Theology of the body alive in the family: Michael and Susan Waldstein

ALLEGRA THATCHER
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Photo by: Monica Torreblanca

Michael and Susan Waldstein may be experts on family life, but it’s not just because of their many doctorates or time in the classroom. Their prime classroom was their home, where they raised a happy family in extraordinarily simple ways.

Both professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville and members of Pope St. John Paul II’s Pontifical Council for the Family, the Waldsteins have spent their entire adult lives seeking to direct their natural intellectual gifts to the service of the Church.

From his early years in Salzburg, Austria, Michael grew up discussing theology and philosophy with the guests who came to his home, most notably Dietrich von Hildebrand. From there, he encountered the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and was set on the intellectual life. He and Susan met at Thomas Aquinas College, which she had been encouraged to attend despite her inclinations to chemistry and biology.

“There I learned a different way of looking at nature by studying the natural philosophy of Aristotle,” she said. “I realized that looking at nature in that way contributed to theology and that there could be a theology of biology.”

The Waldsteins met on their first day at Thomas Aquinas College and married three days after Susan’s graduation. From there, she joked, “We went around, and he got degrees and I had babies.” Michael’s pursuit of knowledge took them from Dallas to Rome, then on to Boston and Notre Dame.

When he was offered a tenured position at Notre Dame, Michael turned it down for a request to start the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria. There the Waldsteins came to know the Franciscan University community and raised their family in a most unique way.

“We were able to share everything we loved with the children,” said Susan. “So, my husband read every night for an hour to an hour and a half.”

“The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” came alive in the Waldstein’s living room — seven times over, because when a child turned 8, they would begin again. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Little House in the Big Woods” series, “Ivanhoe,” “The Betrothed” by Manzoni and many other historical novels followed.

“Then we would light candles by the statue of Mary and pray a decade of the rosary, sing some hymns and go to bed. We had a beautiful life there,” shared Susan.

When the family read historical novels, it would go to the places they described. On the list for the road trips were the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned, the Gothic cathedrals and tapestries in France during studies of the middle ages and Renaissance palaces and artwork in Rome.

“We also spent many hours listening to classical music and explaining it to the children,” she added.

Above all, the couple wanted to pass on the Catholic faith. “It’s a great gift that all eight of the children have kept the faith so far, which isn’t always the case in modern culture,” said Michael.

When Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, came to visit in Gaming, “he was very impressed by the meal that our son cooked and by the conversation of the children,” recalled Michael with a chuckle.

Because of their connections to the Institute, the couple was able to meet with Pope St. John Paul II on multiple occasions, which they remember fondly.

“We met with John Paul II (at an annual Institute meeting) not long before he died,” shared Susan. “He was so weak he had to be carried in on a litter, but he still wanted to come, and he still radiated this love and joy. … It was so moving that he loved us so much and he thought our work was so important that he came even though he was so sick. And he wanted to bless us.”

Michael’s extensive learning enabled him to publish, among other works, a new translation of John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body” in 2006.

Michael also has the privilege of being friends with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was first acquainted with his American secretary, who one day encouraged him to meet with “The Cardinal” because “he likes meeting students.”

“I remember taking the bus … going to the Vatican and getting rather self-conscious and nervous. ‘I have no complaint, no problem, no question. Why am I wasting his time?’ Then when I got there … He came in with the greatest simplicity and sweetness that I’ve encountered in people, with a real interest in what I was studying at the Biblicum.”

Michael recounted his excitement that Ratzinger had read everything that he was reading at the time. “We talked about these things and from then on, I was part of a group of 12 theologians who met with him once a year just to do a little bit of theology. It was a great gift.”

After Gaming, the Waldsteins’ road led them to Ave Maria University, where they remained for nine and a half years, during which time Susan finished a doctorate and also finished homeschooling the last three children.

With their move to Bloomingdale, Ohio, the Waldsteins marked the end of an era. Michael was asked if he would be interested in coming to Franciscan to help start a doctoral program in theology, to which the couple agreed. Since January 2018, they have taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate classes in theology and the medieval period.

Yet the biggest change is that, since last May, they are without children in the house. “We are for the first time alone again,” said Michael.

“This is our first year as empty nesters,” Susan said with a thoughtful expression. “I’ve been homeschooling for 30 years. … It’s been very sweet, like a honeymoon. We do everything together. Driving into school, we teach our separate classes, we go to mass together, we eat dinner together.”

The Waldsteins are also excited to be grandparents nine times over so far. The whole family gets together once a year, but the Waldsteins make sure to see their grandchildren more often.

In the meantime, Michael and Susan love teaching at Franciscan.

“We’re so much enjoying our students here and our classes,” said Susan. “I love how small my classes are; my students are really reading the texts and they’re usually ready to talk in class, which is a lot of fun.”

When asked the secret to a happy marriage and family, both smiled.

“Lots of time together,” said Susan.

Michael came in almost on top of her words. “Loving each other; it seems obvious.”

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