In the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, members of the Dominican Order tend to be particularly well-versed in philosophy, theology, scholasticism, and the great intellectual tradition of the Church. This is part of the reason why, for the last 800 years, a Dominican has filled a special role in the papal court.
The Theologian to the Papal Household (formerly known as the Master of the Sacred Palace) is a special theological adviser to the Holy Father. The role involves combing the pope’s texts, documents, and speeches for theological accuracy, and used to involve the censorship of all books published in Rome, among other tasks. A Dominican has held this position for eight centuries.
The current holder of the office of Father Wojciech Giertych, OP. Father Giertych is the author of a book recently published by EWTN and Sophia Institute Press, The Spark of Faith: Understanding the Power of Reaching Out to God (2018), which was first published in Polish in preparation for the Year of Faith proclaimed by the Holy Father for 2012-2013.
Father Giertych recently spoke with Catholic World Report from his apartment in the Vatican about his book and his role as Theologian of the Papal Household.
CWR: How did the book come to be?
Father Wojciech Giertych, OP: This is a book which I wrote for the Year of Faith, and it appeared in Poland in 2012. When Pope Benedict declared the Year of Faith, I thought I’d write a pastoral book which would explain what is the meaning of faith, and why it is important. And, in fact, the publishing house in Poland (called Wydawnictwo Bernardinum) received some award among Catholic publications for the publication of this book.
I’ve written several books, but I write in Polish—that is the basic language of my work. And, being Polish, I understand better the situation in Poland, and when you write a theological work with a pastoral intent you have to take into account a given social and ecclesial context. But teaching here at the Angelicum [the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome], I was often asked by students when I will start writing in English. So I thought this was the best book to translate first and to publish in English.
CWR: You mention the Angelicum; how long have you been teaching there?
Father Giertych: I have been teaching here since 1994.
CWR: And how long have you been in your current role as Theologian of the Papal Household?
Father Giertych: I was appointed in 2005, but I began on January 1, 2006.
CWR: Can you tell us about your background and what brought you to the Dominicans?
Father Giertych: I was born in 1951 in England, of Polish parents. My parents emigrated to England after the Second World War. My father was a writer involved in Polish politics, critical of communism, so he had to flee and my parents settled in England. I was born there and did my primary education and secondary education in England. By the time I reached the age of university studies the situation in Poland had changed; there was still communism, but it was not as bad as the 1950s. And it turned out it was possible to go to study in Poland, and I wanted to know the country of my origins, and not only the mythical Poland of my parents, the pre-War Poland.
So I went to Poland and I studied history for five years, in the city of Poznań. And during those years, I got to know the Dominican order. I was active in the Dominican student chaplaincy by the university. It was independent of the university, but the priory was close to the university. And there I discovered my vocation, and so I acquired Polish citizenship and entered the Order in Poland. So I am a son of the Polish province of the Dominican Order, and I did my studies in philosophy and theology in Krakow.
I began my studies when the local bishop was a certain Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. I arrived in Krakow for my studies in 1976, and he was elected pope in 1978, when I was a seminarian, a young student brother. I saw him several times, but I never had any personal contact with him. After ordination in 1981 I was sent to Rome to do two more years of studies in spiritual theology, and then I returned to Poland and I worked in Krakow, being involved in formation of young Dominicans and teaching moral theology. I came back to Rome again in 1987-89 to do a doctorate at the Angelicum. Then I was a Student Master in the Dominican House of Studies in Krakow and I was engaged in preaching in Poland.
When I finished my office as the Student Master in 1994, I was called to the Angelicum to teach there. For four years I taught one semester in Rome, and one semester in Kraków. Then the Master of the Order, who happened to be English—Father Timothy Radcliffe—assigned me to the other Dominican priory in Rome (Santa Sabina, which is the headquarters of the Dominican Order) and I became his Socius, which basically means his assistant, for central and eastern Europe. He was English. I was from England but from Poland, and in the meantime communism had fallen; it was possible to send many of my former students to the former countries of the Soviet Union, to Ukraine, to Russia, to the Baltics, to Czechoslovakia and Hungary—and the Dominican Order was being reborn there. So I was a sort of contact person between the Dominican brothers there and the central government of the Order.
Then, at a later stage, there was a new Master of the Order, Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa, who was Argentinean. So being in Rome throughout these years I continued teaching in the Angelicum on a limited scale. I have never been a full-scale professor at the Angelicum, but I have always had courses. Then the Argentinean Master of the Order made me the Socius for the Intellectual Life, which basically meant that I was concerned with the studies in the Order. So I traveled all over the world seeing the centers for Dominican studies, and doing the paperwork between them and the Holy See. And when that was due to end, suddenly I was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the Papal Theologian, and I gave been in this office ever since.
CWR: Can you give a brief description of the role of the Papal Theologian?
Father Giertych: In past centuries, the Papal Theologian (who was known as the Master of Sacred Palace) had to give conferences in theology to the papal court. He had to do the censorship of all the books published in Rome, and to he had to read the texts prepared for the Holy Father. Well, happily I don’t have to preach to the Roman Curia, I don’t have to do the censorship of all the books published in Rome, so I’m left with the last task. Basically, it’s an internal procedure of the Holy See that, as the various discourses are prepared for the Pope, before the Pope receives them, the Papal Theologian has to read them and see whether they are theologically correct and not confusing and so on. And so this is my task.
A Dominican has been in this office for almost eight centuries. It is a task that is always assigned to a Dominican. There is a certain experience of the Holy See in this; it is good to have a Dominican at hand who ought to know St. Thomas, the theology of Aquinas. This is basically the reason why I live in the Vatican. I’m also a consultor to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
CWR: What does it mean to be a consultor to those congregations?
Father Giertych: For the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, periodically there are some issues on which the Congregation consults me. So I am given a file and asked to review it and give my opinion. It is the same with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but unfortunately, it is a bit more tedious. [laughs] The postulators of each cause cause prepare a great deal of documentation about the candidate for beatification or canonization, and then there are several consultors who have to read the documentation and then give their opinion as to whether the virtues were heroic or not. And then, on the basis of this judgment of the consultors, the Congregation itself (which is composed of bishops and cardinals) makes an opinion and then the issue is passed to the Holy Father who either approves or not the beatification or canonization.
CWR: You write that your book The Spark of Faith is “intended for people who sense that faith is important.” Can you say something about why faith is important in the first place?
Father Giertych: The main theme of this book is exactly this: why faith is important. And I am always struggling with old heresies that are present in the minds of many, certainly in the minds of people in Poland, but also in other countries as well. One is them is the so-called heresy of semi-Pelagianism, which claims that grace is needed, but that the transfer from unbelief to belief is supposedly an act of the natural human mind, and so we can convince somebody of faith, and talk him into faith. This is not true; faith is a gift of grace and not a product of the reasoning mind. We receive the grace of faith at baptism or even before. And the reason why God gives us this grace is that faith, which is followed by hope and charity, is a supernatural virtue infused in the soul, which enables us to engage with God. So it is given as a tool that enables our encounter with God. This is why this tool is important. We have received it, and we can use, or we can fail to use the faith that we have received.
I often compare faith with a computer program that we have had installed at baptism in our soul. Sometimes we ignore this program. We may have a program in a computer that we never use. And at some moment, suddenly we have to do something new that we have never done. And we discover, “Hey, I can do it! It’s in my computer already, and I can bring it up on the screen.” There’s always a moment of joy when this is discovered. Faith has been installed in our souls at baptism. It is an instrument that enables us to engage with God. The important thing therefore is that we develop that faith, use it, grow in faith, and allow faith to become the fundamental axis of our life.
Thus, it is more important to work on the development of the theological virtues than on the moral virtues, whereas many of us were raised with the thinking: first of all we have to deal with morals, we have to struggle against sin, whereas mysticism, the encounter with God, is something that will come in old age. This reasoning is incorrect. At whatever stage we are now, we can use the graces that we have received. Even though we experience sin, we can enter into a living relationship with God, using the received virtue of faith. I noticed the importance of this, when I read the definition of the virtue of faith, given by Aquinas. It is composed of two moments. St. Thomas writes that in faith there are two moments. First of all, it is the inchoatio vitae aeternae, the sparking of the supernatural life; and then there is the second moment as faith adapts the mind to assent to the revealed mystery. Faith allows us to adhere to that which is not evident, which has been revealed.
In the modern centuries, the emphasis was put on the second moment of faith. Thus the questions that were most often dealt with were the relationship of faith and reason, of faith and science, the difficulties with Galileo and Darwin. All these issues were in the fore. Whereas the reason why faith is important—this was taken for granted and so it was not developed. I stress that today the first part of the definition of faith needs to be brought to the fore. It explains why is faith important. It is important because it allows us to engage with God. The fruitfulness of the Christian life, the fruitfulness of grace, depends on whether we truly engage with God and this takes place through faith, hope, and charity. Faith is first among these theological virtues. Faith sparks the supernatural life in us. It is important therefore that we make acts of faith, that we grow in faith, that we use the installed program and enter into a relationship with God.
In the Polish edition of the book, I played a little joke with the cover of the book. It has a picture of a spark plug. In the Polish language—as in Italian and in French—there is the same word for a candle and a spark plug. In English there are two different words. Now, I thought that for a book for the Year of Faith, to have a candle on the cover would be boring. So instead I have a spark plug. In some book shops they put the book among the technical books about cars! In the English version we had to change the title slightly. I could not play on these words.
CWR: The third chapter is called: “Is it essential that the confessed faith be exact?” There are some who say that the Creed is too rigid; faith needs to be more fluid. But as Catholics we have this 2,000-year history of hashing out the questions to combat heresy. What is the role of creeds in the life of faith?
Father Giertych: We have a line from St. Paul in the letter to the Romans which is often repeated: “Faith comes from hearing” (Fides ex auditu). St. Thomas in his commentary [on] St. Paul makes a distinction here: he says that faith as the virtue does not come from hearing. It is not that we are convinced by a preacher to believe. Faith is a gift of grace. So the capacity of our mind to adhere to the mysterious God who is the First Truth, this is something that we received from God as a free gift of grace. But then the contents of faith, the truths of faith, they have been transmitted in Revelation and then handed down in the Church from the times of the Apostles. And so the truths of faith, about the Trinity, about Christ, the articles of faith about the Church and the sacraments, are taught. But faith itself is the extending of the mind toward the life-giving mystery and this capacity is a gift of grace.
When we have faith, it does not mean that we have to stop to think. We think outside of faith, in the realm of philosophy and the sciences, and we are perfectly entitled to think and to study and to know, but also within faith we can think. This means that within faith, we can think about the truths of faith, and about their significance. In this reflection we study the intelligibility, but not the rationality of the truths of faith. We do not try to prove the truths of faith: we cannot prove the Resurrection of Christ, or Transubstantiation. But we can see the intelligibility of these truths, the contours of the truth that can be grasped by the mind within faith.
That is why it is important that we grasp the truths of faith correctly. Through the articles of faith, received in the act of faith, we adhere to God. Of course the adherence to God is more than just the knowledge of what is in the catechism. But it is through this knowledge that our mind is geared toward the life-giving truth. And so it is important that this articulation of faith will be correct, because if we have an incorrect understanding of the basic truths of faith this will have a distorting impact on our lives. After all, to understand what it means to be a human being, we have to look at the glorified humanity of Christ, the perfect Man, who at the same time is God.
Thus the motto “Deeds, not creeds” (which claims that the creeds are irrelevant) is erroneous. This is because if the creeds are wrong, then the resulting deeds will also be wrong!
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