When I was a graduate student at the Angelicum back in the 1980s, I sat at the feet of learned and clever Dominicans who were determined to teach me theology. It was a heady experience and to help pay for it, along with providing support for the young family I brought with me to Rome, I needed a job. I knew I was not made to live by bread alone, but I could hardly subject my family to such an arrangement. And so I was grateful for several teaching gigs that came my way, chief of which from the University of Dallas, whose Rome Program regularly drew a hundred or so students every semester. I became the youngest and certainly the least distinguished member of an otherwise high-powered faculty, including no less an eminence than Frederick Wilhemsen, who proved to be a great friend and mentor to me. And despite all the theology I did not know, I managed to stay a sufficient number of pages ahead of my students, so that most of them scarcely noticed my shortcomings. Those that did were kind enough to keep quiet about it.
Thirty-five years later and still burdened by the weight of all that I do not know, I now find myself in Gaming, a lovely little village in Lower Austria surrounded by stunning vistas of snow and ice, where in a few days double that number of students will be sitting at my feet. And while this time around I will be the oldest member of the faculty, I remain as undistinguished as ever. Still, there is something to be said for the authority of experience, on which I have a good many years to draw. Having such experience, writes Luigi Giussani in his little book The Journey to Truth Is an Experience, “generates freshness, wonder, and respect. Inevitably, it is attractive; it is evocative. Not to value the presence of this effective authority,” he warns, “is to cling pettily to our own limits.” If the young are not to be educated by themselves, who is left to do it? Surely those who have been on a journey should have something of wisdom to impart to those just starting out.
On the other hand, however, there is the authority of T. S. Eliot, distilled from a lifetime’s experience, in which he tells us in Four Quartets, “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly. / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”
So maybe I can offer a bit of that as well.
But there is one commanding advantage that I do enjoy, and that is having an ideal set of students to teach; huge and gratifying numbers of them, in fact, whose enthusiasm for their Catholic faith equals any comparable collection of young people on the planet.
All of them, you see, will be coming fresh from Steubenville, which means they’ve caught this strange contagion of wanting to love God and serve his Church in ways that will prove essential to the New Evangelization. If you’ve never experienced the Franciscan infection, five minutes in their company will persuade you of its attractiveness. In their eagerness to identify with Christ, even to the point of annealing themselves to his pierced and crucified side, they witness to the joy of the gospel, calling to mind the example of Saint Francis, il povero from Assissi, whom they aspire to emulate in their shared sense of vibrancy and vision.
There is something quite wonderful about that. “For Francis,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in a beautiful passage from Razing the Bastions, “to be a Christian was something just as immense, certain and startlingly glorious as to be a human being, a youth, a man. And because being a Christian is eternal being and eternal youth, without danger of withering and resignation, his immediate joy was deeper. Not one single year separated him from Christ, the one who had become flesh; from the manger; from the Cross. For him, not one speck of dust had settled on the freshness of the wonder in the passage of time. The hodie of the liturgy on the great feasts was the hodie of his life. Is there a saint who has had any other Christian consciousness of time?”
Perhaps not, which is why I find it a privilege and a delight to teach in the company of those who seek to radiate something of that same spirit. Their eagerness and docility, which makes them eminently teachable, quickens the juices, thus catalyzing a richer and more impassioned encounter with the truth by which both teacher and student are meant to live. Besides, what else is there to showcase in the classroom if not the truth?
The real challenge, of course, is doing it in the middle of a museum, which is what much of Europe has become. A stage set for a play whose audience is no longer interested. Gaming is a place where, for all its undeniable alpine charm and baroque Catholic veneer, the center no longer holds. It is part of a dying continent whose connection to the faith of its ancestors has grown so attenuated as to be hardly recognizable. Pretty soon only students of archeology will be interested in traveling to Europe, there to unearth evidence that here was once a thriving Catholic culture, whose animating presence gave the world something to live and die for.
The evidence of dissolution is everywhere for those who have come here for a time to live and to study, to teach and to travel, and to pray. Situated amid the renovated ruins of an ancient Carthusian monastery, the setting could scarcely be more picturesque. Yet beneath the careful reconstruction, the elaborate and expensive restorations, there lies a world that is no more. The monks who first came here in the early fourteenth century at the invitation of a Habsburg prince, laying their cornerstone on the Feast of Our Lady’s Assumption in 1332, have been gone for a very long time, their suppression in the late eighteenth century having left in its wake a set of buildings which, until the University purchased them back in the 1990s, were largely empty and ill-used. To be sure, an amazing rehabilitation has taken place, including a hotel and restaurant; which seems especially impressive in light of more recent despoliations, to wit, an army of Russians who occupied the place after the Second World War, turning the church into a stable for its horses.
But the cultural center no longer holds, even as the faith on which it depends may, thanks to the grace of God, endure. And because that faith is grounded in the One who knew how to climb out of the grave, we have hope. But, again, the cultural constructs have been bleached of anything distinctively Christian; their relevance is no longer understood by people who have grown accustomed to organizing their lives without reference to God. We live our faith, therefore, against the backdrop of a world that is no longer Christian, indeed, that has become post-Christian, even post-human.
Such is the problem that Gaming presents—two problems, actually. One is the loss of faith, of the will to believe among so many who live here. The other, which is not unrelated to the first, is the loss of a will to live, of a failure to make provision for those who come after. The future belongs to those who show up and, alas, no one is showing up. Birth rates continue to plummet in all the countries of Europe, leaving an old and tired citizenry having to wrestle with issues of senescence. A kind of death wish seems to have settled upon these people, edging them closer to a condition of demographic suicide.
Is there a way out? If so, have we who have come here for a short while anything to offer in the way of finding it? It is a question that, even after one week in this quaint little spot, I find myself asking again and again.
(Photo credit: Rudolf Schneck)