Take Care of Your Soul and Hold on to Interior Peace – Rev. Dr. Martin Mayerhofer’s Desire for Students

Getting to Know the University through our Faculty Members

Rev. Dr. Martin Mayerhofer FSO serves at the ITI Catholic University as Assistant Chaplain and Associate Professor of Patristics and Church History. He entered a religious community, the Spiritual Family “The Work”, when he was nineteen years old, spent twelve years in Rome, and received four academic degrees at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He recently defended his habilitation thesis at the University of Vienna under the title Die lateinischen patristischen und mittelalterlichen Epheserkommentare. Untersuchungen zu ihrer Exegese und Ekklesiologie(“The Latin Patristic and Medieval Commentaries on Ephesians: Investigations into its Exegesis and Ecclesiology”). In addition to his work at the ITI, he also serves as the European Chaplain for FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Theology in the Department of Church History at the University of Vienna. He likes sports, the sea, classical music, and reading.

The Way to the ITI

I am a member of the Spiritual Family “The Work” and for several years I served as a University Chaplain in Vienna at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde. In that time, because I was working in the archdiocese of Vienna, I came into contact with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. The cardinal supported me in the writing of my habilitation thesis and was interested in my academic work. I think he probably mentioned me to Dr. Kelly and Dr. Dolna, who then reached out to me. In 2016, I taught a licentiate class on the Cappadocian Fathers for one semester. After my service in the chaplaincy in Vienna came to an end in 2018, I went to Washington D.C. in order to finish my habilitation thesis. While I was staying in Washington D.C., Dr. Dolna reached out to me again and asked if I could see myself teaching at the ITI on a regular basis. I said: “Yes, that is an option.” That is how I came to be here at the ITI.

Student Life and Academic Degrees

My parents are both farmers in a small village in Bavaria. After high school, in 1993, I entered my community in Bregenz. I was nineteen years old and I was sent to Rome to study. We have a formation house there, called the Collegium Paulinum. Most of our seminarians stay there and complete their studies at one of the Roman universities. First, I went to the Angelicum to study philosophy and then to Gregorian University to study theology. Having completed two bachelor’s degrees, I served for a few years at a parish in Vorarlberg as a vicar. I am very grateful for this experience, because it gave me a chance to work in a parish, including a lot of youth work. I think it makes a difference for priests to gain pastoral experience instead of only doing academic work. After pastoral work in Vorarlberg, I went back to Rome and received three degrees - bachelor, licentiate and PhD - in Church history. In total, I spent twelve years in Rome. After I defended my PhD thesis in Rome, which I finished in 2011, I came to Vienna to serve as a chaplain at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde and I started working on my habilitation thesis.

Priestly Vocation

In my case I never experienced a particular moment where I heard a call from God, but I grew up in a Catholic family. We used to pray at home together and I served as an altar server from the time I was ten years old. I felt myself being drawn to a priestly vocation as early as elementary school, perhaps even before I knew what a vocation was. “It would be wonderful to be a priest,” I thought at that time. From that point on, I always pursued this call and I never relented in my desire. It was quite an easy process of discernment in comparison with many other young people who fight so much, often over the course of years, until they reach a conclusion. For me it was quite easy in this sense. There were, of course, interior struggles that came up, since a vocation must be purified somehow, but I never doubted this call to follow Jesus and serve His Church as a priest. My parish priest had a great impact on me. He was a Salesian priest. He was old and sick; but just by being present and serving Mass, his fatherly presence had a very positive impact on me.

Time in Rome and John Paul II

“My” pope was John Paul II. For the most impactful period of my time in Rome, when I was a seminarian, John Paul II was pope, and we as seminarians had the chance to serve at Saint Peter’s Basilica for Easter and another occasion. I remember coming back to the side chapel of the basilica after Mass, where the Pietà is venerated. This area was used as a sacristy, and there was a special kneeler for John Paul II. Coming into the chapel, he went to the kneeler and prayed. I thought: “This man is not only praying, but he is a prayer” The way he prayed made a deep impression on me. I really felt this desire to be able to pray like him. That was a beautiful experience with John Paul II.

Transition to Vienna, Experience in Chaplaincy, A Year in Washington D.C.

After I completed my PhD in Rome, my community asked me to continue with a habilitation thesis. I said: “I am not the kind of man who can sit in a library the whole day. I would die!” So my superior told me to reach out to the diocese to see if I could serve in a parish, and it turned out that there was a part time job available in a chaplaincy. For my first year in Vienna, I did research and worked in the chaplaincy. The second year, the leading chaplain left, so I was appointed to be the head chaplain in charge of the chaplaincy. I worked there full time and found that little time remained for my research. I took two months during the summer to work on my habilitation thesis and used some time during Christmas breaks. This was my life for a few years and then I finally told my superior that if I ever wanted to finish my habilitation, I would need a year off because I could not combine working on my habilitation with being head chaplain. He said that was fine and instructed me to look for a place. I reached out to Washington D.C. because I had some connections to Washington through FOCUS. I heard back that I could stay there in the Capuchin College, which is on the campus of the Catholic University of America. I taught one Introduction to Theology class to students, but most of the time was spent finishing my habilitation.

Questions and Answers of the Habilitation Thesis

I wrote my habilitation on Latin Patristic and Medieval Commentaries on Ephesians. I was interested in this topic because I had always wondered why we know so little about commentaries on Saint Paul, despite the fact that we focus so much on Saint Paul in theology. The history of exegesis should be considered a part of Church history, because the Bible is so essential for the history of the Church. I wanted to know more about how the Letters of St. Paul were used by the Church throughout the centuries. Everyone says that Paul is considered to be the most important theologian, but I found little attention to the crucial question of how his letters were used and interpreted. We cannot deny that the Bible has an impact on important decisions, including political decisions, in Church history, and that Christians should be somehow penetrated by Scripture. In my habilitation I worked with twenty-two commentaries on the Letter to the Ephesians. I picked Ephesians because I think it is the letter where Paul speaks the most about the Church, and I wanted to see how the understanding of the Church changes throughout history, combining this ecclesiological approach with a history of exegesis. I began with the late antique authors Marius Victorinus and St. Jerome, then continued with Rabanus Maurus and Claudius of Turin, and went all the way up to Peter Lombard and Nicholas of Lyra, covering a total of a thousand years of interpretation of Paul. It is really interesting to see how the exegetical method changed over time. There was a different understanding of plagiarism back then: everybody copied from each other. In additional, Tradition was seen as a gift given by God, as was truth, and Christians were called to use these gifts. It was also very interesting to see how the understanding of the Church changed through the centuries.

Current Projects

I used the first lockdown to begin working on Basil of Caesarea again: I translated some of his texts about education and formation into German. These texts have now been published by the Johannesverlag, Einsiedeln. I am currently working on a small article about Saint Basil’s understanding of Synods and Councils and his personal experiences with Synods. I also recently registered for the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, where more than five hundred scholars will participate. I intend to speak on Catherine of Siena and her “magisterium”, that is, her teaching through letters she wrote.

Teaching Experience and ITI’s Method of Studying

To put it generally, I like the seminar method used at ITI. The method is quite simple in theory: you prepare a text and you talk about the text. I think it requires a lot of preparation for the professor to be able to help students figure out the essential points of the text so that students can get the most out of their readings. Using the method for a Church history course is a bit different from courses on particular theological topics. I am continuously working to improve my method, because it is not enough to just give students a primary historical text, I also have to help them to understand the context. The seminar method is easier to apply to theological texts, like Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations. With Church history, we have to work through a period of two thousand years. We have to pick and choose texts to read, but these texts are understandable only in a historical context. I try to help students by giving an introduction to the relevant time period, or having students give such introductions. I am still figuring out what techniques work best for the students. My reading packets are not too thick, because students also have to absorb a lot of additional information during the class in order to understand the point of the texts we read. I try to help them read intensively, and I also have students write a historical paper. Writing a good historical paper is quite new for many of the students. They have to learn how to properly cite sources, for instance. Citing historical sources in a paper is clearly different from writing a paper based solely on their own ideas without footnotes. I enjoy seeing how much progress students are able to make within a year.

Priestly Service: Challenges and Joys of Chaplaincy at the ITI

My role on ITI’s Campus is special, as I am an assistant chaplain. I really emphasize the “assistant” aspect, because it makes sense to have only one chaplain as the head chaplain, to handle more of the responsibilities and give direction to the team of chaplains. I am glad I do not have to take on this responsibility (he laughs). Fr. Juraj does a wonderful job, and our cooperation is really beautiful. I enjoy working with him and I hope that he enjoys it too. The challenge for us as university chaplains is that things change from year to year, so we have to be very present to the current moment. We cannot really plan ahead for the next year, because we do not yet know the students who will be there the next year. We have to really focus on getting to know students during the first few weeks of the academic year, to build up relationships so that students know where they can find us, which is essential for the spiritual life of the campus. I would say that there are times where we are really busy, especially in the beginning of each semester, but there are periods, like semester breaks, where we are not very busy. The advantage is that we can invest in the students intensively during these short periods of time and we can see a lot of growth. On the other hand, it is sad to lose so many dear people every year, because you invest in them and they invest in you, you build up a relationship and then after a year or two or three, they leave and have to be strong enough in their faith to build up something on their own. Students will be confronted with many challenges, so they have to have a solid foundation not just theologically, but also spiritually. We try to support them in that.

Wishes and Advice for Students

I would wish all our students the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are always at risk of losing our interior peace. Looking back on our lives in hindsight, we can see how unimportant the distractions and anxieties ended up being, but in the moment our anxieties and cares can drive us crazy. I really would like to express this wish that our students take care of their souls so that they always try to keep this interior peace, which comes from a deep friendship with Jesus.

Conversation led by Oksana Stanishevska