The story of today's St. Ignatius Institute, a Catholic “Great Books” program at the University of San Francisco, began in the late 1970s with a Cuban-born graduate student in Atlanta, a Swiss theologian, and an American editor.

While many are familiar with the editor — Father Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press — and still others know of the theologian — Hans Urs von Balthasar — few have heard of that graduate student, now marking 21 years as St. Ignatius Institute's principal professor.

He is Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, author of biblical commentary, translator of multiple works by von Balthasar and Catholic writers, and a translator of the definitive English text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Leiva was studying comparative literature and theology at Emory University when he began studying the writings of von Balthasar — whom he describes without hestitation as “the greatest theologian of the 20th century.” Leiva accepted a fellowship to study German language and literature in order to better read and translate von Balthasar. When Leiva expressed his interest in translating the priest's works into English, von Balthasar introduced him by letter to Father Fessio, who had founded Ignatius Press with the intent of introducing von Balthasar to this continent.

Father Fessio soon recruited Leiva not only to do the translation but to teach for St. Ignatius Institute (SII), which Fessio had helped open the previous year. “He got on a bus in Atlanta, Georgia, drove out, and was here for morning prayer,” Father Fessio recalled.

Leiva, 52, son of a Cuban father and Greek mother, has been the teacher at the heart of SII from its second year. SII enrolls 130 to 140 undergraduate students a year. As the closest person the school has to a full-time professor — the remaining 20 are hand-picked from the university's faculty — he is “simply indispensable,” according to John Galten, SII director. “He's not only what I consider a genius, if that's not going too far, but he's a human being with boundless energy. He's just an extraordinary teacher.

“He sets the fire going for the love of learning so that it just never dies.”

SII is the brainchild of a group of Jesuits and lay people who wanted to resurrect the plan of studies begun by Jesuit founder St. Ignatius, a plan which had fallen into disuse. Like many liberal arts programs across the country, SII guides a cohort of students through a classical, literature-based curriculum. Unlike many such programs, the institute itself does not fulfill a major; rather, its students choose from the full range of majors at the University of San Francisco, and SII provides 71 of the minimum required 128 units for graduation by way of one seminar course and two supporting lectures each semester.

One of SII's better known graduates is chastity spokeswoman and author Mary Beth Bonacci. Director Galten also points with pride to a number of conversions, religious vocations, “good marriages,” and pro-life apostolates among SII's graduates.

“Precisely because of the kind of program we are … I usually say to (my students), ‘You may consider this useless, in the sense that it doesn't translate into something other than itself,’” said Leiva. “ ‘But it can transform your vision of things so deeply in your soul, so that whatever you do, from raising a family to how you treat your friends, will be transformed. Everything is going to be different because you're different. If we can affect what you are, it will affect everything you do.’ ”

Leiva's own education includes a bachelor's degree in French from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, a master's in comparative literature, and a doctorate in comparative literature and theology from Emory University. A language expert, Leiva is fluent in German, Spanish, English, French, and Italian, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

At the institute, Leiva directs seminars in Greek literature and culture, the figure of Jesus in the New Testament, ancient literature through the Middle Ages, and 20th century Catholic literary revival, which covers American writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Annie Dillard, but also a range of international writers, including Charles Peguy, Shusaku Endo, and George McKay Brown.

“I always work with texts. I tell my students, ‘I'm not really your teacher … but this text is our teacher,’” Leiva said.

However, he added, “I've never believed that the student knows as much as the teacher…. I'm not a facilitator. (But also) I'm not a guru or a high priest. What I want to do is help the student admire and understand what I admire and understand.

“There's a treasure here that's inexhaustible. I want to take the students to that watering hole, as it were.”

Leiva helps the students encounter the books on their own terms rather than with theological criticism or strict moral categories.

“We have to distinguish between great imaginative literature on the one hand, and any other kind, such as the Catechism, where the objective is to define the exact content of faith,” he said. “The first concern is not, ‘Is it Catholic?’ or ‘Is it true?’ It is, ‘Is it great literature and why?’ One thing is speaking the truth, and the other is doing it so that it captivates the intellect.

“The function of great literature is to show us the reality of human experience without sparing us the messy details.”

Even his course on the New Testament focuses not on points of belief but on Jesus as the hero of an exciting story. Surprisingly, it is his students from a non-religious background (about 20% of SII students are non-Catholic) who have the most refreshing and original responses to the Gospel texts, Leiva said.

“Some of these kids come at the text of the Gospels with a completely unprejudiced view,” he said, while many of the Catholic students are almost “immunized” against the text, and are bored.

“It's a very odd situation, in which I'm trying to do something to break these kids out of their apathy (and) a lack of courage in the imagination,” said Leiva, suggesting that the religious education of Catholic children may be too intent on dogma and not enough on the level of affection and emotion.

“(Parents should) still teach the full boldness of the faith, (but) go back to the Scriptures always, to the living figure of Jesus in the Gospels,” said Leiva, author of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel of St. Matthew (Ignatius Press).

Despite numerous homilies that begin with “The message of today's Gospel …,” Leiva insists: “It's not a message, it's an encounter. The ‘message’ is to get into the story and encounter this man and live with this man.”

As a special translator of the Catechism from the French to the English — working particularly on the first and fourth sections — Leiva said the final version contains a good balance of intellectual coherence and that “fascination of the heart” that marks good literature.

“I love the Catechism that we have,” he said. “It's very complete and it's very precise, and it's also very beautiful.”

Leiva has translated numerous other books, including the memoirs of Joseph Ratzinger, from the German, and German mystic Adrienne von Speyr's They Followed His Call. But his singular contribution has been the translation of several works of the prolific theologian von Balthasar, who once called Leiva his most faithful translator because he best understood his thought.

“(Von Balthasar) brings the whole category of contemplative beauty into theological reflection more than any other theologian today,” said Leiva, who had the opportunity to meet the priest twice before his death in 1988. “We ought to approach the whole form of revelation … as one approaches a great mural painting, examining each part within the context of the whole, except that this work of art is by the Creator himself.”

This concept of the importance of admiration spills over into Leiva's role as a teacher of literature to college students. As he wrote in a speech given last summer: “Clarity of reason, right choice of will, will then be a result, a byproduct, an indirect fruit of the soul's having been transformed by the contemplation of the beautiful.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.