as a missionary in the Philippines, submitted the obituary for Willi.
Below is a longer appreciation of Willi’s achievements written by Fr. Thomas Klosterkamp, OMI, now Professor at Oblate School of Theology.
Wilhelm Josef Henkel, OMI usually known as Willi, was born on 17 January 1930 in Wittges in the county of Fulda, Germany. Two days later, he was baptized in the parish church in the neighboring village of Elters. His home village, Hofbieber-Wittges, 17 km East of Fulda, has only 100 inhabitants today. His father, Karl Henkel (1884-1961), was a simple road worker. The parents had only married in 1925, relatively late. His mother Maria, née Kirsch (1895-1953) cared for the children. Willi was the third child. There were two brothers and a sister.
The family was, as was common in the village at the time, religious. On October 1, 1939, Willi was confirmed in Elters. Apparently, as a child, he showed interest in the Catholic priesthood. But when a Benedictine father of the Abbey of St. Ottilien tried to enroll 12-year-old Willi in the school of the Mission Benedictines, his parents did not give consent. Instead, they enrolled their son in the Winfriedschule in 1943, after he finished elementary school in nearby Elters, easily accessible by train from Fulda. There Willi passed the final exam at Easter in mid-March 1951. He wanted to become a missionary priest.
Willi’s cousin was an Oblate missionary, Fr. Leonhard Henkel OMI (1911-1981). He lived nearby in Hünfeld, the Oblate headquarters in Germany. Since 1946, he has been an editor of the Oblate mission periodical, “Monthly Bulletins of the Oblates of the Immaculate Virgin Mary”, founded in 1893. The magazine, which has been published since 1954 under the name “Der Weinberg”, approached a circulation of 100,000 subscriptions in the 1950s. The magazine’s photo illustration was the responsibility of Willi’s cousin. Fr. Leonhard Henkel was the first professional and well-travelled photographer on the editorial team. Willi knew the Hünfeld Oblate community, less than 20 km away from home, from childhood. Therefore, it is not surprising that Willi chose the Oblates. Willi Henkel arrived on April 17, 1951 in Maria Engelport near Treis-Karden. There, on April 24, 1951, he began the novitiate with the taking of the habit. The Oblate house in Engelport, a local Marian shrine, is located in the Flaumbach valley near the river Mosel. The novice master was Fr. Wilhelm Molls OMI (1904-1955). The novitiate year, which the novice Willi Henkel had completed together with eleven other Brothers, ended on April 25, 1952 with the taking of first vows.
The novitiate was followed by academic studies in the German Scholasticate in Hünfeld. His time in Hünfeld did not last long. Bro. Willi Henkel was sent to Rome in the summer of 1952 to study at the International Scholasticate of the Oblates. His memoirs read: “In Rome I lived in a community of about 100 Oblate students from all over the world. The Second World War was only seven years over. Yet, as a German, I experienced a great fraternal spirit … Missionaries from all over the world came and reported on their work. The students also had the great opportunity to learn various modern foreign languages, especially Italian and French, but also English and Spanish.” Bro. Henkel was a good student. In 1955 he obtained a licentiate in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University, followed by a licentiate in theology in 1959. In addition to the studies, the Oblate and clerical training also continued. On April 25, 1955, Bro. Henkel was finally able to bind himself to God, the Church and the Congregation of the “Missionary Oblates of the Immaculate Virgin Mary” in Perpetual Vows.
Of interest may be the evaluations of the different formators. They always have the same tone with regard to Willi Henkel’s person: discreet and serious, often too modest; restrained, too distant, but very conscientious and correct, very calm, sometimes tensely nervous; in encounters very polite, fraternal and extremely helpful; in studies intelligent with good judgment, but slow, because very thoughtful to the point of being sensitive, a very methodical and thorough worker; limited practical ability, no craftsmanship; discreet and solid piety with great regularity, religious depth with a great heart for the Church and the Congregation. – Anyone who had the opportunity to get to know Willi Henkel personally is still amazed at how well and precisely the candidates were judged at that time.
According to the Tirdentine order, Willi Henkel received the tonsure in Rome (October 30, 1955), the so-called Minor orders (July 8, 1956 / July 7, 1957), the Subdiaconate (March 22, 1958) and the Diaconate (April 14, 1958). He was ordained a priest on July 13, 1958 in the parish church of Roviano. In Roviano, in the countryside 57 km northeast of Rome, the International Scholastikat had, for many years, a recreation and vacation house.
On May 22, 1959, Fr. Willi Henkel, was back in Germany. For one school year, his superiors had plunged him into the daily life of a formator of half-grown high school students. It was at the boarding school of the Oblates in Mariengarden in Burlo near Borken in Westphalia. One can imagine that this year was not one of the highlights in the life of Willi Henkel. Redemption was not long in coming.
On April 15, 1960, Fr. Henkel’s transfer to the editorial staff of mission magazine “Der Weinberg” in Hünfeld took place. Hardly back in his native region in Hünfeld, Fr. Henkel had to pack his suitcases again. The very experienced editor, Fr. Bernhard Willenbrink OMI (1900-1987) wanted qualified personnel. Thus, from November 1, 1960, Fr. Henkel was sent to study Missiology at the Westfälische-Wilhelms-University in Münster. He took a room in the convent of the Mauritz Franciscan Nuns in the town of Telgte, 10 km away from Münster. The rental price was covered by celebrating Mass for the convent, which had about 200 nuns. With the famous missiologist, Prof. Thomas Ohm OSB (1892-1962), he began his doctoral studies, which he completed with Ohm’s successor, Prof. Josef Glazik MSC (1913-1997), on February 26, 1968. The subject of the doctoral thesis was: “The religious situation of the Gentiles and their conversion according to John Henry Newman“.
The doctoral thesis had already been submitted at the end of 1964. It was therefore only necessary to prepare for the oral examinations, which meant that a presence in Münster was no longer necessary. Thus, Fr. Henkel was ordered back to Rome before graduation, on May 9, 1965. The Hünfeld editorial team had to do without him. In the General House of the Oblates in Rome Fr. Henkel initially acted as a formator in the International Scholasticate and as coworker in the Mission Secretariat of the General Administration. Here he served for a short time as Secretary to the General Assistant, Father Josef Schulte OMI (1909-1991).
With the sudden death of the Archivist of the Pontifical Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Fr. Dr. Nikolaus Kowalsky, OMI (1911-1966), on June 6, 1966, a successor had to be found for the Vatican editorial team of the missionary records “Bibliotheca Missionum” and “Bibliografia Missionaria”. The choice was made for the 36-year-old Fr. Henkel. Willi Henkel thus entered a long German Oblate tradition of missiologists. In 1926, one of the pioneers of German missionary science, Fr. Dr. Robert Streit OMI (1875-1930), founded the Pontifical Mission Library, which was integrated into the library of the Pontifical Congregation of Propaganda Fide in 1927. Fr. Streit’s successors were: 1930 Fr. Dr. Johannes Dindinger OMI (1881-1958) and 1958 Fr. Dr. Johannes Rommerskirchen OMI (1899-1978). The “Bibliotheca Missionum”, which was published between 1910 and 1974, was a bibliographic collection of mission literature of various categories initiated by Fr. Streit. It contained the mission history of Africa since the 10th century, of Asia since the 12th century, of North and South America since the 16th century. In contrast to the “Bibliotheca Missionum”, the “Bibliografia Missionaria” appeared as a modern international missionary bibliography in the form of an annual periodical from 1935 to 2018.
The new team in 1966 consisted of Fr. Rommerskirchen, Fr. Dr. Josef Metzler OMI (1921-2012), then Fr. Kowalsky’s successor as archivist of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and Fr. Henkel. In order to qualify himself in addition to the Studies in Münster, Willi Henkel obtained a diploma in library sciences at the Vatican in July 1967. From 1968, after having obtained the doctorate in Münster, Fr. Dr. Willi Henkel worked full-time on the preparation of the “Bibliografia Missionaria”. On June 1, 1972, he was appointed Director of the Library of the Pontifical Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, succeeding Fr. Rommerskirchen. The extensive library was already established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. (1621-1623). By Fr. Streit’s initiative, alone in 1925, however, about 30.000 books on mission had been added to the collection. The unconditional promoter of Fr. Henkel’s work was Cardinal Angelo Rossi (1913-1995), who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples between 1970 and 1984.
Between 1979 and 1980, Father Henkel, as the new librarian, carried out the transfer of the library from the historic Palazzo di Propaganda Fide in Piazza di Spagna to a new library building at the Pontifical Urban University on the Gianicolum hill. The new library was inaugurated on October 1, 1980 by the President of the German Bishops conference, Cologne’s Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Höffner (1906-1987). The German bishops and the German-based Pontifical Mission Societies had substantially co-financed the new library. In the new building, Fr. Henkel had merged the two libraries of the “Propaganda” and the “Urbaniana“. The stock thus grew to 275,000 volumes in over 500 different languages. Fr. Henkel was thus appointed director of a not insignificant major university library, an institute with a scientific assistant, Prof. Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto (1944-2020), the later Grand Master of the Order of Malta, and seven skilled workers. The Urban University serves the scientific training of missionaries and mission specialists. Father Henkel had already been appointed professor of mission history at the Urbaniana in 1973.
The second modernization project, which Fr. Henkel was responsible for in 1993/1994, was the digitization of the library. By 2004, more than 100,000 titles were accessible digitally. This process facilitates the use for the university studies immensely, since the Urbaniana has a number of affiliated seminaries and educational institutes worldwide, especially in the so-called mission countries.
In addition to the library management and teaching activities, Fr. Henkel continued to organize the publication of the “Bibliografia Missionaria” between 1972 and 2000. Here he was responsible for the thematic approach of the bibliography to mission topics of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), such as “Local Church”, “Ecumenism” and “Interreligious Dialogue”. The same was true for the inclusion of the major themes of “Inculturation” after 1970 and the “Theology of Liberation after 1980. In his memoirs, however, Fr. Henkel also describes his personal enrichment: “Through working with the Bibliografia Missionaria, I was able to establish many contacts with mission science centers. Many publications broadened my personal horizons and inspired my work. I think it’s a great privilege that I got to know a lot of people that, at first, I only knew from their publications.”
Fr. Henkel’s personal bibliography included, between 1968 and 2008, more than 90 articles on current mission topics, missiological research, mission history of the Oblates, the theology of Henry Newman, as well as the missionary history of Latin America and the Vatican. In 1991, Fr. Henkel was appointed consultant of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Here he worked among other things, on the beatification cause of John XXIII (1958-1963). He was also a founding member of the Advisory Board of the Journal for Media, Ethics and Communication in Church and Society, “Communicatio Socialis”. At the same time, he was a scientific advisor to the “International Biographical Centre Cambridge”. He was a member of the “International Association for Mission Studies” from 1980 to 1990. He also held memberships in the “Society for History of Councils”, the “International Institute for Mission Research”, the “International Association of Catholic Missiologists”, and the “Roman Institute of the Görres Society”. In 1980 and 1988, Fr. Henkel organized two international mission science congresses in Rome at the Urbaniana University.
Fr. Henkel was also awarded various honors. He was an honorary member of the “German Society for Missiology”. In 1990, he was decorated with the “Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany”. On December 8, 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., USA, together with Fr. Josef Metzler, since 1984 Prefect of the Pontifical Secret Archive. On 29 July 2001, Fr. Henkel was made an Honorary Knight of the University of Salta in Argentina.
At the end of 2000, Fr. Henkel retired. His health had been in poor condition since 1996. A partial amyosthenia in the hands and feet became more and more noticeable. In the years to come, he found it increasingly difficult to grasp and walk. On November 1, 2000, Fr. Dr. Marek Rostkowski OMI from Poland was appointed as his successor. With this, the 70-year-old Fr. Henkel ended his academic life. He had joined the Oblates to become a priest and missionary. Sacrifice and mission had been realized for him during his 34 years of service to the Holy See in a significant amount of work for theology and its mission. After all, the church’s mission must always be able to answer its From-where, it Why, its Where-to, and its What-for. Father Henkel, as a librarian, in his modest and unobtrusive way, had merely tried to make available to a broad public a multitude of sources that hold answers to these essential questions of the Church’s mission.
Fr. Henkel had requested his transfer to the German Province of the Oblates, of which he became a member on May 21, 2001. From September 8, 2001 he was a member of the Oblate community in Munich. Here he enjoyed his retirement. A special joy for him was the fair amount of spare time for the care of his spiritual life. From September 4 to 9, 2003 he participated in the so-called “de Mazenod Experience” in Aix-en-Provence / France. It is a spiritual renewal program for Oblates who have been in missionary service for many years.
On April 1, 2008, with the closing of the Oblate residence in Munich, Fr. Henkel moved to Hünfeld. There he was able to celebrate his Golden Jubilee of priesthood in 2008, and his Diamond Jubilee in 2018, in good mental condition. His amyosthenia was more and more progressive. However, until the end, he took an active part in community life.
When the Covid 19 virus reached the Oblate-community of Hünfeld on November 14, 2020, Fr. Henkel was one of the first infected. Due to his advanced age, he was not able to cope with the disease. He died on November 19, 2020, just before midnight.