Daniel Scullion shares his experience of studying at the Sophia University Institute at Loppiano.
[New City Magazine – February 2022 page 20-21]
After completing a law degree at Glasgow University in 2018, I was perplexed to find that I was still left with a burning question that remained unanswered – how can we make a society that puts the human person in their fullness at the centre? It was with this question at heart and following strong experiences of unity with other youth of the Focolare Movement that I decided to enrol for a Masters programme in 2019-20 at Sophia University Institute in Loppiano, a little town of the Focolare Movement in Italy, 30km from Florence.
Sophia’s founding principal is that all teaching should be built on a shared search for wisdom, a search which involves sharing the journey through a combination of life and thought, practise and theory. This focus on living what is taught, practising what is preached, was very attractive to me. The university experience I had in Glasgow, though extremely positive, particularly in terms of building good critical skills and opening me to a range of currents of thought prevalent in our culture, still left me struggling to link what we were learning about law and society to our daily questions and dilemmas. When we left the classroom I felt that what we discussed no longer held much relevance for us students. It seemed to me that if what we learn doesn’t help us grow as people and help to contribute to our communities then it must be missing something vital, no matter how ‘employable’ we may have become at the end of it.
On the one hand, I went on to find Sophia a university like any other – some professors could drone on, and we had a very full timetable and far more reading than we could possibly hope to complete. For the first semester, all students take foundation courses across the disciplines which the university focusses on – economics, politics, philosophy and theology. Having recently developed an interest in Christian thinking and way of life, I found the theology classes fantastic, and they were particularly interesting because I was studying alongside other beginners such as myself, as well as others with some more experience and expertise, and at the same time alongside a few ordained priests! We were taken aback at first, but the professor insisted that the alternative methodology at Sophia made whether we had studied this topic for years or not at all completely irrelevant!
So what is this alternative methodology? At its heart it is a ‘part of unity’ which everybody at Sophia tries to live each day. There were the moments of sharing, timetabled three times a week, in which students and professors could share about their academic or personal life if they wished. There was the immersive inter-religious dialogue which involved living with a Buddhist and Muslim student, and the incredible cultural diversity among the cohort of less than 100 students stemming from six continents.
However, to try to communicate what to me is the radicality of Sophia and the sense in which it really fulfilled the dream I had to study at a different kind of university, I cast my mind back to the party we had at the beginning of the academic year. It was an evening of take-away pizza shared among the new students, standing students, staff and professors. I later discovered that those present included: an ex-head of department at Chicago University whose research is being considered for a Nobel Prize; a number of the closest academic companions of Chiara Lubich (founder of the Focolare Movement), and a nuclear physicist turned philosopher with a 30-year career at the Lateran University in Rome. The President of the University, a renowned theologian recently appointed the Secretary General of the Theological Commission, stood up and as his welcome toast had everybody singing along with him:
Viva la birra, si beve in tutti i bar!
Viva la birra, alcolico più che mai!
E il più birra che bevrai,
Ubriaco tu sarai!
Allora avrai meno pensieri,
E più felice tu sarai!
Which translates roughly:
Long live beer, which we drink in every bar!
Long live beer, more potent than ever!
The more beer you drink,
The more inebriated you’ll become!
So you’ll think less,
and be happier!
After this, he gave a short speech in which he did a good imitation of the Irish accent of one of the other professors. For me this really set the tone for the good humour and sense of family that everybody sought to put at the centre of everything at Sophia. Sharing this really human side of ourselves and travelling together – not just on an academic journey but on a journey of life was not just a very enjoyable experience, but gave the learning a much more rounded, immersive and, in my view, effective character. I think that we all know that we learn so much more from a friend, in a real community, in a relationship of trust, and Sophia tries to bring this reality into a formal institutional setting, and the results are a place where theory and practise really do meet.
Sophia University Institute is now offering online courses in ‘Culture of Unity’ and ‘Leadership in Dialogue’ through Sophia Web Academy (currently these courses are only available in Italian). For more information visit: https://swa.sophiauniversity.org/ or see 2021 inauguration video available on Youtube ‘Sophia Web Academy – Giornata Inaugurale’.
The first Masters programme in English has been launched – “Economics and Management” – ‘Specialization in Management for a Civil and Sustainable Economy’. For more information visit https://www.sophiauniversity.org/
Photo©: courtesy of Daniel Scullion