Assistant professor of politics, Dr. Daniel Burns, has recently been inducted into a unique group of scholars.
The group, casually referred to as “Pope Benedict’s Book Club,” is a group of scholars who meet once a year to discuss topics to which they have devoted extensive study.
Before taking the position, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a theology professor who taught at many German institutes.
After becoming a bishop, he created a group called Ratzinger Schülerkreis, German for “circle of students,” which included his former students. The group met once a year to discuss topics of interest, similar to the discussions he led as a professor.
In 2008, the group decided to invite scholars to join a younger wing of the group called Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Benedikt XVI. These two groups have individual meetings and a meeting with each other each year.
Though Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is not typically included in the discussions anymore, he does meet the members and perform Mass at the end of each meeting.
“What made me want to apply was, first, the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict in person — but the main point of the group is not to meet Pope Benedict, it’s to meet these other people that are interested in him,” Burns said. “And that’s been exciting for me especially because, being an American, I don’t really have many other opportunities to get to Europe and meet European scholars … There is this whole equally large world out there on the other side of the Atlantic.”
The group meets, discusses topics and shares their work. The older group often shares stories about taking classes from Professor Ratzinger.
“Ultimately the more [sic] important thing is — and I haven’t gotten to do much of this just yet because I am new but I am looking forward to it — exchanging our work, reading each other’s articles and giving each other comments and feedback,” Burns said. “That’s the main thing that’s exciting for me.”
Burns said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his work have influenced him and his teaching significantly. Burns reveres him as a model of a modern Christian.
“I think the central preoccupation of his whole intellectual life since he was a college student is whether the Christian faith is true,” Burns said. “He says we’ve got to be honest, and if we can’t believe this stuff we’ve got to stop being Christians … That’s really driven him from the beginning, I think, and also as a personal question: is this really something I can base my life on?”
Burns has learned much from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, including how to read the Bible, how to relate the faith to broader society, and how to include philosophic inquiry in faith — all three of which are the Pope Emeritus’ main topics of work and study.
“I mean, if I had been born 40 years earlier I really like to think that I would have done everything in my power to get over to Germany and study with Professor Ratzinger, but I was born at the wrong time of human history for that to be possible,” Dr. Burns said.
Burns’ admiration for the Pope Emeritus and his work led him to apply to the Ratzinger group, though it took three years for him to be accepted.
He first applied in 2011 and was not accepted.
Then, the next year, he was invited to an interview, which was canceled because the Pope stepped down.
Finally, after three years of applying, Dr. Burns got an interview and was officially invited as a member.
“It was lot of waiting, a lot of frustration, a lot of ‘almosts’ — especially when it looked like they were inviting me for an interview and they canceled the interviews because [Benedict] stepped down … I didn’t even know if the group would go on,” Burns said. “The first notice I got was ‘Congratulations, you’re in [the group]. Our first meeting is August 20-25,’ and my wife was due on August 20. So there was a big high and big low within a single email.”
Burns has since attended two meetings — one with the younger group and one with both groups — and looks forward to many more.
“To be honest, after only two meetings I feel like I’m just getting my feet wet,” Burns said. “So I’m just barely beginning what I hope will be long contacts and even friendships with many people.”