ROME — An American priest and scholar who was awarded the annual Ratzinger Prize for Theology by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 20 was both thrilled and surprised to receive the honor.
“It was a total surprise for me, but I'm really touched that they would think of me for this and that it would bear the name of our present Holy Father, whom I have always admired a lot,” said Jesuit Father Brian Daley, a professor of patristic theology at the University of Notre Dame.
The 72-year-old shared the honor with French Catholic lay philosopher Remi Brague.
“Father Daley and professor Brague are exemplary for the transmission of knowledge that unites science and wisdom, scientific rigor and passion for man, so that man might discover the true ‘art of living,’” the Pope said at the Vatican ceremony.
Established in 2010 by the Joseph Ratzinger Vatican Foundation, the award is described as an effort to “promote the publication, distribution and study of the writings” of the former university professor, known today as Pope Benedict XVI.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency after Saturday's event, Father Daley reflected that the winners of the prestigious award tend to be those “who do the kind of theology and philosophy that the Holy Father himself is interested in.”
Pope Benedict, he noted, has “worked for so many years on the Church Fathers and medieval theology — he has a wonderful book on Augustine; he has one on St. Bonaventure — and then also on the interface between faith and philosophy, faith and reason.”
“I studied the early Church,” he added, and co-recipient Remi Brague “works on the relationship of religion and faith within a democracy and modern culture, with both Islam and Christianity.”
“So I think these are both things that the person of the Holy Father is very interested in.”
Father Daley, a scholar specializing in the early Church Fathers, said these formative theologians and pastors should serve to inspire Christians of every age and advance the work of the New Evangelization, the topic being addressed at the bishops' synod, which is currently under way in Rome; it ends Oct. 28.
“I think there is that liberating effect” in reading about the early Church, he said.
“Many of the people we read, as Church Fathers, are really good theologians — highly sophisticated people of many different skills and outlooks. They were not uniform. But they presented different approaches to making sense of the Christian faith in their own time.”
Touching on the role theology plays in the modern world, Father Daley said, “We're always thinking about how we can make sense, how we can give account, for the faith that we share.”
“Theology does that. What I do is one part of doing that: Seeing theology as something alive, that draws on its past, but is constantly thinking about itself, enables us to continue that process with more freedom.”
The award ceremony was not the first time Father Daley has met the Pope — the two became acquainted when he was studying theology in Germany and met the future Holy Father at a seminar in 1970.
“He spoke on the subject of Christology: Who is Christ for us?” Father Daley recalled. “It was a little group, maybe 20 people in all. And we all had dinner together, and Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Mass for us every day.
“It was a very intimate gathering. I don’t know if he remembers my presence there, but I definitely remember his. I never dreamed he'd be Pope.”