Forming leaders for the Church and society
Joanna Bogle talks to Professor Christiaan Alting von Geusau, Rector of the International Theological Institute in Austria
The International Theological Institute is set in delightful surroundings at Trumau, near Vienna. It was founded in response to a call from St John Paul II to tackle two specific issues: the crisis in marriage and the family, and the need to bring the traditions of Western and Eastern Christianity in Europe together following the collapse of Communism.
The ITI aims to train up leaders for the Church and society. Christiaan Alting von Geusau is the Rector and professor of law. He brings an infectious sense of enthusiasm and dedication to the role.
“What is unique about the ITI is our philosophy of the students living here on campus, a distinctly beautiful and Catholic environment, a life of prayer, study and community – the three pillars of the ITI. This, combined with our approach of studying the Great Masters rather than secondary texts and doing this in seminar-style groups of maximum 15 students, makes the education and formation we offer truly life-changing.”
Marriage and Family
The ITI was founded on 1 October 1997, the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux – its patroness. It is a pontifical institute of theology with the full right to grant the pontifical Masters (STM), Licentiate (STL) and Doctoral (STD) degrees in Sacred Theology. Additionally, since it was also entrusted with a special focus on the study of marriage and the family, it also awards the Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family studies, a two-year professional post-graduate programme. Since 2009 the ITI has also offered a 1-year Liberal Arts certificate programme for school leavers, called the Studium Generale, and will start in September with the first Bachelor’s in Catholic Liberal Arts programme in continental Europe.
What drew Christiaan – a lawyer from Holland – to the ITI?
“God brought me to the ITI! Not in my wildest dreams had I ever planned or expected or even wished to end up as rector of a theological university.
“I studied philosophy and law and then practiced law in big international firms in Amsterdam and Brussels for seven years before dramatic circumstances in my life brought me and my wife to consider an invitation from Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and Grand Chancellor of the ITI, to come to Austria to help him with building up and professionalising the ITI, which at that time had existed for only 7 years and which was dealing with serious financial problems and battling for its survival. As then Vice President for Development I was tasked with setting up a fundraising operation, public relations and also look for a new location for the ITI in Austria. My wife and I initially planned to stay for one year only (as a sort of sabbatical) and then return to the Netherlands. But here I am, 14 years later! Just when I was about to move on for a second time, in 2014, having successfully set up a fundraising operation and moved the ITI to its new campus in Trumau in 2009, I was asked to take over the helm as rector. Clearly God had different plans with me, as neither after 1 year, nor after 10 years, did he allow me to leave my post.”
Asked about the Institute’s achievements, he is emphatic that it is the graduates, and the impact they are making in the Church and in their various countries.
“Our alumni are in leadership positions on all continents: starting schools and even universities (for example Wyoming Catholic College), running pro-life programmes and post-abortion healing programmes (in the US, throughout Europe, and even in China), entering in politics (an Austrian graduate from our MMF program, Gudrun Kugler, is now a member of the Austrian Federal Parliament and she is in charge of women’s, family and human rights issues).
“We have about 25% of our graduates who enter the priesthood or religious life, whilst others work for bishops and run Catholic institutions. Another 25% pursue careers in teaching – every faithfully Catholic University or college in the US has an ITI graduate in some position. A young Dutch priest who did his theological studies at the ITI now helps run a parish in the Netherlands and is responsible for youth ministry. He also founded an organization that produces catechetical videos. In the UK our graduates are also teaching and involved in evangelization and formation projects. And the list goes on….”
The Institute is truly international, with students, clerical and lay, from all over the world. The clergy are from both the Byzantine and the Roman rites and have their own house and special programme. But the majority of students are lay people, and the most popular programmes are the Marriage and Family course, and the Studium Generale.
Prof von Geusau’s wife Paola is from Mexico and they have five young children.
“We speak four languages at home: Spanish, Dutch, German and English (which is the language we prefer to speak as a couple). For me, the three most important moments in the day are my morning prayer – a habit learned from my parents – our evening family prayer (even when the children often behave badly!) and reading to the children at night: C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and other great novels.”
Hope and faith
How did a young Dutchman emerge from the somewhat chaotic situation of the Church in the Netherlands?
“I have the grace of God, my parents and two courageous and faithful local parish priests to thank for that. They, with great effort and sacrifice and going completely against the tide of the times, raised us in the Catholic Faith with conviction and joy in a radically secularising Netherlands.
“My parents, keenly aware of the disastrous situation of the Dutch Catholic Church then showed us the beauty and tradition of the universal church and thus allowed us not be affected by the typical Dutch church problems. They introduced us to the various new movements in the Church such as the Emmanuel community, the charismatic renewal, Opus Dei, and many other initiatives that have kept the Church alive. They also taught us a deep love and commitment to the Successor of Peter and the Church as the Bride of Christ. Our village parish also happened to be a rare island of solid rural down-to-earth joyful Catholicity that was not impressed or infected by the passing hypes that flooded the Dutch church at the time. Our two successive parish priests between the ’70s and ’90s were men of great faith, great humility and great fidelity. We loved them and they loved us, and together we learned to love Christ.”
He has a sense of hope for the future, and likes to quote Mother Teresa: “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” He is realistic about Europe, but grounded in an understanding that God’s ways are not ours.
“I do not share this sense of gloom, even when I clearly see all the massive challenges and dangers we are faced with and also work hard to deal with them in the best way I can: we are not allowed to close our eyes to these harsh realities.
But we are called to be faithful; faithful to our call in life, in all its facets. All the rest is up to God.”