“The Seminar Method Is Pedagogically Advantageous,” States Prof. Michaela Hastetter

Getting to Know the University through Our Faculty Members

Prof. Dr. habil. Michaela C. Hastetter PD is ITI’s Full Professor for Pastoral Theology and Religious Pedagogy. Among the courses that she teaches at the ITI are “The Regula Pastoralis of Gregory the Great,” “Patristic Exegesis and Pastoral Care,” “Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World,” and “Music and Theology.” She received her doctoral degree in theology from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 2006 and defended her habilitation thesis entitled Pneumatologische Bildpastoral: Neue Zugänge zur Seelsorge mit Heilig-Geist-Bildern at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in 2011. She has a great sensitivity to beauty and truth. She loves music, maintains high academic standards, and enjoys sharing her knowledge with others.

Professor Hastetter, it has already been eight years since you joined the ITI Faculty. I remember hearing about you for the first time (before I had met you), that you are a member of the students of Joseph Ratzinger. It was quite impressive and exciting to know that our faculty was gaining a member who was a student of His Holiness Benedict XVI, who is such a great modern theologian. Could you tell us about the Ratzinger’s Circle to which you belong?

Yes, of course. Thank you for mentioning this initial motif, which was linked with my coming to the ITI. I have to make a slight correction, in that I am not a former student of Ratzinger himself, as for this I am too young. I am from the second generation. I am, so to speak, the disciple of a disciple.

How did you become a member of the new Ratzinger-student-circle without being one of his former doctorands?

At the time, I was the speaker of the assistant professors in Munich at the Theological Faculty. In a meeting, I proposed that we write a common book. My initial proposal was to write a book on Baptism to which everyone could contribute, but then another assistant professor stepped in and said: ‘No, we should write a book on Ratzinger! That will sell better, since he was recently elected Pope Benedict.” That was more than I had expected. We started our book project and finished it in 2007, right in the year of his 80th birthday. We sent it to Rome and got a formal letter back that the book had arrived. At the time, I was a bit disappointed that we did not receive a hand-signed letter from Pope Benedict himself, since it had cost us quite a bit to print the book and as assistant professors, we did not have much funding. But the next year on Pentecost, I received a completely unexpected telephone call from P. Stephan Horn, whom I knew just from the titles of his edited Ratzinger’s books. He said to me: “I am a spokesperson for the Ratzinger’s disciples circle and I was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to invite you - along with the group of Munich assistant professors who wrote the book Symphonie des Glaubens for his 80th birthday - to join the meeting of the Ratzinger student circle at Castel Gandolfo this summer.” I was astonished to be invited to the papal summer-residence with the seven other Munich assistants, which consisted of two Orthodox and five Catholics. There we met other younger theologians who were writing their dissertations on aspects of Ratzinger’s theology and who had been invited by former doctorands of Ratzinger for a renewal of the circle of the “old” students.

What was the difference between the “old” and “new” Ratzinger students?

The initial circle of Ratzinger students consisted of his former doctorands when he was still Professor of Theology. After his election as Pope the so-called “old disciples” had proposed that he invite younger theologians who were researching Ratzinger’s theology into the group to make their circle younger. We were the next generation – students who did not have Professor Ratzinger as our teacher or our doctorate adviser. The “old disciples” presented the idea to Pope Benedict and he agreed, saying: “But if you would do so, then invite the Munich assistant professors group, which published the book Symphonie des Glaubens for my 80th birthday.”

And what are the treasures that you draw out from being a part of this academic association of theologians?

Before I came to the ITI I had always been at state universities, both in Munich and Freiburg. In all the quarrels and combativeness of theological academia in this environment, Ratzinger’s theology always seemed to me to have a theological clarity rooted in the tradition of the Fathers and open to the new challenges of today at a high academic level. At the same time, his theology distinguished itself through a special beauty of language. This approach to theology was fascinating to me, as I was coming from the field of music.

Would you then say that your interest in ecumenical theology was born out of your immersion in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger? The dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as you know, made some important progress during Joseph Ratzinger’s papacy. You recently founded the St. Ephrem Research Center of Eastern- and Western Studies (STEP) together with your colleague Father Dr. habil. Ephräm G. Lomidze. Do you see the STEP as an embodiment of Ratzinger’s wish to deepen this Orthodox-Catholic dialogue?

It is a complex question. I would say the first step of my academic approach to Ratzinger’s ecumenical theology came from shared life experience, because we were a group of Orthodox and Catholic theologians in Munich. There it came out that both young Orthodox and young Catholics esteemed his theology. I was in contact with the Orthodox Educational Institution in Munich when Ratzinger was elected pope. After his election, the Orthodox at the University of Munich started a lecture series on Ratzinger’s theology. I felt a deep esteem on the part of the Orthodox theologians. On the Catholic side there was much more hesitancy, or even aloofness, regarding Ratzinger’s theology and his election as pope. One of the more liberal Catholic professors thought that with this papal election theology has come to its end. But we younger theologians had a totally different experience: Orthodox and Catholics in Munich were teaching and studying Ratzinger’s theology together. In his theology we found a common ground, a sort of togetherness. The call to a common life and common studies came a bit later, but I would say it was inspired by theology based on the Fathers of the first millennium. Going back to the theology and theologians of the first millennium gives us both Catholics and Orthodox common ground for thinking, researching, studying, and teaching. In Ratzinger we found a new theologian of our time with whom a bridge was made to the former time, to the patristic era. In his theology, Ratzinger renewed the theology of the Fathers for today. This is what we call ‘ressourcement’ in the West or the ‘neo-patristic synthesis’ in the East. Two years ago, I was researching Florovsky and Ratzinger and I found out that both were guided by the same theological principles. That means it took me that many years after my time in Munich to discover academically how Ratzinger’s theological hermeneutic fits with the Orthodox approach to theology. So to return to your question, I would say in short that it was a gradual development in understanding that led to the founding of the STEP in 2019. The STEP was the fruit of our experience of common life in Vienna’s John of Damascus Study House, which we founded in 2017 and where we live, study, pray, and work together.

Has the STEP already borne fruit? What is it?

Well, perhaps it is still too early to be able to judge about the fruits of the STEP. Every tree needs a number of years to begin to bear fruit. We started our own master’s program in Theological Studies of the Orient and Occident in cooperation with the ITI only a year ago. Having six students – three Catholics and three Orthodox – in some sort of an experimental phase could perhaps be called the first visible fruits of the STEP. And it was a great gift for us that professors from both Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds took the initiative to offer to teach. It seems to be attractive to teach and learn in the togetherness of East and West. We have also started the academic book series Theologische Orient & Okzident-Studien, and are preparing to publish the third volume. This is where we collect the fruit of our own research and common study-weeks and present them to a broader audience.

There have been tremendous fruits to your own academic endeavors, including the prolific number of monographs and articles you have published and your frequent participation in conferences and lecture presentations. It is apparent that you have a great love for theology. Where did your love of theology come from? When and why did you choose to study the “queen of the sciences”?

I have to confess that I never intended to study theology. In the beginning, it was more a spontaneous decision. I needed a subject which was compatible with my program of studies in the school of music. Coming from a family of musicians, music was my first choice. But the first day after entering into the faculty of theology I knew I was in the right place. From the first moment, I felt just as much at home in the field of theology as I did in the field of music. I sometimes struggled with my identity in those first years of university, which left its mark up even through my doctoral studies. I started studying musicology/music pedagogy in Frankfurt and ended up studying in pastoral theology in Munich without changing the focus or title of my thesis. My research on the rediscovery of spiritual exegesis in compositions based on the Song of Songs in the 20th century was really interdisciplinary. I appreciate that the ITI gave me the opportunity to teach a course on music with a strong link to theology as part of the Studium Generale program.  

Thank you so much, Prof. Hastetter. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for your readiness to lead and accompany ITI events with musical intermissions. We are always thrilled to hear you play violin alongside our students. Would you tell us about the chamber music that you have organized here at the ITI?

In the beginning of my time at the ITI, I taught a class on the Song of Songs. We analyzed the Tota Pulchra Es of Maurice Durufle, a choir piece for four female voices. There were a number of women with very good singing voices in the class, and we ended up rehearsing that piece and ultimately performed it during a festive liturgy at the parish church of Trumau. From that point on, I remained ready to guide or assist with an ITI student vocal or instrumental ensemble. This past academic year, we formed a new little quartet, where we played Hayden’s Quartets and tried some Mendelssohn. Two years prior we formed a vocal ensemble that sang contemporary vocal music including pieces from Carl Orff and Zoltán Kodály. In the Corona-year 2020 I had extremely good mixed voices in my music class and we started to meet twice a week before classes in the morning, but then the pandemic separated us. I still feel sorry that we were not able to continue – we tried to continue online after the students were sent home, but unfortunately the technology did not work with the sound transmission between America and Europe…

Speaking of your teaching experience: you taught music and religious education at school, then later you taught pastoral theology at public German universities. You continue to teach at the STEP in Vienna and you have also taught at the Pope Benedict XVI Philosophical-Theological University in Heiligenkreuz. Here at the ITI Catholic University you teach a few courses each semester and accompany doctorands. What is it that you like most in teaching? What could you say about your teaching experience here at the ITI? Does it differ from your teaching experiences at other schools? And if so, how?

In general, I have to say that I like teaching. It makes me happy. I like to share my knowledge with others. Initially, I taught as an assistant professor at the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich for four years, and later I taught at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg for seven years. At state universities in Germany the teaching methods are different from the seminar method at the ITI. You have a sort of standard format of teaching at such universities: either a lecture or a seminar or an excursion and so on. I had written scripts for all my lectures and in seminars, I had each participant prepare and give a presentation on a given subject. Coming to the ITI, the seminar method was a big change, even a challenge, for me in the beginning. I was not familiar with that style of teaching and students had to ask me to provide more opportunities for them to speak and discuss things in class. I learned along with them. Now after eight years at the ITI, I esteem the seminar method so much that we decided to introduce it also for the STEP. I have become convinced that the seminar method is pedagogically advantageous: students are actively involved in the teaching process, and reading the sources deepens their understanding of the subject matter and stimulates their own reflection process. Of course, systematical overviews are indispensable for integrating authors into their historical contexts, for giving the framework for information and outlining dominant lines of thinking, and for systematizing knowledge. These things have to be incorporated into the seminar method by the professor. I am not against lectures, but I see the vitality and self-motivation of the students here at the ITI. Students and professors alike have to prepare the texts and work with them. I personally have had a very positive experience with the seminar method.

What do you consider unique about the ITI apart from the seminar method?

Apart from the seminar method, the ITI community itself is unique: you live together, you pray together, you study together. Common Mass and Adoration is central for me, as this gives the ITI its true center. It points to Jesus Christ as the center of theology. A theology that is only academic in character has somehow lost its true center. I would say that the innermost center of theology is directed to Jesus Christ, while the claim of the method is academic. There is no contradiction between the two. I believe in the importance of a high academic standard in theology in order to be a respected dialogue partner in the academic world. But at the same time there exists a sort of “ecclesial vocation of the theologian”, as the Roman Instruction of 1990 pointed out. Theologians are called to use human reason not just in an intrinsic way of l’art pour l’art. Ratzinger once wrote: “Theologie ist Nachdenken des uns von Gott Vorgesagten, Vorgedachten.” There is a before on the side of God and an after on the side of the human reason of the theologian. In this sense, theologians have to argue for the reasonableness of the Faith, witnessing to Christ in a scientific-technical world. I especially appreciate that this Christo-centric is visibly expressed at the ITI in that each student has a certain time of adoration. You can feel it in the study atmosphere, which is very special at the ITI. It is less cold, less aggressive, less depressing than in other study places. The climate here is very good.     

We are currently anticipating the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. In your habilitation thesis, you studied the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity and explored new approaches to pastoral care for the faithful through images of the Holy Spirit. What are the main points of your work?

While I was trying to decide on my precise area of research for the habilitation, I sensed a pneumatological deficit in contemporaneous pastoral theology on the Catholic side. After the 1970s, pastoral theology had increasingly become an empirical action science. I felt that a fundamental grounding in the basics of the revealed Faith was missing. To put it briefly, I argue that the only solution is to re-unite human action in the pastoral sphere with the divine action, that means with the one who acts in the Church, namely, the Holy Spirit. And this reintegration of the place of the Holy Spirit with human pastoral activity must be incorporated into a fundamental pastoral theological approach. But such a work was a challenge on several levels. Even the Cappadocian Fathers had warned against speaking too much about the Holy Spirit, since He is a great mystery. Theologians of the 20th century continued in this line: The Holy Spirit can never be object of theological reflection, instead He is the One who makes theological thinking possible. In this way, I found myself confronted with the question: how can I write a thesis on a pneumatological foundation for pastoral care without writing on the Holy Spirit per se? I ultimately decided to do it by means of images of the Holy Spirit, because they stand less standing for what the Holy Spirit is than for his action and work. Thomas Aquinas saw more than just a pure function of representation in images. In his theology of the image, he developed the function of so-called “impulse images,” images which have an energetic or appellative character. I tried to use this power of images to make it applicable for pastoral care. In order to do this, I used semiotics to develop a method of evaluating the manifold images of the Holy-Spirit-images for pastoral and spiritual care in an open process.

To sum everything up, what message would you give to the clergy and laity in light of your research and the upcoming feast?

As a conclusion, I would say that pastoral and spiritual care has to reckon with the action of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary models of pastoral care work with psychological or sociological strategies a lot, and changes to pastoral systems are based on empirical data. This is one side of the issue, and it exists for good reason, but it is not enough. The care of souls would be overwhelming with a pure do-it-yourself attitude. A pneumatological approach would be an enormous help in pastoral care. It leads to pastoral care in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, knowing that pastoral acting happens in the togetherness of human effort and divine support. My message would be: Leave room for divine action in the care of souls.

Thank you, Prof. Hastetter for this nice conversation. May Holy Spirit guide you in your life and work and may He bestow on you all His gifts!

Conversation led by Oksana Stanishevska