Communio Study Circles Make Theology ‘Concrete’
The Study Circles are aimed at helping “readers rediscover holiness in the following of Christ as a form of intelligence … in all spheres of life,” says theologian Nicholas Healy.
For most people, studying in a group is a strong preference. Engaging a text or delving into a topic with others can help provide accountability, and a wider perspective than one mind alone can offer.
But for the theological-cultural journal Communio, communal participation isn’t merely a nice add-on. It’s an inseparable aspect of the publication’s identity, and the deeper approach to Catholic life that animates it.
“The purpose of the journal, as the founders intended it, was to serve God’s gift of universal communion, not just by writing about it, but by cultivating and being a network of theological friendship held together by this commitment to catholicity,” explained Nicholas Healy, a theologian and longtime Communio contributor, in a 2006 article entitled “Communio: A Theological Journey.”
The founders Healy refers to are none other than three of the most significant theologians of the 20th century: Henri de Lubac, Josef Ratzinger (who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI) and Hans Urs Von Balthsar. The three founded Communio in 1972, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, as a forum within which to reflect upon and articulate a renewed Catholic theology in continuity with the Church’s tradition.
Their vision of “theological friendship” plays out today, in part, in the form of Communio Study Circles found throughout the English-speaking world. Study Circles exist wherever Communio readers decide to start them, with the editors and staff at the publication playing a loose role in helping particular groups get off the ground. There are currently 35 such groups, mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and even one in Lebanon.
The newest of these Study Circles (of which I’m grateful to be a part) just formed in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, a mix of old friends and new faces, clergy and laity, brought together by a common passion for reflecting on the wisdom of Catholic theology, its insights into the truth of God and man, and applying them to life today. At our first gathering, we enjoyed some wine and cheese, discussed Father Antonio López’s article from the Fall 2020 edition of Communio, “Without Beginning,” (a timely reflection on the disparate practices of “power” found in the Divine Life versus our present day, technological society) and ended the gathering with Night Prayer.
Each Study Circle takes on a life of its own, incarnating the common elements of prayer, study, and fraternity in ways that are responsive to the desires and common interests of the particular group. For instance, the Fresno, California, community is currently working their way through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, which they hope to complete in their lifetime. In Waterloo, Canada, the Study Circle marked the 2019 canonization of St. John Henry Newman with a “Newman Tribute Night,” including an in-house choir that performed pieces based on Newman’s works. Members of the Milwaukee Study Circle recently attended a retreat with the religious Community of St. John in Princeville, Illinois, and have hopes to travel together to the south of France when COVID-19 restrictions lift.
Study Circles often invite the authors of Communio pieces they’re studying to present on their works, and Zoom has created additional opportunities for connection between the various groups — especially given the pandemic-induced absence of the typical annual gathering of Communio readers. And each December, the journal sends out “Communique,” a round-up of what each Circle has been up to over the past year.
The blend of diversity and unity exhibited through the network of Communio Study Circles reflects the original inspiration of the publication as a whole, which wasn’t founded as a single centralized edition “mechanically translated into several languages,” according to Balthasar, but rather as a “living association of reviews that choose and discuss their themes in the same spirit of catholicity.” Today, there are 13 different language editions of Communio still publishing.
The locality of the Study Circles also allows a central concern of the founders to play out: the application of Catholic theology to the particular questions and challenges of different moments and different places. As Ratzinger wrote, the founders were convinced that the “crisis” of the 20th century was not only theological, but also cultural. Therefore, “the journal had to address the cultural domain, too, and had to be edited in collaboration with lay persons of high cultural competence,” he said.
Communio Study Circles reflect this, their membership often made up of people of a variety of professions and walks of life. According to David Schindler, a longtime professor at John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Life in Washington, D.C, the ability to discuss with others in a communal context an aspect of Catholic theology “simply makes it more concrete and ties it more directly, closely to local situations.”
“People working in different fields will talk about what the article their reading means in terms of their work as a doctor, or as an artist,” said Schindler, who helped facilitate the founding of the English-language Communio in the 1970s. He also added that articles and topics focusing on the sacramental and ecclesial nature of Catholic worship produced especially lively and pertinent discussions in Study Circles located in areas where government COVID-19 restrictions significantly limited the ability to go to Mass and receive the sacraments.
In short, the Study Circles — and Communio as a whole — are aimed at helping “readers rediscover holiness in the following of Christ as a form of intelligence, not just in theology, understood as an academic discipline, but in all spheres of life,” wrote Healy. Or, in the words of Balthasar, the publication and communities it has generated help laypeople discover the watermark of Christ in every aspect of creation.
Which now, nearly 50 years after the journal’s original founding, remains as needed as ever before.