By Karna Swanson
TRUMAU, Austria, DEC. 11, 2009 (Zenit.org).- For more than 13 years, the International Theological Institute had been tucked away in the Austrian Alps in the picturesque town of Gaming, situated more than two hours from Vienna. Its recent move to a campus in Trumau — a 20-minute car ride to Vienna — will allow the institute not only to grow in size, but also in impact and maturity.
Founded in 1996 at the behest of Pope John Paul II, the institute — which attracts an international body of students mainly from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as from the Americas — is an ecclesiastical theological faculty and a papal institute both for the study of theology and for specialized theological studies on marriage and the family.
In Gaming, the institute shared space with the Franciscan University of Steubenville semester program. “It worked really well, and relations were good,” said Ginger Mortenson, the institute’s director of development. “They helped the ITI to start.”
Mortensen explained in an e-mail to ZENIT that the school’s growth led to the move to Trumau, which will allow the institute to house up to 120 students.
ITI purchased the land upon which they are building student housing, and leased Church land from Heiligenkreuz Monastery. “Having the land and buildings in Trumau gives us our own place, with the sense of ownership and stewardship that goes with it,” noted Mortensen.
Another advantage is that the institute is now closer to Vienna.
“It was good, as a theological faculty and international institute, to be closer to Vienna,” said Mortensen. She explained that it’s easier for international students to get to and from the university, as well as have easier access to larger libraries.
Christiaan Alting von Geusau, vice president for development, told ZENIT that the proximity to Vienna will also help with recruitment and outreach activities: “Our mission is clearly oriented toward the new evangelization and an active role in Church and society.”
Vincent DeMeo, assistant professor of theology, spoke with ZENIT of several particular projects that will help the institute to increase its outreach, as well as “make known the many remarkable features of ITI.”
One project is to offer conferences, the first of which will take place next June on the topic of ecclesiology.
“This is bound to attract several aspiring students of theology from all parts of Europe and the Americas,” he said. “It will be very exciting to see the results of our personal contact with people interested in theology and to communicate to them how ITI provides an authentic experience of lived Christianity.”
More than 500 were on hand in October when the grand chancellor of ITI, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, presided at the opening celebration.
The cardinal celebrated Mass at the parish church of Trumau and then blessed “Schloss Trumau” (the medieval building that houses the classrooms, library and administration and faculty offices).
In his homily, the cardinal spoke of the four pillars of the institute: studying theology using primary sources, community life, fostering relations between the East and West, and the importance of marriage and the family.
“He spoke of the great joy he feels when he sees the many families who study at the [institute],” Mortensen reported, “and their many children who are the best sign of a thriving institute. He said that the word of God flourishes in families where the faith is passed on and that families who practice their faith are the oases of our society.”
Cardinal Schönborn also pointed out that a good theologian listens to the word of God and showed the importance of studying from the sources — the great masters in theology and philosophy.
Cistercian Abbot Gregor Henckel Donnersmarck, the abbot of Heiligenkreuz, spoke of the joy in seeing the medieval buildings, which were entrusted to the care of the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz in the Middle Ages, become a center for the study of theology.
The Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, coincidentally, was at the center of media attention last year for it’s release of “Chant: Music for the Soul: by Stift Heiligenkreuz.”
ITI offers degree programs in theology and studies on marriage and the family. It seeks to be a place of exchange between diverse cultures, and a living experience of the Church universal, drawing most specifically from the theological traditions of both the East and the West.
Gudrun Kugler, who teaches Family in Western Society for the institute, and is an alumnus, called the institute a place of “awesome enrichment.”
“I have not come across another place with so much care for each other and so much shared happiness,” she said from her home in Vienna. “ITI is a school of life and friendship, besides its academic qualities.”
Kugler is also a former director of World Youth Alliance Europe, and co-founder with her husband Martin, of Kairos, a company that gives consultation to nonprofit organizations that promote the dignity of life.
Kugler, who pursued a law degree after graduating from the institute, was also quick to note that they follow a specific method of teaching there — the seminar, or Socratic method: “At ITI I learned to think things through and to question until I profoundly understood. This made law school easy for me.”
Each class never has more than 13 students, and classes are conducted in a seminar style with discussion — principally in English — of the issues.
Oleg Novoselsky, former student and now assistant to the dean of studies, called ITI a place where “theology is both learned and lived both in the Latin and in Byzantine traditions.” A slogan of the institute is “Don’t Just Learn Theology — Live It!”
“[The] intensity of academic life, […] merged with a practiced spiritual life, lead both students and professors to the harmony of genuinely lived faith in Christ in the bosom of the Catholic Church,” said Novoselsky.
Regarding the new campus, he said it has become a “place where wisdom worthy to be learned is offered to everyone who seeks it.”
Commenting on the success of the transition, Alting von Geusau noted that it was “much smoother than we expected. The most interesting thing we notice is how students, faculty and staff alike are suddenly realizing that the ITI now owns its campus and is ‘master of the house.’
“People treat it as their home and come with many good initiatives to give life to the Schloss (which is the main building). This has lead to a very positive atmosphere.”
Alting von Geusau also noted that the future looks bright for the institute: “ITI now has a solid ‘material’ foundation as well in the campus it owns, and the freedom to develop according to its mission.
“We see a future ahead where more programs will be offered and more student leaders will be formed, something that our world is in dire need of.”
DeMeo added, “The challenges of this monumental step in the life of our young institute will, time and time again, enable us to renew our commitment to the Lord in prayer and supplication.”