A report from Ratzinger’s Schülerkreistreffen, Castel Gandolfo 2015

This years meeting of Joseph Ratzinger’s former doctoral and post-doctoral students focused on the nature of God and the challenge of atheism

The Czech intellectual and scholar, Professor Tomas Halik, winner of the Tempelton Prize (2014), was guest speaker at this year’s annual meeting of Ratzinger’s former doctoral and post-doctoral students, held August 27-30. (The meeting has been held in Castel Gandolfo since Joseph Ratzinger’s election as Pope.) The original Schülerkreis (established in 1980) was joined by the circle of young scholars of Ratzinger’s theology (the Neuer Schülerkreis), under the direction of Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism. 

The meetings was moderated by Father Professor Emeritus Stephan O. Horn, S.D.S, former Assistant to Professor Ratzinger and now spokesperson for the Schülerkreis.

Msgr Halik, who also runs the university chaplaincy in Prague, read two papers. The first was entitled: “How to speak—or to keep silent—about God today”; the second was on the topic “Love: the altar of the Unknown God”. In his first paper, Professor Halik developed ideas found in his earlier writings about the contemporary drift into atheism. His differentiated analysis, influenced also by his training as a psychotherapist, stressed the positive elements of that widespread—and growing—phenomenon.

But his starting point was what he called the tiredness (not to say, acedia) of contemporary European Christianity (a collective siesta time, he called it) and its lack of missionary élan. Drawing on the mystical tradition’s so-called negative theology, he highlighted the incomprehensibility of God, which, paradoxically, may be the most important contribution of atheism (including agnosticism) to contemporary Christianity in its present slumbers. At the heart of the (non-militant) atheist’s experience of the loss of God, he argued, may well be a intimation of Transcendence.

In the second paper, he developed the experience of love as affirmation of the other. It expresses both the essence of God’s love for us—an affirmation that reached its ultimate expression on the Cross—and finds expression in the worship of the unknown God implicit in every act of authentic love of others, but also in every experience of pain that cries for deliverance to a unnamed but greater-than-human Redeemer, and in every experience of joyful thanksgiving that is ordered to an unnamed-yet-sensed transcendent Giver.

Each paper was followed by a widely ranging discussion, when, among other things, Halik drew on his earlier writings on the spiritual relationship between Nietzsche and Thérèse of Lisieux. They were contemporaries in time and kindred in spirit. He sees their parallel experience of the “death of God” as offering a corrective to the false certainty about God that often masks the pious platitudes of confessing or ritualized Christians/Catholics. Running like a thread though his papers and his responses to the discussion was his conviction that the way forward for both Christians and atheists is a recognition of their common, existential search for the truth—for the meaning of life—albeit from different perspectives.

With regard to the Church’s mission, Halik wants to draw attention to a third group situated between secure and convinced Christians on one side and militant atheists on the other: namely, the humble searchers. The kairos of a Church-in-siesta, Halik contends, is to accompany them and to be close to them, allowing space for God to act, but also to learn from them.

On Sunday, all the participants traveled from Castel Gandolfo to the German College, Campo Santo, just inside the Vatican, for concelebrated Mass with the Pope Emeritus. Cardinals Schönborn and Koch, Bishops Adoukonou (Benin/Rome) and Hans-Jochen Jaschke (Hamburg), the Abbot of Heiligenkreuz (Vienna Woods) were joined by some thirty priests. Pope Emeritus Benedict preached—without any notes—a beautiful homily on the Sunday Gospel about the way the heart is purified though encounter with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh as mediated by His words (Scripture).

After the Mass, he re-opened the Hall in the College (once the museum) and now named the Pope Benedict XVI Hall. There he received each of his former students and new students, and exchanged greetings. I introduced four Irish members of the International Ratzinger Symposium (held annually in the SVD House, Maynooth) to the former Pontiff: Dr Mary McCaughey (also a member of the new Schülerkreis), Dr Mark Frances McKenna, Dr Mariusz Biliniewicz and Philip Cremin, M.A. Each presented him with copies of their recent publications/theses. I also presented Pope Benedict with a copy of the recently published doctoral dissertation on conscience in historical and existential context by my own former doctoral student, Stuart Chalmers (Aberdeen).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appeared to be in good health and in excellent form. A man of deep friendships who enjoys the company of his friends, he seems to blossom each time we meet with him for our annual meeting.

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About Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD 13 Articles
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including The End of Irish Catholicism?, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae. His most recent book is The Dynamics of Liturgy—Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation (Ignatius Press, 2022). In 2011, Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Fr. Twomey for outstanding services rendered to the Church and to the Holy Father.