(Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead the weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi )

With Pope Benedict retired behind the Vatican’s walls and his former students getting on in years, a new generation of theologians is taking up the challenge of spreading his views on God, faith and modern society.

The ex-pontiff, who stepped down in February, met every year since 1979 with several dozen former students whose doctoral theses he mentored as a theology professor in Germany before climbing the Roman Catholic Church’s career ladder to the top. He was absent when his students, who have mostly reached or passed retirement age, gathered at the papal summer residence Castel Gandalfo outside Rome two weeks ago.

But a new generation of scholars joined them there and announced plans for two conferences in Africa to introduce the theology of Professor Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known in his university days, beyond its European context.

“We students of his are old hands who are reaching retirement age or well beyond it,” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told Vatican Radio after the meeting. “It’s very good to see that a younger generation is coming along that is bright, very interested and very competent. I think it’s also a joy for Pope Benedict to see that the students circle that he started 34 years ago when he was archbishop of Munich will live on.”