ROME — This year’s annual meeting of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s former students will discuss Europe’s spiritual crisis during their gathering later this month, according to the group’s organizer.

The “Ratzinger Schuelerkreis” has gathered to discuss topics in theology and the life of the Church since 1978, shortly after their mentor was pulled from academia to become a bishop.

The theme of the spiritual crisis in Europe was approved by Benedict himself, Father Stephan Horn told CNA.

Horn, a Salvatorian, was Father Joseph Ratzinger’s academic assistant at the University of Regensburg from 1971 to 1977, and is now organizer of the Schuelerkreis meeting. This year the group will meet at Castel Gandolfo Aug. 26-28.

He related that this year’s meeting will feature two lecturers: Joseph H. H. Weiler, a Jewish lawyer and president of the European University Institute in Florence; and Bishop Emeritus Egon Kapellari of Graz-Seckau.

In 2010, Weiler, an expert on European constitutional law, successfully defended Italy’s right to display crucifixes in public schools before the European Court of Human Rights

Both of the conferences on the meeting’s theme will be delivered Aug. 26. Kapellari’s lecture is to focus particularly on “Old and New Challenges for Christians in the European Fabric.”

The 40 or so members of the Schuelerkreis form a sort of “theological family,” Horn has said. In addition to the historical nucleus of the group, a secondary group of younger theologians who have studied Benedict’s thought in-depth was formed in 2008.

The idea for the annual meeting arose in 1977, when Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising. When he moved to Rome in 1981 to take up the post of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it continued.

Benedict’s former students thought that the annual tradition would have stopped once Ratzinger was elected pope, yet he wanted to maintain the tradition and continued to meet with his former students.

Since his 2013 resignation, Benedict has not attended the Schuelerkreis, except to say Mass for the group at its conclusion.

But “this year there will be no final Mass,” Horn said. “Instead, there will be a personal meeting of a group of us with the pope emeritus on the evening of Aug. 26.”

Nevertheless, the pope emeritus closely follows the works of his former students, and remains involved in the selection of themes for the Schuelerkreis. In recent years, they have focused on the quest for God as a challenge for contemporary society; the theology of the cross; the question of God amid secularism; and ecumenism.