01-04-2008 - Traces, n. 4

Lisbon   Free to educate

S. Tomás
An Event in the City

Two schools opened in record time. Over 800 pupils. A success.
This initiative was born among a group of friends with their children’s education at heart

by Paola Bergamini

The year 1992. Isabel, recently married and fresh out of law school, is on the verge of moving to New York, where her husband will study for a degree in business administration. Fr. João calls her: “While you’re in America, try and attend an educational training course. Our community is young, mostly graduates and undergrads. But their children will be on their way soon, and we’ll need a place where their education will embody the ideals we’ve met in the Movement.”
“I graduated in Law, so his request seemed odd,” recalls Isabel. “But I thought, okay, if I get a chance I’ll take it, because I saw the Movement’s richness and all its educational potential.”
1997. Isabel returns to Lisbon with four children and a Master’s in Educational Administration from Columbia University. Their friends are now married with children, and the desire Fr. João had spoken of is increasingly becoming a need. They begin to cherish the idea of founding a school.
There was no money, no building, nothing. Just a group of friends with their children’s destiny at heart. “It seemed impossible,” recalls Isabel, who in the meantime had begun to be busy with educational works in Fr. João’s parish. “But I always remembered Fr. Giussani’s words: ‘To us, the impossible is only the improbable.’”
In 2000, they set up an association and involved a leading businessman in the plan, a former student of Fr. João’s at Catholic University. Through him, they succeeded in getting a 99-year lease on a vacant lot from the city of Lisbon. It looked as if their dream was taking shape. But when the time came to sign off on the deal, the city council fell and the new mayor opposed the concession. They had to start over. They made further contacts and sought funding. In 2004, they managed to acquire an old building.

Public presentation
The S. Tomás Sete Rios School had its public presentation in January at Catholic University in Lisbon. “The hall was packed; there were over five hundred people there. Many of them ended up watching the event on a monitor with a video link in another hall,” explains Fr. João. “We had invited everyone we’d contacted over those years.”
In September, the facility opened with a nursery school and a primary school. Within a few days, all the places were snapped up: over 300 pupils. In Portugal, there is no shortage of Catholic schools, so why the success? “It’s true. There’s no shortage of either schools or pupils,” continues Fr. João. “This is because state schools are a disaster and families, even if they’re not believers, put their children in private Catholic schools, provided they can afford it, because they ensure certain standards of moral behavior. But we wanted something else, and we said so clearly at the presentation. The school was born out of the experience of the Movement of Communion and Liberation. The Catholic philosophy that we want it to embody derives its origins and method from this experience. The charism of Fr. Giussani responds to the needs of our hearts. Today, the educational drama can only be solved by finding an answer to the longing for goodness, for happiness, inherent in every man. All of the rest is moralizing.” This is a clear proposal, without any moralistic ambiguity, but above all it is fascinating.
Then the mayor of Lisbon became Prime Minister. The odds favored us again. Our friends were back in office. An agreement with the city enabled us to acquire a new lot in a part of the capital then being developed. Work began in January 2007 and in September of the same year the school was ready. Built in record time, the S. Tomás Quinta das Conchas School offers all levels of education, from kindergarten right through high school. Enrollments number 500. The success has been beyond all expectations.
“Here again, an important factor was the presentation of our educational proposals and hence the reasons underlying the educational choices we made, like the importance of artistic education, music, and much more,” explains Isabel, the head of the new school. “Many parents were fascinated by it. It responded to their desire for happiness and well-being for themselves and their children. We didn’t present a set of ethical rules and regulations, but the possibility of an attractive Catholic educational environment. Of course, we’re also concerned about the quality of the work. For this reason, we set up a scholarly board with university friends to help the teachers. It meets once a month to appraise the pedagogical aspects of the work and its content. This is clearly an important factor, one that appeals to parents. But above all, our concern is with all the details of this educational project. Each family, before enrolling their child, has a talk with me and with the director of the cycle of studies which their child will be following. On the one hand, we want our policy to be clear and, on the other, we want to be able to set out on an educative path together.”

Educating the heart of man
At the opening ceremony of the new school, before a public of 700 people, Fr. Eugenio Nembrini, Rector of the Institute of the Sacred Heart in Milan, who related the experiences of his own life, simply pointed out that “educating the heart of man, as God created it, the desire for life and fulfillment, is the challenge we face in our schools.”
“This means the problem is not our children or our pupils; the problem is ourselves,” continues Isabel. “Our experience as adults has to be a constant confirmation of the hypothesis that God exists and loves us. This is the wound that we have to leave open. If we do it, we will discover that all the positivity that life contains, all the beauty and richness of tradition and culture, all the brilliance of teaching, are within our reach.”
It is a challenge that involves not only parents but also teachers. Here’s an example: At the end of the first term, there arose the problem of a high school class that was particularly unruly. At a meeting, some of the teachers called for more discipline. But Isabel dug her heels in: “No, not discipline, but friendship.”

Beyond the confines of Lisbon
After some months, things were looking up, but the behavior of the boys among themselves and their teachers was still “barbarous.” Another meeting ensued. Isabel spoke: “Now we do need discipline.” Everyone looked at her, appalled. “Don’t you see? First it was just rowdiness. Now they have to learn there is a way of relating to each other that shows consideration for others. The method is imposed by the object. Not rules of behavior as an end in themselves, but an order, an affection they have to embrace.” A few days later, some teachers asked to read Giussani’s The Risk of Education and analyze it in depth.
One thing is clear: the S. Tomás School is an educational event; it has shaken up society in Lisbon. “And not just Lisbon,” concludes Fr. João. “A lot of people have contacted us because they want to follow our example; they want to set up schools with the same imprint as San Tomás. It’s amazing, because it’s not the fruit of our efficiency, some special ability we possess, but simply a recognition of the truth of an adequate response.”