Amoebas, crustaceans and vertebrates
Fr. Wojciech Giertych OP tells of his work and intellectual dimension of dominican preaching
What does the assistant of the Master of the Order to the intellectual life deal with?
I perceive my service in the Order as of a minister of education. My job mainly consists in the administrative work, which is running the Master’s contacts with the Congregation for Catholic Education and with all schools and research institutions owned by the Order in the world. I travel a lot and get to know brothers who in our Order deal with intellectual formation and run research institutions. I’m also a member of the Order’s General Council and sometimes on behalf of the Master I carry out canonical visitations of some of the provinces.
How does, from your perspective as the Master’s assistant to the intellectual life, look Dominican brothers’ engagement in the Church’s intellectual life?
It looks differently in various provinces of the Order. When I ask myself a question as for what Provinces take up seriously the challenge for the intellectual activity, I usually think of the Province of Toulouse, the Province of England, the Province of Switzerland and also of the St Joseph Province in U.S.A. Some time ago the Province of France used to play a vital role in the intellectual life of the Order. Today, it might be undergoing some sort of crises, but I am very glad that the young generation of French Dominicans are coming back to this tradition. There are also provinces in our Order, which have laid a greater stress on running academic institutions. They might be more concerned with the administrative aspects, than with developing research programs. However, this is also a way of serving the intellectual mission in the Church. The Province of Philippines runs the biggest catholic university in the World – University of Santo Tomas in Manila, the site of education for 35000 students. The Province of Philippines runs a number of other higher education institutions. Recently, few Pilipino brothers have left for Ethiopia for founding the catholic university. The Province of Columbia owns an important university, which has got 5 independent branches. The other provinces, however have set their activity on chaplaincy rather than on serious academic work. Unfortunately, those brothers who want to take up scientific research are seen as freelancers and their involvement is treated as their personal hobby. They are respected members of their provinces but do not always receive a sufficient support. There are young provinces in our Order, which do not play any important role in the intellectual life of the Church, but at level of the local Church they are of some importance. The Province of Nigeria has got an important Dominican Institute in Ibadan. Few female and male Institutes of Consecrated Life have built their institutions in the neighborhood. The tiny and feeble Vicariate of Russia and the Ukraine runs the Institute of St Thomas Aquinas in Kiev, whose role, in comparison with what is happening in the Catholic Church in the Ukraine is very important. Drawing the map of Dominican academic institutions, I cannot skip those units, which remain under the direct jurisdiction of the Master of the Order. Their meaning is of international dimension, because they are institutions of education for future Dominican professors. Those institutions include: the Papal University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem and the Department of Theology at the Cantonal University in Swiss Fribourg. There are also scientific institutions in the Order, which do not operate as educational units, like Commissio Leonina that works on critical editing of the works of St Thomas Aquinas. Others are: the Historical Institute in Rome, or IDEO, the Center for Islamic Studies in Cairo.
What institutes occupy a vital place on the intellectual map of the Order? Could name any interesting intellectual projects carried out by Dominicans all over the World?
We have to bear in mind that our Order has got a decentralized structure. This is why we do not have such projects that would be realized simultaneously in many Provinces. I might name École Biblique in Jerusalem. When Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange OP founded that institute in 1890, it aimed at providing answers, which were arising at the point of contact of faith, biblical exegesis and great archeological discoveries in the Far East. École Biblique was also the main Dominican center of historical and critical exegesis. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Fathers working in École Biblique got involved into their examination. The greatest achievement of the institute was the translation of the Bible from the original languages. The Jerusalem Bible has practically replaced the Vulgate in the Church. Today, one might say, that questions concerning the historical and critical exegesis are not so urgent. That is why, École Biblique is searching for new methods of hermeneutic exegesis, it investigates narratology that is looking into theological purpose, with which the biblical authors were writing their books. It also reaches out for theological and spiritual readings of the Holy Scriptures. Recently, École Biblique has taken up a new academic project, which will bear fruit in 15 years. It attempts to publish a new edition of the Bible, whose the same page will contain numerous footnotes displaying variants of the text, historical and theological context and various commentaries, including rabbinic, patristic, Syrian, Greek, and Latin ones. The Theological Department of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland is another important academic centre. It is one of the most significant place, in which theology is researched in relation with the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. There is not any specific common intellectual project, but preserving the thought of St Thomas Aquinas in renewed, not only philosophical but also theological version, is very vital for the Order as well as for the Church. The alumni of the Theological Department of the University of Fribourg hold later important academic posts in the Church, they become professors, bishops.
The IDEO center in Cairo, which has got a magnificent library for the studies on Islam, is a place of meeting for young Egyptian researchers, who have a unique opportunity to meet with Christians and scientific achievements of Christian thought.
The Papal University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, apart from being alma mater of the Holy Father, enjoys a significant position among Roman papal universities. This Dominican University has got four departments: philosophy, theology, canon law, and social sciences. More than 1300 students from 98 countries study there. Both departments of philosophy and theology have got English and Italain section, which draw students from developing countries as well as from USA. I was once told was by an American student, that the Angelicum enjoys good reputation because the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas is still alive there, which means that fundamental philosophical and theological subjects are lectured in accordance with the same system. And this is very important for a novice student. In recent years. The Department of Social Sciences has been developing rapidly. Alumni of the Angelicum acquire significant posts in their countries and in the local Church.
We also have few centers that work on ecumenism, e.g.: Istina in Paris, the Institute of Patristic and Ecumenical Theology of St Nicolas in Bari, and the Ecumenical Institute, the only of such a kind in Rome, which functions within the Department of Theology of The Papal University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome (Angelicum).
Do Dominicans work in the field of interreligious dialogue?
Yes, because it is very important issue for the whole Church, especially in those countries, where Christians are minority. However, this matter is becoming more prevailing also in Europe, where very often followers of different religions live together in the same house. The Dominican Order has got its houses in Arab countries such as Iraq, Algeria, Egypt or Palestine. Last year provincial priors and brothers working in the Mediterranean region held a meeting in Istanbul devoted to the development of our presence and service in those countries. On that occasion we had a meeting at the Faculty of Islamic Theology of the University of Marmara, with which our brothers stay in contact. Professors of that Muslim university which trains teachers of Koranic schools are interested in the achievements of Islamic medieval philosophy and carry on comparative research with XIX century renaissance of catholic neo-Scholasticism which helped to adapt the Church to modernity. They would welcome such renaissance in Islam and they translated for their use a part of St. Thomas’ Summa contra Gentiles to Turkish, and even the encyclical of John Paul II Fides et ratio. One of our fathers from the monastery in Istanbul teaches Latin on that Islamic university!
Bishop Pierre Claverie, who was murdered in Oran stressed that Dominicans should be present on the lines of fissures between cultures and worlds, where straightforward evangelisation is not always possible, but where a witness of life is still important and so are the possible ties of friendship. Such witnessing requires theological reflection.
The Chapter is a time of discussing issues associated with the priorities of the Dominican life. One of them is the study. Nowadays, what are the challenges pertaining to the intellectual life that Dominicans are facing?
The General Chapter exercises the highest authority in our order. The changes, which are taking place in the world, constitute the context of our reflection upon the tasks awaiting us. Following our intellectual tradition we study and formulate theological thought by means of posing questions. The teaching of theology in modern times have often concentrated around certain theses that a student should get acquainted with. Much more interesting and fruitful method is the one of recognising questions posed by the world and questioning the world, the Church and ourselves. The sensitivity to such questions, which demands answering is of great importance. However the answers should not be sought outside the Church – in the ideologies, philosophy, modern culture or, all the worse, in the mass media, but we should search in the great tradition of the Church, the tradition which we are obliged to learn. There is a saying of father Yves Congar which was disturbing Roman theologians in the 50’: “My answers might be wrong, but the questions are true!”. And he asked questions concerning the theology of the laity, the meaning of the baptism, ecumenism and ecclesiology. Those questions were innovative at that time but the Second Vatican Council followed father Congar. Posing questions, even difficult ones, even if we do not know the answers or our answers are wrong, is an important part of Church’s life. The phenomenon of globalisation, political and economical dependencies, meeting points of civilisations or even points of conflict, mass migration – all these issues are stimulating our reflection. Can we really read those challenges in the light of the Gospel? Do we take part of the rich or the poor? Christians no longer live in a closed world. How the Church should find its way in this situation? What is the role of the laity and women in the Church? How the Gospel should be proclaimed in the countries that suffer the negative effects of globalisation? How should we tell about salvation in Africa, which is full of corruption and poverty? How to bring hope to the countries touched by the neocolonialism, unending wars and disaster of AIDS producing a demographic void and thousands of orphans. What about preaching the Gospel in Asia where in spite of many centuries of efforts Christians are only a little mustard seed surrounded by vast majority of non-Christians, sometimes hostile to the followers of Christ.
One of the problems I have to cope with as an Assistant for Intellectual Life is providing our Dominican universities with new faculty. We had several years when the vocations in many provinces were very few. Although there are provinces with sufficient number of vocations there is always a tendency to support mainly the pastoral work and to maintain all the commitments. As a result the formation of theologians, professors, writers, thinkers is insufficient. The recent chapters were drawing attention to this fact in a rather dramatic manner, but it usually takes a long time from pointing at a problem to finding a solution.
What is studying for Dominicans? What is, in your opinion the core of intellectual formation in the Order? What aspect of it you find inalienable?
Last year I was invited to Buenos Aires for the meeting of those responsible for the studies in Latin America. I entitled my paper The amoebas, the vertebrates, the crustaceans. The contemporary world characteristically lacks confidence in human cognitive powers. A man has become a sort of an amoeba, which has not got a specific shape. There are no reliable points of reference. In the past people used to know who they were, what country they were part, what was their denomination, and the value system was clear for them. Some would demand that the Church, as an remedy for such a situation impose on people certain values. In the past the orderly formation was very much burdened with a excessive stress on matters of outer behaviour, like clothes, observing the monastic rules and external discipline. Some new communities have come up with similar propositions. However, Dominican upbringing does not aim at imposing an external shell on a man, but it intends to develop a personal spine. That goal might be only achieved by studying philosophy, caring for spiritual life and by means of theology, which nourishes spiritual life and provokes to activities in the name of the Gospel. Renaissance marks in the European culture the beginning of scepticism in cognitive sciences and sentimentalism in faith. If reasoning and decision making are placed outside the faith, which is then reduced to feelings and emotions, sometimes collective but always hallow, then it is always a bad sign for the Church. The upbringing of the vertebrates needs the education of mind and its preparation for acceptance of the mystery of faith.
Fr. Damian Byrne, the then Master of the Order, was once asked why our tradition seems to underrate the meaning of a spiritual director. He answered that instead, Dominican tradition emphasizes the significance of common life and intellectual formation. Yet, if our communities give up on setting the demands and fail in effort of continual exploring of our great intellectual tradition, we will became defenceless.
Studies are crucial factor in shaping our Dominican formation. How may they be carried out? In the Mediterranean region, as well as in Poland, to study means to listen to the lectures. But Dominicans in Oxford have had a tutorial system since the Middle Ages. A student only occasionally listens to the lectures, but he meets his tutor every week and presents a paper he has produced within last week on the basis of a specific book. A student is supposed to prove his knowledge of source material, must display ability of critical thinking. The studies, which involve individual reading, writing papers, and a dialogue with a tutor provoke a student to ask difficult questions. Undoubtedly, such system requires many good scholars and a great library. The English Province has cared for all those necessities, because it wants to provide the Church with well-educated intellectualists, and it continues to do so at the expense of its living standard. The Dominicans in Oxford have not got a car, nor a cook, but instead they have got brothers, who write important books. This is a very Dominican way of preaching.
Should Dominicans be intellectualists?
Since the very beginning of our Order, it was clear, that it is supposed to serve those educated. That is why the Order accepted the evangelization of intellect as its charismatic priorities. This service, which belongs to the Order’s basic interests is realized by an attempt to answer questions people ask faith. Therefore, I would not say that every Dominican should be an intellectualist. On the other hand, to care for thinking within faith, taking up various challenges, which the contemporary world brings, constitutes the fundament of our mission that every Dominican, in accordance with his capabilities should fulfil.
What are dangers regarding studying of Dominicans?
Laziness. The other danger might a necessity to close houses or any scholar institutions, as a result of a fall of vocation number.