The Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of its most famous alumnus by launching an interdisciplinary institute bearing his name.

The St. John Paul II Institute of Culture was to have its formal launch -- livestreamed -- May 18, the anniversary of the birth of the Polish pope who earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1948 from the university, which commonly is called the Angelicum.

Dominican Father Michal Paluch, university rector, said the new institute is not designed simply to promote the study of St. John Paul's philosophy, theology and life, but rather to explore ways his vision of what it means to be human and part of a community can respond to modern challenges in social life, the arts, law, economics and politics.

"The strength of his pontificate," Father Paluch told Catholic News Service, was his firm conviction about Christians acting as witnesses for Christ in the world while also "being willing to learn from others, all those who do not share our understanding of the world and our values."

The institute will be part of the faculty of philosophy and will begin offering courses in the fall of 2020, although the special guest professors will not offer their courses until early 2021.

Remi Brague, professor emeritus of religious philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, will lecture on anthropology and culture; Franciszek Longchamps de Berier from the Faculty of Law and Administration of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, will offer a course about the relationship between anthropology and law; and Jaroslaw Kilian, professor at the Polish National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw, will offer an interdisciplinary theatrical experiment, combining lectures, a workshop and the performance of St. John Paul II's play, "Job."

"Education today cannot be only about the past, different ideas that we want to put into the heads of our students," Father Paluch said. The lectures, workshops and play should "leave seeds deep in the hearts and minds of our students."

"We don't want this institute to be a kind of repetition of what John Paul II said and what he did," the rector said. "Those are important to remember, but we want to make him a partner in our conversation. And it should be much more than just quoting his different documents and discourses; it should be about entering into conversation with him."

Pope Francis, in a letter to Father Paluch welcoming the establishment of the institute, said St. John Paul left the church a "rich and multifaceted heritage" marked especially by "the example of his open and contemplative spirit, his passion for God and man, for creation, history and art."

"The range of experiences that marked his life, especially the momentous historical events and the personal sufferings that he sought to interpret in the light of the Spirit, led St. John Paul II to an even deeper reflection on man and his cultural roots as an essential reference point for every proclamation of the Gospel," Pope Francis wrote.

St. John Paul's respect and esteem for all people, he said, must be kept alive "if we wish to be an outward-looking church, not satisfied with preserving and administering what already exists but seeking to be faithful to our mission."

Of course, Father Paluch said, given the global coronavirus pandemic, what will happen on the Angelicum campus in Rome in the fall is still uncertain.

The university's students come from 97 countries, he said. Because it is the only pontifical university in Rome where philosophy and theology students can do all of their course work in English, students from the United States form the largest group -- about 25% of the student body. They are followed by Italians, Indians and Nigerians.

Because many students will not make it back when the fall term begins in October and because social-distancing rules still are likely to be in place, he said, the university is planning for a "mixed modality" with a few students in the classroom and the rest following online.