by Blake Baker
WHEN I arrived at the modern Catholic college, set on a hillside below a magnificent baroque church on the outskirts of Graz in .Austria, a plump, highly intelligent Professor of Christian Philosophy was in full spate. At a time when most British Catholics are only thinking of Mass, I was unavoidably 30 minutes late.
The friendly woman
organiser pointed out gently that I could have gone to evening Mass, instead of at 6.30 a.m. Taking my place among the attentive class, I was rapidly engulfed in a flood of such terms as " ontology." "Hermeneutik" and other expressions for which I still do not know the English equivalent.
At last, after being thrice thwarted by work and family crises, I had arrived at the Austrian Church's course in theology for lay Catholics, inaugurated and approved by the Cardinal of Vienna and all Austrian bishops 20 years ago, and flourishing ever since.
The next seven days, though strenuous, were a delight as they would be to anyone with occasional nostalgia for his years as an undergraduate. Class followed class, with wellplanned breaks for coffee, meals, a siesta or excursion.
Christian philosophy remained most difficult; one needs to be a mathematician, I think, to grasp the complicated
concepts of logic. Old Testament, particularly the exegesis of Genesis by a twinkling professor from South Tirol, was a revelation. Church history by a Swabian Dominican Superior from Vienna was stimulating. Fundamental theology was elevating and more difficult, though not so hard as philosophy.
Altogether, we crammed in 44 hours of concentrated tuition into our week, equivalent in each subject to 11 terms of Oxbridge lectures. Our day began at 6.30 a.m.. when reveille took the form of Viennese waltzes sounding down the sunlit corridors outside our hotel-standard rooms. ilt was. incidentally, disconcerting, as a father of five, to find one's room opposite those of several nuns. Had one entered a convent?)
Mass was at 7.00 a.m., breakfast at 7.45. Lectures began at 8,30 and with breaks, continued throughout the day. Finally came a discussion on theological questions with assembled professors which ended at 8.30 p.m. Highlight of the week was a visit by the impressive new Bishop of Graz, Johann Weber, 43, who had arranged for this course to be held there, and who concelebrated with our professors and stayed for breakfast.
We were a mixed bunch, ranging from schoolgirls of 19 to a few "oldies" like myself (slightly younger than the Bishop). Among the 80 students, teachers were klarge
group, apart from the numerous friendly sisters. But by the end of the course, we were a homogeneous group.
We were also united in our firm resol...e to reassemble next summer for the second week of our course. We were, and remain. a united group in the renewal of the Church and. as Bishop Weber indicated in his pre-breakfast sermon, the future of the Faith lies, for our generation, with such lay groups as ours.
Despite the unrest caused by post-conciliar questioning and innovations, the Bishop was far from pessimistic. E-.en in his
not-so-distant youth, he pointed out. it %, ould have been inconceivable for such a large group of largely lay people to undertake voluntarily such an exacting course in theology.
This course, to the best of my knoaledge, is unique in Europe, although something comparable is available in the United States. Run from a centre opposite St. Stefan's Cathedral in Vienna, it lasts 2', years.
In Vienna, it consists of a series of evening classes. But for the non-Viennese majority of participants, the course consists of a regular supply of scripts on 11 subjects written by Jesuit and other university and college professors.
These arrive, as a weighty packet, at regular intervals. They are accompanied by lists of self-test questions, papers to be completed and sent in and reading lists. In addition to the correspondence course. one must, as a sine qua non, attend two residential weeks at a range of centres in Austria, Ciermany and Italy, The course is on two levels. One is for ordinary laymen, the other for those who have achieved university entrance or degree standards of education. As I discovered, the only real difference is that the lower course takes an extra year and a third residential week, with particular emphasis on Christian philosophy, a distinct advantage.
To enrol. one must supply copies of educational certificates and a recommendation from one's parish priest. At the end there are optional and exacting viva voce and written examinations by the professors in the 11 subjects covered. Apart from those already mentioned. others are : New Testament. Dogma, Moral Theology, Liturgy.
Theology of Spirituality, Church Law and Theology of the Apostolate.
If one is successful in these, one may be "licensed" by one's (Austrian) bishop for the Missio Canonica and, for example, give instruction to converts. In Austria, after a further course in catechism and teaching methods, one may be authorised by the bishop to give religious instruction in state schools.
Clearly, it is a formidable course, not to be undertaken lightly. I now think I entered
from an excess of zeal, since the demands of my job leave no time for real study. But I have no doubt whatever that the residential weeks, in particular, greatly deepen one's knowledge of, and feeling for the Faith. and bring the scripts to life.
So far, no fewer than 11,000 Catholics from more than 20 countries have taken the course into which the professors put so much time and enthusiasm.
Several thousand more, including almost all religion teachers, have attended the Vienna classes. But only about 15 per cent have passed all examinations. Three participants are now priests, and more are at theological college.
The remarkable success of the Austrian course has attracted attention in West Germany. where a scholar has begun his doctorate thesis on it. Now that Heythrop is coming to London, would not such a course, high though the standard is and difficult the prepartion and execution, be a worthwhile new task for it?
As one who entered the Church in Austria, I can hardly wait until we reassemble at Maria Trost college, Graz, next summer and settle down to another 44 hours rapid notetaking in four more subjects.