“Studying theology must be based on both solid academic inquiry and deep faith”: An interview with Fr Andrzej Wodka, C.Ss.R.

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(Rome) on June 19, 2018, the Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, His Excellency Archbishop A. Vincenzo Zani gave the new president of AVEPRO, Fr Andrzej Wodka CSsR a nomination decree signed on behalf of Pope Francis on June 5, by Cardinal Pietro Prolin, Secretary of State. Fr Janusz Sok, C.Ss.R., Provincial of the Warsaw, Poland made an interview with Fr Andrzej Wodka, C.Ss.R., who is the President of the Alphonsian Academy of Rome.

Father, you are appointed President of AVEPRO. Can you make a quick comment about the nomination?

The news is quite unanticipated for me and surely for many others as well. After all, I am currently into my second term as President at our Academy of Moral Theology and I would still have one year left in this ministry. The past five years, while running a 70-year-old scientific institution (established in 1949), which is basically the only one of its kind in the world, has brought me into the broader world of responsibility for pontifical higher education in Rome. Perhaps, it is for this reason that I was considered for the position of the person responsible for AVEPRO – The Holy See’s Agency for the Evaluation and Promotion of Quality in Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties.

AVEPRO? How do you define it?

It is an agency similar in its tasks national accreditation commissions or agencies, already existing in several countries. AVEPRO was founded in 2007, during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. This agency is an independent body of the Holy See, responsible for verifying and promoting the quality of education offered and maintained by pontifical and ecclesiastical universities. By its nature, therefore, the Agency cooperates with the Congregation for Catholic Education. It was created as an effect of the Holy See’s entering in the so-called “Bologna Process”, in 2003. It is a topic in itself. Generally speaking, AVEPRO is intended to harmonize the teaching, research and administrative activities of church educational universities institutions with accepted education standards within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which is constituted by, so far, by 48 countries.

It looks like something new ...

In a sense, yes! As I have already mentioned, the Agency was called into existence by a handwritten letter of Benedict XVI, 11 years ago, to promote and shape the culture of quality in the universities founded by the Holy See. But the criteria for this “academic excellence” were determined already by our Holy Father, John Paul II, in his apostolic constitution Sapientia Christiana (Christian Wisdom) in 1979, almost 40 years ago. This does not mean that for centuries since the Church has been involved in teaching, the quality of knowledge and its message has not been sought for! It is rather a more modern approach to the question, already suggested by the Second Vatican Council, which “for a more effective mission in this new period of history” recommended – in the Decree on the formation of priests Optatam Totius – “a creative revision of church studies”. The most recent novelty is that in January of this year a new apostolic constitution was promulgated by the current Pope Francis, under the name Veritatis Gaudium (Joy of Truth), which – already in its first article 1, paragraph 2, formally and normatively subjects universities and church departments, as well as other higher education institutions, to the assessment of our “Holy See’s Agency for the Evaluation and Promotion of Quality in Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties (AVEPRO)”. In its activities, the Agency applies its own criteria, but also refers, among others, to the European Standards and Guidelines, adopted at the Conference of Ministers of the European Area of Higher Education in Yerevan in 2015, in which I took part on behalf of the Holy See.

If so, it seems that you have already been prepared for it in some way…

Unknowingly, yes. In some way… Having worked at the Academy for 21 years (since 1997), especially in the last five years, when the responsibility for our Alphonsian Academy was placed on my shoulders, I worked in circles of people who performed a similar ministry. It so happened that I was proverbially “drafted into” several forums at the level of responsibility for them. Consequently, I was the head and formerly the deputy head of the Committee of Deans and Presidents of the Faculties of Theology at the Pontifical Universities and Roman Specialized Institutes (2014-2018). To this day, for the last five years, I am also the secretary of the Conference of Rectors of the Pontifical Roman Universities (CRUIPRO). In addition, I have been nominated one of the experts for the accreditation visits by AVEPRO for the last year and a half. Moreover, in May of this year, I took part in the Conference of Ministers of the European Area of Higher Education, this time in Paris, again as a member of the Holy See delegation. It can be seen, therefore, that Divine Providence has somehow introduced me into these “areas”, which to a large extent I still have to get to know…

Are you not afraid of all the new tasks you will be faced with?

This is a sincere question that deserves an honest answer. The numbers certainly make a big impression. The very world of Roman pontifical universities (23 institutions including 7 universities) is extremely rich. However, if you look at the whole world of Catholic education, you have to strongly expand your soul to include an incomparably vast number of institutions. We have 289 ecclesiastical faculties and 503 academic institutions connected with others on the basis of affiliation, association or incorporation, in the entire area of the universities founded by the Church. All in all, I must somehow embrace 792 institutes of the Catholic higher education, namely 28 universities and a large number of faculties. These are divided into 160 faculties of theology, 49 philosophy, 32 cannon laws and 40 faculties of other disciplines.

That’s practically the whole world…

Exactly!  These institutions are scattered across all continents. In Africa, we have 17 faculties and 76 associated institutions, while in Asia there are 25 faculties and 56 institutions associated with them. North America enjoys 19 faculties and 25 scientific institutions attached to it, while South America has 22 faculties and 56 smaller university institutions dependent on them. Oceania has the least, because only 1 faculty and 3 dependent institutions, but Europe, vice versa, exceeds 207 faculties and 287 connected institutions. All these university entities host about 64,500 students, with 12,000 professors at their service.

How do you plan to take on these new responsibilities?

I think, first of all, that I will need to get to know the Agency itself and all the colleagues in order to assume creatively their experiences, especially the one of my predecessor Father Gianfranco Imoda, SJ. However, I think the tone will be set by the apostolic constitution Veritatis Gaudium itself and its basic criteria of “renewing and reviving the contribution of ecclesiastical studies in the Church that goes out on a mission”. Pope Francis primarily emphasizes “bringing a spiritual, intellectual and existential introduction into the heart of the kerygma”, in other words, the “joyful news of the Gospel of Jesus”. Here, the soul breathes with the oxygen of Grace … The remaining criteria are dialogue “as an inherent requirement to gain a communal experience of the joy of truth”, then inter-disciplinary, and even trans-disciplinary approaches, which are intended to localize the development of all knowledge “within the Wisdom flowing from Revelation God”. The last criterion concerns the urgent need to create “networks between various institutions that cultivate and preach church studies in every part of the world”. An additional enrichment is to be found in the cooperation with those institutions that are inspired by “different cultural and religious traditions”.

God’s grace cannot fail to assist you …

Oh yes! Studying theology, but also acquiring all knowledge, as Pope Francis writes, “is fruitful only when it is done with an open mind and on one’s knees”, so it must be based on both solid academic inquiry and deep faith. In addition to true interpersonal communion, I count always and primarily on the constant assistance of the Spirit of the Resurrected Lord who revives us and gives growth, but also on the “unparalleled motherly love” of the Mother of Perpetual Help, under whose heart I have been living in Rome for 30 years and whose Immaculate Conception became the date of the signing of the new Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, that is, December 8, 2017. She, Sedes Sapientiae, and also the First Disciple of the Son of God, will surely teach me to take my first steps and lead me in this new ministry that, for now, keeps taking my breath away…

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