Bild Ratzinger_Horn
Cardinal Ratzinger and father Horn in Steinfeld in the early 90s , during a meeting of the Schülerkreis

Vatican City, 20th December 2014 – There are things that change your life. That is what happened to father Stephan Otto Horn, salvatorian priest, when he met Prof. Joseph Ratzinger for the first time, in 1970, before Ratzinger became “father of a theological and spiritual family”.

Father Horn was a student and assistant of Ratzinger in Regensburg and today he keeps the works and the thought of the Pope emeritus through his commitment in the institutions that have his name. He defines his meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger and his entrance in the Association of Students as “one of the greatest gift I have ever received”.

In this interview we proposed to our readers at Christmas time, Father Horn, professor emeritus of Fundamental Theology, recalls his experience at the University and the birth of the Schülerkreis and he reflects upon the theological inheritance left by Benedict XVI.

Father Horn, how did you meet Prof. Ratzinger?

I studied in Passau, a beautiful city at the border with Austria, where the salvatorians - the congregation I joined - used to study. My professor of Dogmatic Theology thought that I could be his successor... When I went to Regensburg to meet Prof. Ratzinger for the first time, he didn’t know that, in Munich, I had been a Ph.D student of Michael Schmaus, who had opposed Ratzinger’s teaching qualification. That period was by far one of the worst moments in the life of the young Ratzinger, because he had always wished to become a professor. Then he was successful with his career and he recovered his relationship with Schmaus. When I met Ratzinger, I didn’t know anything about it, I went to him and we spoke about my thesis. 

Which year was that?

It was the beginning of 1970. He had arrived in Regensburg in autumn, 1969. He welcomed me without any problem, though I came from a different theology. The same happened to the 25 students that wanted him to be their supervisor. We used to meet him every two or three weeks, not at the university but in the seminary, and we defined him as the symbol of theology and spirituality. Our meeting started with the Mass, during which our teacher or one of us made the homily. After the Mass we usually discussed altogether. He wanted to follow us with our work; during our meetings each of us presented his study and we had the possibility to discuss about them all together. When we wanted to propose something, Ratzinger didn’t use to answer immediately. He was able to summarize our speeches and he also made some reflections on them. He didn’t want to impose his ideas, he only wanted to search for the truth. He has always been a bit shy, but he didn’t show it.

Which was the theme of your thesis?

The aim of my thesis for the teaching qualification at the university was to analyse the theme of Leo The Great and the Council of Chalcedon from the ecclesiological point of view and the relationship between the successor of Peter and the Council. I investigated a historical event, but also the relationship between Rome and Constantinople and between the East and the Church, that are ecumenical themes. The Council of Chalcedon showed that the thought of Peter’s successor was shared by the other bishops that participated in the Council. This is a historical theme, but it is also useful to foster the dialogue between Catholic Church and orthodoxy.

What did you do after your teaching qualification?

Two years after our first meeting, Prof. Ratzinger asked me to become his assistant, and I worked for him from 1972 to 1977, when he came back to Munich as an archbishop. I stayed there for a small period and he sometimes came in order to follow his last Ph.D. students. Then the yearly meeting of the Schülerkreis, the Association of Students, started. 

Was the Schülerkreis born then?

No, it was born later, in 1981, at the end of Ratzinger’s ministry as a cardinal archbishop of Munich. It is difficult to find the exact date because there were the meetings with the Ph.D. students before. At the beginning of 1978, months after his Episcopal ordination and after he was nominated cardinal, we all met. He met not only the Ph.D. students of Regensburg, but also the ones from Bonn, Münster and Tubingen, because he had a different group in every university where he had taught. That was the first time, then we started meeting regularly. However, first in Tubingen and then in Regensburg, Ratzinger organized a meeting with his students and another professor and with famous theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth. At the end of every academic year a meeting was organized in a different place. He used to invite a famous theologian to hold a conference, with the aim to discuss with protestant professors, philosophers...From this experience new meetings with him have been organized. A professor was always invited and every time we used to pray, study and discuss on a different subject.

How many Ph.D. students were there in 1978?

In Regensburg we were about 25 Ph.D. students and students for the teaching qualification. When the Schülerkreis was born we were more than 50.

27th February 1977, monastery of Weltenburg (Bavaria); prof. Ratzinger with Karl Rahner, the abbot and the Regensburg Ph.D students (archive of the Institut Papst Benedikt of Regensburg)

Which are the main aspects of Ratzinger’s theology?

We have always thought that Ratzinger was a dogmatic theologian and a professor of Fundamental Theology, but he was also an exegete, who has studied and reflected a lot on the Word of God, the Old and the New Testament. For us he is the example of a theologian who shared the II Vatican Council, which sees the Holy Scriptures as the foundation of the whole theology, following the example of the first Fathers of the Church. The Word of God and the Church are linked in his thought.

Theology is founded on the Holy Scriptures, but the Holy Scriptures are also interpreted by the faith in the Church. It is not an exegesis that is isolated from the Church, it lives in the Church and it is interpreted in the Church. Moreover, in Ratzinger’s opinion the first theologians are the Saints. They don’t study the Word of God, but they share it in their heart and their life. They are the first exegetes and theologians: in fact they must be fond of the saints. And theology must be always linked to a true spirituality.

Did any intellectuals influence the development of Ratzinger’s theology?

Some of his important thoughts come from Saint Augustine, the theme of his first thesis, that also developed an Eucharistic theology: at the centre of the Church there is Eucharist. Christ lets us follow him and he gives himself to us: we are all linked to Him and unified in Him. So the Church is not only people of God, but it is people of God as body of Christ, because we are all unified in Christ. Christ is the centre of the Church, he lets us follow him and the Church grows in the Eucharist. Then the Eucharist is the centre of the Church – that is a fundamental thought – and it dialogues with orthodox theologians who have an Eucharistic ecclesiology. In their opinion the Church is fixed in itself, while for Ratzinger the Eucharist celebrated in the local Church really symbolizes the Church when the local Church joins the universal Church. There is an important difference between them and we try to develop new relationships between Catholic Church and orthodoxy through an in-depth Eucharistic theology.

Another important thought comes from Saint Bonaventure: the revelation isn’t only the revealed truth ended down from time to time, but it is the auto-revelation of God to us, an event that happens between man and God. God talks to us, we receive the revelation and it ends only in the faith: the revelation is in our open heart to Christ, that reveals himself to the mankind. We can say it is like a dialogue. Schmaus defined it subjectivism: when God reveals himself to man, everyone interprets this event in his own way and it makes all very difficult. Ratzinger says that the revelation isn’t addressed to a single person, but to the whole people of God and to the Church, that is the protagonist of the revelation. He excluded subjectivism.


Is there in your life a “before” and “after” Ratzinger?

When I was a young student, I wanted to understand theology and I had a great professor, Alois Winkllhofer, who opened us the way to the Council. I think the II Vatican Council was not a break, but an evolution. And thanks to Ratzinger there has been a new development for me. There was real love for the Church and good friendship in our group, and Ratzinger let us feel this empathy. It was an experience that gave me the joy to become a theologian: I couldn’t have been a professor without it. In 1977 I went back to my house, to the Salvatorians and I worked as a teacher in Passau for six months. In 1981 I went to Augusta, as a professor of Dogmatic Theology and in 1986 I went to Passau again, as a professor of Fundamental Theology.

And today you are Professor emeritus of Fundamental Theology…

Yes I am, from 1999. I’m getting older. 

You had the possibility to commit yourself to let the thought and the works by Ratzinger be known. Could you describe your activities?

First I would like to talk about the meetings of the Schülerkreis. Professor Siegfried Wiedenhofer and I – as the last of Ratzinger’s assistants – prepared the first meetings. Every year we met in a different place, mainly in Bavaria, but also in other places of Germany. Then we started to meet near Regensburg during Ratzinger’s holidays at the end of August or at the beginning of September and he arrived at the Symposium from his house in Pentling. When he was elected Pope, he invited us in Castel Gandolfo and we asked him to meet again, every year, as we used to do...

Do you still meet?

Yes, because we all meet in Castel Gandolfo and then we meet him in the Vatican City, not only for the Mass, but also for a private meeting: each of us can greet him. It is a joy for us and for him too, because he feels to be the father of a theological and spiritual family. 

How many people are there in your association?

Some of them died, others are sick or too old to participate. Usually we are 30-35 people, but there is always someone missing.

Tell us about the different institutions fostering the theology and spirituality of the theologian Ratzinger.

Before his election to Pope, we wanted to bring his theology alive and we established a Foundation. In 2007, the Joseph Ratzinger Papst Benedikt XVI-Stiftung was born in Munich. We also wanted to answer the need to find young theologians studying Ratzinger’s theology and in 2008 we founded another Association of Students, whose name was New Schülerkreis. They have a similar name and they are part of the same family, even if the participants are not ex students. They also met in Castel Gandolfo, but when Pope Ratzinger came to discuss about theology, he preferred his theological family to stay alone with him, while the others had separate meetings. After the Holy Father renounced, we met all together for theological discussions, even if every group had its day of meeting. We usually share theological, spiritual, pastoral and life experiences. We also meet the Pope on Sunday, for the Eucharist.

Which will be the theme this year?

Usually, during the meeting at Castel Gandolfo, the Schülerkreis proposes three themes and the names of some guests for the following year. At the end, I usually meet the Pope and I show him these themes. At the end of November, the Pope emeritus chose the theme “How to talk about God today”, and he invited professor Tomás Halík, Czech priest, a very special person who has lived a lot of experiences in the modern world. 

How did the institutions you mentioned work?

Cardinal Ratzinger has always wanted all institutions working for his theology and spirituality to be not isolated but unified. So we – the Foundation of Munich of Bavaria – collaborate with the Institut Papst Benedikt XVI of Regensburg, that is in charge of his Opera Omnia and organizes a Symposium about the edited book every year. We work with them, some of us also associated with this institute and the new bishop of Regensburg is, in a certain sense, part of our Foundation. They also wanted someone from our Foundation to be part of the Board of Directors of the Vatican Foundation and I was elected for this position because I speak Italian and I represent the Stiftung, along with another colleague. We also collaborate with the Foundation of the city in which the Holy Father was born, Marktl am Inn, called Stiftung Geburtshaus Joseph Ratzinger. Every year, it promotes a Symposium and we take part in it.

What is the relationship with the Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation?

We are very thankful to the Foundation, especially because they helped us very much with the organization of the two meetings in Africa, both about “Jesus of Nazareth”. These meetings were very successful. The first was held in Benin, in September 2013, in French language. It was a great event during the Year of the Faith. This year we went to Morogoro, in March, in a university that was founded by my Congregation to help the priest who couldn’t study in the seminars, because they were full. A symposium in English had almost 500 participants, with five bishops and many priests and nuns. In Africa we don’t have the possibility to read a lot about Ratzinger, because the books are expensive. We offered an introduction to his theology to the great work that is “Jesus of Nazareth” and they received it with great pleasure and enthusiasm. They hadn’t had the possibility to know Ratzinger’s theology and his spiritual richness and we commit ourselves to work more on it. Now we would like to organize a Symposium in Berlin, about important social and political themes and the Holy Father’s speeches in Regensburg, Berlin, Paris, London and other cities. It is a great challenge, that we will realize maybe next year. 

Recently you celebrated your 80 birthday...

It was a great surprise for me. At the end of the Congress this year, after the Mass with the Holy Father, they gave me a book as a gift, I didn’t know it...The book was written by the New Schülerkreis and others: among them there are Cardinal Koch and Cardinal Schönborn, who wrote the introduction. The book is called “Dienst und Einheit” (Service and Unity), and it collects studies about the primate of Peter, from the ecumenical point of view. The theme of the volume, edited by Michaela C. Hastetter and Christoph Ohly, spokesmen of the New Schülerkreis, is the study of the theology developed by Joseph Ratzinger.

After a life dedicated to theology and prayers, what do you think of life and faith? What could you suggest to young people?

As a young theologian I found it useful and necessary to meet a professor that behaved as a guide. I had many questions and doubts, and sharing my opinions with people who are considered as the best representatives of priesthood and theology was very important for me. Ratzinger’s students were also pleased to find new friends and today it is fundamental to find friends able to discuss about theology, but also to live common and spiritual life experiences. In Germany young people are looking for a better relationship with the Eucharist, a moment of silence and adoration and a personal relationship with God. I am glad there are a lot of opportunities to join the faith and the Church. We must offer these opportunities to young people, to make them grow up. Discussing about theology could also mean having troubles with the faith because there are many theologians and a lot of differences in their thoughts. You can have a big help from a renowned theologian that is, at the same time, a man of the Church and a man of spirituality, as Pope Benedict and other theologians are. Theology and spirituality go together and they help people very much.

As a young theologian I had the possibility to be part of this Association of Students and discuss about theological themes but also to have new friends and a religious family. These two elements of my life have never been opposed, they coexisted and helped me a lot during my life. Having met Pope Ratzinger was one of the best graces I have received in my life. 

Tell us something more about your friendship with Prof. Ratzinger.

We have always discussed as we were friends, he has always been interested in my life and in the activities of the Schülerkreis. I remember that when I was his assistant I also welcomed foreign students coming from another continent, because he wanted me to take care of them. Ratzinger was also interested in finding financial contributions to help them. One day it happened that a student didn’t want to accept his help and Ratzinger told him “If you don’t want to accept, you mustn’t give”. If a person isn’t humble enough to accept the help of the others, he won’t be able to help anyone. If I’m ready to accept a gift, I’ll be able to give something to the others. The student who told me that story will never forget these words.

Luca Caruso