CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — The annual gathering of Pope Benedict’s former students has begun at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and is examining the ecumenical dialogue the Catholic Church has with Lutherans and Anglicans.
“The fact that the Holy Father has chosen this theme for the meeting this year is a sign that the ecumenical question is of primary importance for him,” said participant Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna in an Aug. 30 interview with Vatican Radio.
“I think this is already a first essential concept, within the context of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, it is a strong sign that the Holy Father insists on the importance of these meetings between separated Christians.”
The Ratzinger Schülerkreis (Ratzinger Student Circle) has taken place every summer since 1977. It draws together those who defended their doctoral theses with the present Pope during his years teaching theology at various universities in Germany.
Last year, for the first time ever, the numbers also included those who have written their doctrinal theses on texts by then-Joseph Ratzinger. With the addition of those students, the number of those participating in the three days of closed-door seminars increased to approximately 40.
“It is an academic circle, and this means that what counts are the arguments,” said Cardinal Schönborn. “Of course there is the question of friendships that have been built up after so many years, we have met for over 30 years, every year, and now we are almost at the point of retirement!”
A key component of the annual get together is, of course, the involvement of Pope Benedict himself. Cardinal Schönborn said the Pope’s disposition throughout is not merely academic but also “paternal” and “fraternal” towards his former students.
“What strikes us is how the Holy Father always knows his pupils, he always asks about their family, children, and when there is suffering in a family he knows about it, he cares deeply,” the Austrian cardinal said.
The basis for much of the group’s studies this week will be Cardinal Walter Kasper’s 2009 book Harvesting the Fruits, which explores Catholic relations with Anglicanism and Lutheranism.
The discussion on Lutheranism will be led by the German Lutheran Bishop-Emeritus Ulrich Wilckens, while the Swiss Catholic Bishop Charles Morerod of Geneva, Lausanne and Fribourg will lead the discussion on Anglicanism.
“With the Holy Father, we expect a dialogue in truth and charity: in the truth that does not conceal the drama of division among Christians in Europe and, as a consequence, all over the world, but also the great issue of what is the reform of the Church, a theme of utmost importance to the Holy Father,” Cardinal Schönborn remarked.
Pope Benedict’s 26-year academic career involved him teaching at universities in Bonn, Munster, Tubingen and Regensburg. He was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977.