Italy's Shifting Schoolscape; What's Great About Gregory

Where 8th-Graders Face a Tough Decision

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 8, 2005 ( As Labor Day passes and summer vacation ends, eighth-graders in the United States might be agonizing over what to wear the first day of school. In Italy, eighth-graders have a harder decision awaiting them — what to do with the rest of their lives.

Unlike the States, high schools are highly diversified in Italy. During the last year of middle school, Italian children have to decide which «type» of high school to attend. This decision sets those 13-year-old feet down a career track leading to higher education or vocational school.

Schools designed to accelerate entry into the work force abound, and many young people today are training in tourism and computer sciences already at the high school level, as the greatest demand for jobs is in these fields.

Those who plan to go on to higher studies tend to go to the «liceo» — a rough equivalent to an American college prep school. But even here there are choices to be made. For humanistic studies, one selects a five-year program of Greek, Latin and philosophy. If the child has an aptitude for math and science, then the «liceo scientifico» offers five years of preparation for medical or engineering studies. In recent years, language and art schools have also become common.

How does a child make such a momentous decision? Naturally one can always change plans and schools, but nonetheless the selection of the school starts a very adult plan in a young person’s life.

Today, Italian middle schools have special psychologists who administer tests and interview the students, finally making a recommendation to the parents. While helpful as an outside indicator, this system is flawed, as the consultants are rendering opinions after only a week of interaction.

These decisions were intended for an Italy of the strong family bond, where families ate all meals together and conversation was abundant, lively and loud. In this environment, there would be many assisting the decision, relatives who had gone through the process, parents who knew the strengths and weaknesses of their children. For many children in Italy today, this is a lonely choice, suggested by a stranger and ratified by busy parents.

Once the direction is chosen, the remaining question is where to enroll. Public schools are numerous and have varying reputations. Many public schools in Rome are well known to be recruiting grounds for this or that political party.

For young Catholics, public schools in Italy have always had one religion lesson a week. But now that lesson is optional, and a recent report from the Ministry of Education announced that about 50% of the students opt out of their hour of religion to have the free time. Furthermore, the class has evolved into a world religions course, presenting Catholicism as just another entrée in an immense and variegated buffet.

In his encyclical «Princeps Pastorum,» Pope John XXIII wrote that «it will always be necessary to balance the humanistic and technological education offered by the public schools with a formation based on spiritual values.» Many families have difficulties achieving this balance, so they send their children to Catholic schools.

Ten percent of the more than 2.5 million Italian high school students choose to attend private institutions, most being Catholic preparatory or vocational schools. Rome, home to about 40 Catholic high schools, has undergone much renewal in her educational institutions, the most recent being the prestigious Trinità dei Monti liceo, which will now be run by the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem.

Another school to have recently changed hands is the Nazareth school in the Prati district near the Vatican. Now one of the fashionable quarters in the city, at the time Nazareth was founded in 1886, Prati was a new neighborhood. Pope Leo XIII asked the Religious Sisters of Nazareth to establish a Catholic school in the area, then rife with Masonic lodges.

In September 2004, the administration of the school was handed over to the Office of Catholic Schools at the Vicariate of Rome. Now Nazareth is run by Catholic lay people.

The vice rector of Nazareth, Francesco La Rosa, talked to me about why parents send still send their children to Catholic schools.

«In 1984, Italy became a lay state, and many people began to equate ‘Catholic’ with ‘negative’ especially in education,» began La Rosa. «This, coupled with the demographic move outside of the city centers where most of the Catholic schools were, meant fewer and fewer children were attending Catholic schools.»

«But there is an old saying in Italy that if you’re educated by priests, you’re set for life,» continued the vice rector, «and people are beginning to look for rigor in education.»

La Rosa explained, «Not only do Catholic schools provide excellent instruction, they also help kids develop into good Catholic adults ready to face the challenges of the outside world. They offer formation.»

The vice rector hastened to add, «Many people think formation means brainwashing. It doesn’t. It teaches young adults to be coherent in their faith, so that what they profess and how they act work in unison.»

Applications to Catholic schools in Rome are now on the upswing. The prep schools have many more students than before and the kindergartens and nursery schools have long waiting lists.

It’s good to know that more and more kids are learning the ABC’s of Catholicism side by side with the alphabet.

* * *

Monk to Magnus

Last Saturday was the feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Rome reacted with little fanfare. A few pilgrims found their way to the churched dedicated to him on the Caelian Hill while others noted the lit candles on the altar above his relics in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Perhaps this saint of almost 1,500 years ago seems a little too far away from us. He was from a wealthy Roman patrician family and didn’t die the glorious and gruesome death of a martyr, so what is there to capture the imagination of the 21st century?

Plenty. The 14-year pontificate of Gregory the Great has many resounding messages for the Catholic world today.

«Magnus, magnus» we all heard during the funeral of John Paul II and many wondered at its meaning. The term «magnus» (the great) has not been used in a very long time, not since Pope Nicholas I died in 867. It is a popular acclamation, not a granted title, something that people use and it sticks. Johannus Paulus Magnus certainly sounds as if it will stand the test of time.

What earns this title is a pontificate of great theological and intellectual advances, brilliant navigation of the Church through dark times and troubled waters, and the genuine love of the flock.

When Gregory was unanimously elected Pope, he was living as monk in Rome. He had transformed his family palace on the Caelian Hill into a monastic community. Although often sent by his predecessor, Pope Pelagius II, on delicate and complicated diplomatic missions, Gregory’s first and true love was the contemplative life. Upon election to the papacy, like John Paul II, Gregory had balance his mystical side with his active responsibilities as Pope.

Responsibilities that Pope Gregory took very seriously. He was the first Pope to refer to himself as «Servus servorum Dei,» or Servant of the servants of God, a title that John Paul II used frequently of himself. He fortified Rome against the Lombards, gave his own lands to feed the starving population and sent out missionaries to evangelize new lands, especially England.

As our John Paul II was actor and poet, so Pope Gregory left a lasting artistic gift to the Church, Gregorian chant.

Pope Gregory’s last years were spent in constant illness and physical pain, but according to biographer Paul the Deacon, «he never rested» and continued his ministry until he died a peaceful and happy death in 604. H
is ceaseless work and prayer for the souls in his care served as an example for all those who witnessed it.

Another significant link between St. Gregory and our present times can be found in St. Benedict. Although St. Benedict died in 547 when Gregory was still a child, the Pope admired the monastic founder and furthered Benedictine monasticism with every means at his disposal. In these days of renewed interest in Benedict and his teachings, Pope Gregory seems to have planted the seeds that we are reaping now.

The legacy of Pope Gregory the Great earned him the title of Father of the medieval Church. Maybe John Paul II will be known as the Father of the Church of the third millennium.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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