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Reclaiming the Piazza, Volumes I – III (2014, 2017, 2021)

This is a longer blog post than usual. We think that it is worth it.

Rev Dr John Paul Sheridan St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth (Ireland) has written a review essay of all three Reclaiming the Piazza volumes in the January 2022 edition of The Furrow, an Irish theological journal. We are grateful to the editor, Rev Dr Pádraig Corkery, for allowing us to publish the essay on our blog.

Reclaiming the Piazza, Volumes I – III (2014, 2017, 2021),

Reclaiming the Piazza, Volumes I – III (2014, 2017, 2021),

published by Gracewing: Leominster, UK

The recent publication of the third volume of Reclaiming the Piazza, affords an opportunity to survey the entire series and review this project as a whole.  The first volume was published in 2014 and written by Ronnie Convery, Leonardo Franchi and Raymond McCluskey, Scots of considerable calibre; the first a writer and journalist, the second and third academics from the University of Glasgow.  The book has the subtitle, Catholic Education as a Cultural Project and was bookended by a forward from Archbishop Tartaglia of Glasgow and an afterword Professor Robert A. Davis from the University of Glasgow.  Volume II appeared in 2017 and this time the authors were joined by several other writers to present thoughts on Catholic Education and the New Evangelisation.  Appropriately, the forward was written by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation.  The latest volume which appeared in 2021 is edited by Ronnie Convery, Leonardo Franchi, who are joined in the task by Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei in Britain and co-founder of Catholic Voices (along with Austin Ivereigh).  There are a wide and engaging array of contributors (of which, more later) and Archbishop Fisichella is on hand again to write the forward to this volume, subtitled Communicating Catholic Culture.  To enhance the wide and comprehensive treatment of the subject of Catholic Education, the project also has a website http://reclaimingthepiazza.com/ and there is a Twitter Feed with regular postings and links to likeminded individuals and organisations.

The vein that runs through all three volumes is that of Catholic Education, itself a much maligned and misunderstood term.  If Catholics are to engage in the struggle to find a place in the public discourse, an excellent place to begin is Catholic Education.  The origin of the project came after a conference in Rome in 2010 and was the brainchild of Convery and Franchi.  They were discussing how the richness of Catholic culture might overcome the prejudices of both secular and religious worldviews.  They took as their model St. Paul at the Areopagus and desire to reclaim the space of the public square, or as the title implies, the ‘piazza’.    One might suggest that another basis for a project such as this could be found in the words of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions” (#56). 

In a similar vein, Archbishop Martin of Armagh a speech for the Iona Institute in Northern Ireland in 2017 suggested that the public square was not something that should be limited to the political sphere, “I imagine the public square to be more like the ancient Athenian agora and Areopagus – a place where ideas are developed and shared and tested.  The media and entertainment world, therefore, have a claim to attention in the public square, and, if you’ll allow a ‘virtual’ space, then social media has a major contribution to make.  Important discussion also takes place in the boardrooms of business and industry.  The arts, music and sport clearly influence the public agenda.  From all of these emerge messages which shape our understanding of the truth and how we live our lives.  So also, of course, does education, through academic research and discourse.”  Of course, the archbishop is not the only one to be animated by the relationship between the church and the marketplace, which might be said to begin in scripture, but which found a resonance in the Constitutions and Decrees of the Second Vatican Council.  This is still a concern of the magisterium and while we can refer to the writings of the current and previous occupiers of the Chair of St. Peter, the documents of Congregation for Catholic Education in the last number of years warrant particular attention: Educating Together in Catholic Schools (2007); Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools (2013); and Educating to Fraternal Humanism (2017). 

The first book lays out a very convincing stall in terms of the relationship between Catholic Education and a Catholic Culture.  Citing the great essayist and poet Matthew Arnold, the authors offer his excellent description of culture, “being the pursuit of perfection through engagement with the best which has been thought and said in the world” (xvii).  This must have been a quotation that was kept to prominence in the creation of all three volumes, especially when paired with the definition of ‘Catholic culture’ coming from Cardinal Ruini and grounded in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes’, “it is understood in its widest and most ‘anthropological’ sense.  This embraces not only the world of ideas but the daily lived experience of individuals and society, the structures which underpin it and the values which shape it” (xix).  Added into this foundation is the understanding of the link between culture and education.  Throughout the book the authors return to various descriptions of culture and Catholic culture, any one of which could be a sound basis for understanding its relationship with Catholic Education. 

This project has two key fields of action – to improve all forms of education by sharing its well-trodden tradition of educational thought with all who are concerned with good education, and secondly, it seeks to offer the Catholic school an opportunity to act differently from other schools and to engage fruitfully with, and ‘speak truth’ to, the modern state’s far-reaching network of education al agencies (xxi).  Limited space dictates no more than a short mention of chapters in the first volume, of which the first is the most engaging from a personal point of view.  While we are constantly speaking of the challenges to Catholic education and its schools, seeing it through the cultural lens gives the reader considerable pause for thought.  How can a Catholic school understand its ecclesial identity and its responsibility to the community if faith and its place as a public institution?  While the badge of educational excellence is one often pinned to these institutions and justifiably so, how does it fare as a locus of evangelising excellence and as a place where the search for the encounter with God in Jesus Christ is more than a pious aspiration. 

A major influence on the volume is the Progetto Culturale.  This initiative of the Italian Church which is described in chapter four aims “to propose, not impose, its wisdom, vision and anthropology to all who through the piazza of everyday life, confident in the life-changing beauty of its Gospel-based content” (73).  The Progetto is offered as a way in which Catholic education can both meet the catechetical obligations it has to the Catholic community and the educational demands of the Catholic school in its milieu today, which is outlined in chapter five. 

Diarmuid Martin, former Archbishop of Dublin recalled an encounter with Pope Benedict in a speech in 2013,

“The Pope sat me down and immediately asked me: “where are the points of contact between the Catholic Church in Ireland and those places where the future culture of Ireland is being formed?” It was a question which I was not expecting and for which much of my preparation and my statistics were not particularly helpful.  He asked me about universities, about the media, about literature and culture, about politics and economics.  That question is perhaps today one of the most important questions that we should be asking about the Irish Church.   Evangelization involves the evangelization of culture and evangelization takes place within a given culture which we have to understand.” 

Pope Benedict’s questions to the Archbishop are still relevant today and many of them are tackled in the second volume, which has as its focus Catholic Education and the New Evangelisation.  While in the introduction the authors affirm the place of the family (the primary cell of the Church) as the centre of the New Evangelisation, and by extension the parish as community (vii), they are quick to state also that Catholic Education is one locus for the New Evangelization  but not the only one.  They distinguish between Catholic education that is formal (schooling) and informal (family, parish, etc.).

The volume has contributions on a variety of topics, and it would be impossible to highlight every rich and thoughtful idea.  The volume is divided into two parts: ‘Theoretical Reflections’ and ‘Practical Applications’, each of which is thorough and insightful, among which is Francis Campbell’s mention of Pope Benedict remarks at St. Mary’s University in 2010, in that Catholic Education attempts to achieve should be “ordered to the fundamental context of growing in friendship with God, and interrelated with the inestimable gifts and fruits which flow from that friendship” (47).  Raymond McCluskey’s chapter on the Catholic Intellectual suggests that “the formation of intellectual interests and aspirations amongst students requires an educational environment in which active and critical engagement with ideas is consistently awarded high value in terms of social and cultural capital” (67-68).

The chapters in the ‘practical’ section offer the experience and expertise of five people with a commanding and convincing grasp of their fields – university and school chaplaincy, the school principal and the religious education teacher, and the world of social media.  I was struck by Bishop John Keenan’s uncle’s comment on not ‘keeping the faith’ but spreading it.  This seems to be what this Reclaiming the Piazza project achieves – offering examples of best practice, which would an inspiration and pathway for those reading these volumes.  Both Keenan at university level and Lappin at school level offer some of the central tenets for success in accompanying young people on their faith journey.  Isabelle Boyd’s analogy of the ‘pilot light’ of faith being kept on through modelling faith, setting the tone, and creating the structures for faith to flourish will resonate with many head-teachers.

In volume three the project continues with a collection of essays all of which begin with the words, ‘A Catholic Understanding of…”  The range of topics is wide-ranging, including ones you may never have thought about before, e.g., architecture, fashion, journalism, economics.  However, it is what the project sets out to achieve in seeking ‘to play a small part in that work of bridge-building, offering a series of highly readable essays by respected experts from within the mainstream Catholic tradition with the aim of promoting dialogue in public life” (xi). The editors suggest that for ‘the modern Catholic Christian there should be no ‘no go’ areas in human culture.  This is an essential feature of the New Evangelisation’ (xiv).  Each chapter warrants a deep and considered engagement on the part of the reader and the notes and bibliography for each chapter will give plenty of opportunities for further study.  That is in fact true of each of the volumes.  The footnotes are comprehensive, and the reading material cited and recommended would keep even the most avid reader engaged indefinitely. 

I reserve my final comment on volume three for my favourite chapter of the entire series – Giovanna Eusebi’s beautiful reflection, Food, Family, Faith: A Personal Memory.  The Italian adage, ‘A tavola non s’invecchia’ (at the table no-one gets old) came to mind, but it is more than that.  It is at the table that life is lived, faith is celebrated, and the family is built up, healed, and made whole.  Meals are more than food; the table is more than a place to sit at.  She states, ‘food has nurtured my life.  There is a fragility about food, you eat it in a moment and then it is gone; however, the memory stays with us for longer…Food brings us together and mealtime preparations should ne one of inclusion, love and nourishment” (244-245).  There is no better analogy for the life of faith than this.  On a lighter note, the chapter also brought to mind the verse of Hilaire Belloc, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!”

This series of three volumes is an opportunity to create the connections between Education, Culture and the New Evangelization, and to look at these weighty topics with new eyes and fresh and novel perspectives.  Taken as a whole, they offer both the Catholic Education neophyte and the veteran a comprehensive and insightful trajectory as to what Catholic Education is and could be in the future. 

In the first volume, Matthew Arnold is quoted on culture.  I would end with a quotation from his poem, The Buried Life which for me sums up the essence of this project and its contribution to both the debate and the discussion of Catholic Education into the future. 

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;                     

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us–to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

John-Paul Sheridan
Maynooth College

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