Note: Rev. Wojciech Giertych, O.P., served as the keynote speaker at Thomas Aquinas College’s 40th Anniversary Gala on September 17, 2011. During the preceding week he stayed on campus, visited several classes, delivered a lecture, and graciously sat for the following interview.
Could you say a little about your own history and that of your family?
I was born in London to Polish parents who had emigrated from Poland after the Second World War. My father had been active in Polish politics before the war. Being anti-communist and Catholic, and being a writer, he knew he would not be able to publish his books in Poland, and in the Stalinist period he probably would have been imprisoned. So they settled in England. I had a normal education in England in Catholic schools, but there was a strong Polish identity at our home. When I finished high school I decided I wanted to see the real Poland — not the somewhat romanticized Poland that my parents were telling me about. So I went to Poland, which was still suffering under the communist regime. I studied history at the University of Poznań, which was marked, as all universities were, particularly in the humanities, by Marxism. But I had my antidote coming from England and from my family.
During my university years I discovered my vocation and when I graduated, I acquired Polish citizenship and entered into the novitiate of the Polish province. I went through my philosophical and theological formation in the Dominican House of Studies in Kraków. At that time the local archbishop was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. I was a student there when he was elected Pope. I was ordained in 1981, and over the next several years I went back and forth between Kraków, where I was involved in the formation of our Dominican students and taught moral theology, and Rome, where I earned a doctorate in moral theology at the Angelicum, and where I finally became a professor.
After the fall of communism we had some Dominican students from Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia, Latvia, and Lithuania who studied with us. We also would send some of our Polish Dominican priests to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. I would visit these former students of mine and so I witnessed the rebirth of Dominican life in that part of the world. Religious orders had basically been abolished in what was the Russian Empire after the insurrections in 1830 and even more so after 1863. Then, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 all religions were brutally persecuted. But remnants of the Faith survived, and so with the collapse of communism some vocations to the Catholic priesthood and religious life were being born, although these men were extremely fragile. The Soviet Union disappeared, but the homo sovieticus with all the fears and insecurities and lack of basic Christian initiation remained, presenting a formative challenge to the Church.
“The students focus directly on the truth because it is true — whether within the realm of reason and philosophy, or within the realm of revealed truth. It is the truth that is most important for them.”
In 1994 I began teaching at the Angelicum in Rome, and in 1998 the Master of the Dominican Order appointed me to the General Council of the Order of Preachers with the title of the Socius (assistant) of the Master of the Order for Central and Eastern Europe. I would travel throughout the region maintaining the link between the newly reestablished Dominican communities and the Master of the Order. After four years I became the Socius for the Intellectual Life — a sort of “minister of education” within the Dominican Order. In these years I would see the brethren in Fribourg, Jerusalem, at the Angelicum, Santa Tomas in Manila, and I conducted canonical visitations of various Dominican provinces, including Switzerland, Slovakia, Russia, and Ukraine; and then Canada, West Africa, Jerusalem, and also the province of St. Joseph here in the United States.
I had been a member of the General Council for seven years and towards the end of my term I was hoping to go to Ukraine, when, suddenly, I received a letter from the Holy See informing me that I had been appointed as the Theologian of the Papal Household.
Can you describe your work as the Theologian of the Papal Household?
I review all the speeches that the Holy Father gives, apart from the ones that he writes himself. There is a staff of people who write the discourses for the Pope, and finally I receive the text, and make some suggestions. The discourses, of course, are written by Catholics, but the formulations have to be clear, and sometimes another term may be more appropriate. It is important that the Holy Father does not receive a text which is ambiguous. Of course the Holy Father may change the discourse, and sometimes he does this; but serving him we have to ensure that he is given a text which will not require corrections. I am not, of course, competent in all fields, but with my Thomistic formation, having access to the speculative theology of Aquinas and having taught moral theology, which has been my field, I am expected to be able to critically assess the discourses that will finally be in the hands of the Holy Father.
The Holy See for centuries has always wanted to have a Dominican in this post. This is a sign of respect for St. Thomas Aquinas and an appreciation of the clarity of his thought. It is the Holy See’s experience that it is useful to have somebody at hand who would know Aquinas well and who could help in the process of the formulation of the final text of the papal discourses.
“The dormitories are up on the hill, so the students see the church out of their windows; the church is the focus of the campus. The various buildings were built at different moments, but right from the beginning there was an idea. The church came last, but it was planned first.”
How did you learn about Thomas Aquinas College?
Way back, when I was a formator in Poland, I remember finding in an American publication an ad about Thomas Aquinas College. On various other occasions I had heard that there was this college that was traditional in teaching and spirit and devoted to St. Thomas Aquinas. At some stage, when I was already at the Vatican, Dr. Dillon came with his wife to meet me, and I learned more. Since then, I started receiving your newsletter. Out of curiosity I would always read the titles of the senior theses. And hearing about the method of teaching, the tutorial system and about the great books, I was curious. So, when I received the invitation from Dr. McLean, I was happy to come here to see how this teaching method and program function.
Now that you have seen Thomas Aquinas College, what are your impressions?
I am impressed by the extremely high standard of the interactions that I saw in the students during the seminars that I attended. I would like to incorporate what you do here into our way of studying in Poland. Seeing this school, which is not a school of theology leading to ordination, but a school which is forming people to be intelligent within the Catholic faith — and seeing its teaching method — is extremely interesting.
There is something typical of Americans, not only here; I see this in the American students in the Angelicum: You Americans are more free than people elsewhere, you are more outspoken. People are not reserved toward somebody who is higher in authority. The meal here with the two elderly professors who were the founding fathers of this college, Dr. McLean, and a few students was an occasion for me to see this. We were talking about theological subjects, and the students fully participated in the conversation. In Eastern Europe they would be timid because the professor is there. What they really think, they would not say because they would be abashed by the presence of somebody whom they respect.
But you Americans, you are direct. You drink Coca- Colas together; it is a cowboy culture! But it means that you have an openness and an intellectual liberty. Your students do not have to struggle through a sort of emotional coat of arms that has been imposed upon them, to free themselves from it and to look for truth. The students focus directly on the truth because it is true — whether within the realm of reason and philosophy, or within the realm of revealed truth. It is the truth that is most important for them.
When you attended the theology classes and you observed the students trying to understand St. Thomas, did you think they were effective?
From what I saw and heard, the quality of the debate was much higher than what I have seen among seminarians. The students really fleshed out the underlying philosophy, they understood the terms they were using, and they were trying to grasp, “What do these statements about God really mean?” They have been intellectually equipped.
If you ask a man in the street, “Please read this text,” he will not make heads or tails out of it, whereas these students have been prepared. In class it was obvious that first of all they understood the importance of the issue that was discussed. They saw that this is not something out of the blue, that it is not just a sort of jigsaw puzzle that you can play with or not, but that it concerns something real. The terminology and the concepts which they used have been grasped, and so the students were precise and very clear. They knew what they meant, and this helped them to see more of the light in the mystery … which remains a mystery. But they want to know, “What can we know of that mystery?” And certainly your students are keen. It was obvious during the seminars and discussions.
I also attended a class on Shakespeare’s Henry IV. I had not read the text, but I had read some Shakespeare in my school days more than 40 years ago. When we studied Shakespeare, we focused more on the language. But here the students were well beyond that, and so they were discussing the characters — the games that they were playing, their positions, their underlying ethos, and whether they were true to what they were saying. Basically the seminar was a training in prudence, to see how people act, how they sometimes wear masks and have hidden agendas. So the students were analyzing the characters in the play from the point of view of their moral character and what are they really after. I came out of this thinking: “These are only 20-year-olds, but this exercise will form them for real life.”
About the campus itself, do you have some thoughts?
It is clear that it was built by people of faith. There is a line from Aquinas in his treatise on the New Law that I find pertinent. He says that even the letter of the Gospel will be frustrating if the interior hidden grace of faith is missing. So even if a text of the Gospel is read, if there is a lack of faith both on the part of the reader or the listener, the text will be frustrating. The expression of what we say therefore is always to be tied with faith. And I think that this applies not only to the spoken word but also to the arts — and to architecture.
There is a difference between a functional building, which technically may be well built, and a building that has been built in such a way that it will be conducive to faith and will grow out of faith. When art serves faith, and is born of faith, it is conducive to prayer.
If you enter a church where people have prayed, which was built by people who prayed and who built it in such a way that it will help in prayer, and you come in and genuflect, being there only for two minutes, during those two minutes you pray. But if you enter a church and it looks like a railway station, even though the light may be interesting as it is coming in from the side, prayer will be more difficult. An architect who may be proficient in all his calculations, but is an atheist, may build a good hospital, or a good railway station, but not necessarily a good church.
It is not easy to build sacred art in such a way that it will be conducive to prayer. But I think you have succeeded in this here, using the Hispanic Californian style. The dormitories are up on the hill, so the students see the church out of their windows; the church is the focus of the campus. The various buildings were built at different moments, but right from the beginning there was an idea. The church came last, but it was planned first.
I have lived always in historical buildings — Dominican priories — and when you have a big community, the corridors (arcades) have to be wide. When people bypass you need the space. You need the space when you stroll around the cloister of the priory or go to church. You need architecture that leads to prayer. This sort of a sacred space is important for the psychic well-being of the religious who live in the community, where there is a mixture of private life and community life.
Here there is that mixture. You have the private rooms of the students in their dormitories, the offices and classrooms, and you have that sort of sacred space in front of the church, with the cloister on one side. Once you have built your remaining buildings and the cloister on the other side, it will be even more like the Piazzo San Pietro!
Reprinted from the Winter 2012 edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter