(Main library KU Leuven)

This week a brief summer travel reflection…

At the end of June, on my way back to Belgium, I had a six hours layover in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fortunately, they put me in a very comfortable waiting room, designed primarily for older people. I had just begun to read the Chicago Tribune when a lady, about my age, arrived and sat down directly across  from me. I said “good morning.” She smiled and said “yes, it is a lovely day.” I continued reading.

After about half an hour, I put down my newspaper. She immediately said “where are you going?” I said “Brussels, Belgium.” “0h!” she said “I know Brussels very well. I can tell you all about it because I have visited it at least seven times in the past forty years.” “That’s great,” I said and added, with a chuckle, “I know a lot about it as well. I have lived a few miles from Brussels for the past forty years.” “My, my” she said “you must speak French very well, because French is the national language of Belgium.” “I do” I said and added “but Belgium has three national languages: Dutch, French, and German. The primary language in Belgium is not French but Dutch, spoken by approximately 60% of the population. And my Dutch is very good.” “Well, well” she said “I hate to say this but you are a very ignorant man when it comes to languages in Belgium.” 

I was in no mood for a linguistic debate. I just politely smiled and ignored the lady. I grabbed my iPad to review an article and send a couple emails.

After almost an hour, she interrupted me again. This time she said “Well…” she stared at me with raised eyelids and said  “Well…if you think you know so much about languages in BELGIQUE– the French name for Belgium by the way — what do you do over there?” I smiled and said “I am a retired professor of theology from the Catholic University of Leuven.” “Oh my God!” she said, “I am a VERY good CATHOLIC! I know all about Louvain, what you call LEUVEN. It is a hotbed of leftist so-called-Catholics who are really heretics! Heretics!” I started to laugh and said “well at least then I am a happy and contented old heretic.” But, before she could could react, an attendant came to get her and take her for her flight to Atlanta. I wished her a pleasant flight. She went “humpf!” and disappeared.

A couple minutes later, a fellow from across the room started laughing. He then stood up and walked over to me and tapped my shoulder. “I like heretics” he said and he laughed some more. Then he told me, in Dutch,  that he was Belgian, a retired professor, and had lived close to Leuven for sixty years. We both had a good laugh. Then a young attendant came to get both of us, because it was time for us to board our plane for Brussels. 

About nine hours later, I was back home in Leuven – hardly anyone says “Louvain” these days — with its “KU Leuven” university. The “KU” stands for “Catholic University” in Dutch. The university’s legal name is  Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven, which translates in English as “Catholic University of Leuven.”

The KU Leuven will celebrate its 600th anniversary in 2025, making it one of Europe’s oldest universities. 

Our institution is the oldest university in the Low Countries and the oldest extant Catholic university in the world. The University was founded by Pope Martin V (1369 – 1431) on December 9, 1425, after the city of Leuven had requested permission for the foundation of the University. 

The University of Leuven initially comprised four faculties (divisions): humanities, church law, civil law, and medicine. In 1432, Pope Eugene IV (1383 – 1447) gave permission to add the faculty of theology. 

A little over a century after it was founded, the University already had about 2,000 students and more than than 200 of them came from abroad. The presence of great thinkers, like the humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), was certainly part of the Leuven appeal. Erasmus spent several years in Leuven and though not a professor he actively contributed to the development of the University. In Leuven he promoted research in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in his College of Three Languages, the Collegium Trilingue, founded thanks to a bequest from his friend Hieronymus Busleyden (c. 1470-1517). 

Erasmus advocated the printing and publishing of Thomas More’s Utopia. That could not be done in  England. It was printed in Leuven in 1516 in the workshop of the printer and publisher Dirk Martens (1447 – 1534). His print shop (now a restaurant) was close to the University Hall, which is still the main administrative building for the KU Leuven. 

Towards the end of 1534, the twenty-two-year-old Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594) returned to Leuven – he had been a teenager in Leuven for a couple years — and threw himself into the study of geography, mathematics, and astronomy. He would later become the world-famous cartographer, most renowned for creating his 1569 world map, one of the most significant advances in the history of cartography.

Over the centuries, the Leuven University has continued, grounded in the humanities while exploring other scientific domains. I am thinking right now, for example, about the ground-breaking research of Leuven’s Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), professor and priest. In 1927 Professor Lemaître’s explanation of the expanding universe greatly contributed to the theory of general relativity. Lemaître is now considered the founding father of the “Big Bang theory,” which in 1931 he called the universe’s expansion from the “Primeval Atom.”

Today’s KU Leuven ranks among the top 10 universities in Europe and consistently ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. It has close to sixty thousand students and has 24 libraries and learning centers across its 12 campuses, containing millions of books and other media. Its theology library alone holds 1.3 million volumes, including 1200 manuscripts and 702 works printed before before 1501.

Leuven’s Faculty of Theology and Religions Studies is anchored in the historical-critical approach to theology: trying to understand the world behind the biblical and theological texts. Leuven theologians played a key role in the deliberations at Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council which met from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965. (I arrived in Leuven for the first time in September 1965. But returned a few years later to complete my doctorate.)

Leuven theologians – who were my professors in the 1960s — exerted a decisive influence on a number of Second Vatican Council  documents, including the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, and particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

True to the spirit of the Council, in the years following Vatican II the university’s theologians have maintained active dialogue with philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and others who study our contemporary human condition. They ask questions. They are open to change and to new understandings. But, really, they are not heretics. They strive to develop a theological language faithful to tradition and realistically in touch with the mentality and situation of contemporary people and times.

Today the women and men, who are today’s Leuven theologians, work energetically to make room for broad approaches to Christian understanding and to other religious traditions. In their research and teaching, they stress getting to know other religious traditions through ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and research. I consider them energetic explorers on the theological landscape. 

In the last few years, the number of KU Leuven international students has increased significantly. Today’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies enjoys a broad range of contacts with international theological researchers and institutions. (I am currently on a committee working to set up scholarships for foreign theology students.)

And so… this week just a bit of the “heretic’s” personal journey “Chicago to Brussels” and his being back home in Leuven.

  •  Jack

34 thoughts on ““Chicago to Brussels”

  1. You are not only an accomplished theologian but also a great story teller. I also enjoyed reading the history of KU Leuven. It’s comforting to know such universities are thriving.

  2. Dear Jack,
    You are one of the smartest, kindest, and most tolerant heretics that I have the pleasure to call friend. It is too bad that you have to live in a place of such limited intellectual and historical significance!! Thank you for this brief history of such an incredible learning and positive influence on the world. Thank God for such wonderful heretics as yourself!

  3. I certainly admire your patience, Jack, as you were confronted/delighted by today’s know-it-all American! I don’t think I could have kept my composure! I have long been attracted to Leuven and its scholars and reputation. Would that my diocesan bishop had been intellectual enough to recognize the value and sent more than one from my class to study abroad in a non church politic environment! From observations in more than 20 dioceses in which I’ve worked over the past 40 years, the North American gets mixed reviews, especially since there are so many that aspire/politic to receive appointments thereto! Your posts provide a significant tribute to the scholarship and university you represent!!

  4. Jack,

    Thanks for being the heretic that you are and for defending our beloved alma mater. Your brief history gave me some facts about the University that I did not know.

  5. Hi, Jack! Your essay today is SO entertaining (besides giving the history of KU Leuven, of course.) You’re a great story teller. Thank you. I hadn’t known its history and tradition of “broad approaches to Christian understanding and to other religious traditions.” This approach is just what’s needed in our multicultural world. It’s comforting to know that lots of smart and inquisitive people like yourself are making your research & knowledge available to the world.

  6. So much info in so short a space. And the opening anecdote is hilarious. I wonder if she was headed to Atlanta to meddle in the election? Bravo, Jack

  7. Love it Jack! I was smiling all the way through your article. And yes I’ve had a few conversations over the years that were almost as prickly as yours with “Louvain lady.” I’m thinking of the Socratic method here — if professors raise apropos and challenging questions, based on solid research and insight, is it the same as being a burn-able heretic? Seriously?

  8. What a strange lady. I’d love to invite her to do my audio walking tour of Leuven. I fear that you, Jack, would have nothing to learn from it!

  9. I love this! As you probably remember, my father graduated from KA Leuven in 1932. I have a photo of his class, the Oudenaarde Club.

Leave a Reply to Mary D HirschCancel reply