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Remembering Pope Benedict XVI and the Origins of the Spe Salvi Institute

The future does not look too bright at the close of 2023. 

 

But neither did it look too bright at the start of the year. In 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II, which continues today. Politicians were talking about World War III being close at hand with the use of nuclear weapons as a real possibility. And the AI arms race went into full swing with the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. 

 

2023 was a year of big changes for me. I left America and moved to Poland. During the Covid lockdowns, it became clear to me that moving to Poland would be best for my wife and me. My wife is from Poland, and she is very close to her family. When my attempts to convince my employer to let me be based in Europe consistently failed, I realized that I would eventually have to find other work. I just had no idea what type of work would come next, and I was even considering a career change. It turned out that I did not need to decide when I would leave. That decision was made for me. At the beginning of the year, my job was moved from Dallas to Rochester, Minnesota, and I could not make the move. 

 

Right before these changes in my life, Pope Benedict XVI died on New Years’ Eve. People familiar with the late Pope’s focus on hope and eschatology, the last things, found it fitting that he died on the last day of the year which also happened to be on the last day of the week. The timing of his death could not have said more. 

 

Around this time, I was thinking of ways of bringing together what I had been working on for years with my eventual new life in Europe. This is the story of the Spe Salvi Institute. 

 

Right before leaving my former employer, I was thinking through the link between education, excellence, evangelization, eschatology, and Europe (the cradle of so much education) —what I call the five “E’s”— or rather how all education, in cultivating the potential within each person, inherently works with a vision of human excellence, which at the same time is part of the destiny of the cosmos, must also be “good news” and a certain hope for mankind. Europe, with its Christian heritage, is composed of cultures that grew out of an encounter and transformation in the Last Man, the Logos incarnate, in whom all education finds its fulfillment and end.

 

I was reading Plato, St. Paul the Apostle, and Christopher Dawson to help me develop this connection. They helped me see how education is best viewed as a journey and encounter with the ultimate — education as pilgrimage. In Plato, education is leaving the cave and journeying towards the Light. In Paul, it is his encounter with the Lord on the way to Damascus, seeing all reality in the light of his Revelation, and being sent out to proclaim this certain hope to the world. In Dawson, it was his journey throughout Catholic Europe that inspired him to write a history of culture. 

 

The most excellent educational path comes from the perspective of eternity and death. A professor told me that a good way to discern one’s path in life, especially a course of study, is by putting it in the context of the last moments of life when you are about to hand yourself fully over to God. What is the course that you would be most proud of from the perspective of eternity? Certainly, it would have to be the one which was at the same time an ascent to God. 

 

It then dawned on me that Pope Benedict XVI might be of help here. I was already in a deep dive in Benedict’s writings around the time of his death. 

 

His encyclical Spe Salvi stood out as one of his richest and deepest writings during his pontificate. It also proved helpful in thinking through the connection between education, evangelization, eschatology, and Europe. 

 

I believe Benedict XVI already had this connection in mind. For example, take the last section of his “Letter to the Faithful of the Diocese and City of Rome on the Urgent Task of Educating Young People”. Placing hope at the heart of education, Benedict wrote:  


Lastly, I would like to offer you a thought which I developed in my recent Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi on Christian hope: the soul of education, as of the whole of life, can only be a dependable hope. Today, our hope is threatened on many sides and we even risk becoming, like the ancient pagans, people "having no hope and without God in the world", as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Ephesus (Eph 2: 12). What may be the deepest difficulty for a true educational endeavor consists precisely in this: the fact that at the root of the crisis of education lies a crisis of trust in life. 


I cannot finish this Letter, therefore, without a warm invitation to place our hope in God. He alone is the hope that withstands every disappointment; his love alone cannot be destroyed by death; his justice and mercy alone can heal injustices and recompense the suffering experienced. Hope that is addressed to God is never hope for oneself alone, it is always also hope for others; it does not isolate us but renders us supportive in goodness and encourages us to educate one another in truth and in love.

 

After the meeting that signaled the end of my fellowship, I was full of disappointment and bitterness. I thought that all the time and effort I put into deepening Catholic education was in vain. But I realized that while this was the end of one phase, it was also the beginning of anew one. I would have to seek another path. Thank goodness I have had the support and encouragement of my closest friends. 

 

Andrew Petiprin is one of these friends. Andrew was a colleague of mine. Our offices were adjacent to each other, and if not working, I was likely talking to Andrew. Interested in the same things, we started brainstorming. In many respects, the vision of the Spe Salvi Institute comes out of conversations with Andrew. And incidentally, the encyclical Spe Salvi appeared on the Feast of St. Andrew, the first of the Apostles. 

 

Gene Diamond is another close friend. Although we grew up near each other and went to the same high school in Chicago, we got to know each other in college. He and his brother, Kevin, are like my brothers from another mother. Gene is a bit older than me, and he has unintentionally played the role of an older brother, guiding me in the right direction. He has introduced me to many thinkers who have greatly shaped my thinking. In fact, he was the one ultimately behind setting up my meeting with David L. Schindler years ago when I was thinking about attending the John Paul II Institute. Shortly after I left my former employer, Gene prompted me to think about starting something like the late Stratford Caldecott’s Second Spring and his Centre for Faith and Culture. Gene works in the world of nonprofits, and he thought that there definitely was a need to establish an institute centered on Christian hope but particularly by looking at how it gave rise to the Christian culture of Europe as a source of hope for peoples today who have cut themselves loose from their roots in Christian hope. Christian hope also was a way of transforming education. 

 

Roy Peachy, the author of Out of the Classroom and Into the World: How to Transform Catholic Education (published by Caldecott’s Second Spring press), was a helpful interlocutor in seeing the need — as stated in the title of his book— to get out of the classroom and into the world. For many Americans and Europeans, the Grand Tour of Europe and the Ancient Near East was the foremost educational experience of a lifetime. Beholding works of beauty that are signs of hope found throughout the cities and landscapes of the “old world” and immersing oneself in the poetic genius that gave rise to its beauty could be a way of forming future generations in the way of beauty. This is why I see the need for cultural tourism as an essential part of the Spe Salvi Institute. My best educational experiences were through travel, especially in Europe. Not only did these experiences deepen my knowledge of the world but they were at the same time an encounter with the Lord. 


The Spe Salvi Institute is still just a seedling, but my hope is that in 2024 it will begin to blossom into fuller form. I give thanks to the life and witness of Pope Benedict XVI and his stress on the Last Things as being the water and light that has nourished it from the beginning. His writings, especially Spe Salvi, have helped many envision a future imbued with hope. Such hope is the inspiration animating the Spe Salvi Institute.


Pope Benedict XVI, pray for us! 


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