Professor Karin Heller

Dr. Karin Heller, an Austrian by birth and a French citizen, recently moved from Paris to the Pacific Northwest to begin teaching Catholic theology at Whit-worth College, a Presbyterian school in Spokane, Wash., as part of the school's commitment to ecumenism. She had never been to the United States before coming to Whitworth.

Heller holds three doctoral theses from European universities — the Sorbonne, the Lateran in Rome and Ludwig-MaximiliansUniversitat in Munich. She also has been affiliated with the Pope John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

As a young woman Heller was one of the first to undergo the solemn rite of consecration of a virgin living in the world in Austria. She recently spoke to Register correspondent Jesuit Father Matt Gamber at her new residence in Spokane.

You are a Roman Catholic consecrated laywoman from Europe teaching Catholic theology at a Presbyterian college in the great “unchurched” area of the Pacific Northwest. How did that happen?

After teaching in Europe for many years, my contract with the theology faculty of Lugano in Switzerland was not renewed. Bishop [Angelo] Scola, former rector of the Lateran University and director of my first doctoral thesis [he is now patriarch of Venice and was recently made cardinal], asked me to lend a helping hand with the foundation of a Pope John Paul II session in studies on marriage and the family in Ireland.

Six months later, a new bishop came in. He put an end to the project. Therefore, I found myself without a job.

I went on the Internet and looked for jobs in “religion.” Whitworth College came up. The job description was fitting with what I could offer. Just before sending in my application, I took out a map of the United States and figured out where Washington state and Spokane were. Having found them I said to myself, “I hope it won't be there! It's so far away from France!”

Finally, at the beginning of December 2002, I received a phone call from Whitworth College. After a phone interview, I was invited to come to Whitworth for an interview. The position was offered to me and I signed my contract on Dec. 24. It was an unexpected and quite unbelievable Christmas gift.

You recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of your consecration. How has living this vocation influenced your faith in Jesus Christ?

I would say it is rather faith given by God that influenced my vocation. My vocation is rooted in my childhood. The sign of the cross learned in kindergarten revealed to me that I was involved in a mysterious relationship with the three divine persons. I just wanted to know more about who they were. This was the big question when I was 5.

Throughout my life, God has created very specific conditions of faith. In this way, faith led me essentially to abide with Jesus in good and bad times. That is exactly what married people do when they are Christians. They abide with one another in good and in bad times. What they are called to put into practice, I was called to put into practice with regard to Jesus.

Have you any observations about the Catholic Church in the United States since your arrival here last summer?

Since my arrival in the United States last August, I've been very busy organizing my life and trying to live and teach within a faith community that is not my traditional Church community.

But I can see the Catholic Church in the United States through my Catholic parish and through the media. The Church in the United States seems to me overshadowed by the sexual-abuse scandal, the problems linked with aging clergy and the question of vocations. This is also the case for the Catholic Church in Europe.

However, the Catholic Church in the United States seems to me more actively involved in a concrete healing process. She manifests a stronger awareness of the broken trust that will take years to be built up again. The European Churches focus more on juridical issues for the bishops and the priests concerning the sexual-abuse issues.

How would you describe the state of the Catholic Church in Western Europe? Is it as much in decline as we read about? Are there any signs of hope you could point to?

I honestly did not have much time to read about the American perception of the Catholic Church in Europe. My vision of this Church is a very practical one. When I settled in France in 1975, priests were complaining because they had to take care of four or five parishes. When I settled in Switzerland in 1993, the same priests had 15 or 16 parishes.

In Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland the buildings are well maintained. Churches are at least clean and well restored.

France faces a starker situation on account of the separation between church and state. The Church alone is in charge of all the buildings built after 1905. Many communities, especially in the rural regions, reduced to few people, cannot afford the high costs of maintenance. In the north of France in particular, where there is a large Islamic community, it is not rare that churches are transformed into mosques.

Having said that, every year the Catholic Church in Paris presents to her bishop about 200 adults preparing for baptism. Other dioceses with a less-dense population come up with 25 to 30 catechumens. The traditional centers of pilgrimage such as Lourdes, Paray-le-Monial, rue du Bac in Paris or Lisieux are always well visited.

In spite of these signs of hope, the Church in Europe suffers increasingly from a lack of human as well as material resources.

Another difficulty has to be underlined: The older generations have all benefited from a Christian formation supported by liturgy and therefore Scripture, a Catechism and the living example of religious people. The young generations are genuine; they come from a “world” that has not many Christian roots anymore. It is therefore difficult for them to grow in Christian maturity.

You have been affiliated with the Pope John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. How would you assess the impact of these institutions on the life of the Church?

This is precisely an aspect that underlines the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church in Europe.

There is of course the mother institute in Rome housed by the Lateran University. But there is no branch of this institute neither in France nor in Germany, Switzerland or Portugal.

Cardinal [Christoph] Schün-born, archbishop of Vienna, Austria, founded some years ago an International Theological Institute in Lower Austria. The institute delivers degrees following the curricula of the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran University. There is even an English-language track.

This year 52 students are enrolled from 15 countries; 11 students come from the United States. Another European branch exists in Valencia, Spain, which enrolls about 60 students.

How have the faculty and students at Whitworth College responded to you?

Since my arrival I have had wonderful contacts with faculty and students. There is an exceptional mutual support among colleagues and I am simply one of them. We work hard, but we also take time to talk to one another and to pray together. They manifest a deep love for Christ, the word of God and God's sovereign grace, which extends also to me.

Students are attracted by the topics I offer. They are particularly interested in Catholic perspectives with regard to Protestant doctrine but also in issues on celibacy, ordination, tradition and teaching authority of the Church. Sometimes they are attracted by my European background, French culture or simply because they like my way of being with them.

Students are looking of course for a high academic standard but also, and perhaps primarily, for professors with strong “faith stories.” It does not really matter to them if these stories are Catholic or Protestant. They love to hear and to meet people who bear witness to Christ. High academic standards deeply linked with faith sustain and encourage them to look for God's will in their lives in order to put it into practice.

Father Matt Gamber writes from Spokane, Wash.

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