· Vatican City ·

Online lessons, reception, organization: even during lockdown no one is left behind

At the Pontifical Universities everything is set for the new academic year

Pontifical University of Sant'Anselmo in Rome
26 June 2020

There is no environment in Rome more international than that of the Pontifical Universities. Every year hundreds of young clerics and lay people from around the world arrive in the Eternal City to begin a course of academic studies, theological and otherwise. Very often the studies are related to second and third levels of study (licences and doctorates), but it is not uncommon to find students also working toward their bachelor’s degrees at the Capitoline universities, often lodging in the various colleges of their countries of origin. For this reason, the sudden interruption by the pandemic has upset  life in these environments more than elsewhere. When the lockdown began it was just a few weeks after exams had ended for the winter session, and lessons for the second semester had just begun. How did the Catholic universities react? And more importantly, what are they planning and how are they preparing for the next academic year?

“I would say that the reaction was swift and positive for all the institutions”, explained Fr Mauro Mantovani, Rector of the Salesian University and President of the Conference of Rectors of the Pontifical Universities and Institutes of Rome (Cruipro), which coordinates the 22 academic institutions present, nine of which are universities. It is significant that this positive evaluation should come precisely from the Rector of the university most stricken by the virus: with at least 62 people infected, several individuals hospitalized, and Fr Gregorio Jaskot who lost his life. But from the Rector’s words it seems clear that the sorrow over the loss of a beloved confrere does not diminish the will to respond and return to the university’s inspiring mission as soon as possible. “We immediately implemented distance learning, strengthened by the fact that we had already been experimenting for some time with forms of digital instruction. After all, our university is also known for the bachelor’s programme in social communication science. But we are very well aware that the best of technologies can never replace the value of in-person participation in the educational relationship, as was also explained clearly in the recent indications offered by the Congregation for Catholic Education on 7 May. You can imagine that for the children of Don Bosco the difference between mere learning and the educational process is something that is part of our DNA. As is well known, we also offer “lay”, so to speak, baccalaureate courses in psychology, education, communication science, thus we also have a significant proportion of lay students. In the Easter season we distributed a questionnaire  to all our students in order to monitor how they were adapting to these extraordinary learning methods, and I must say that the results have been very encouraging. In keeping with the tradition that aims to keep our psychology department among the most prestigious in Italy, we also launched a psychological support system for our students and their families, cognizant of the correlated widespread psychological harm that the virus is spreading.

As for the next academic year we have already prepared the course schedule, which is in complete continuity with those of prior years; all courses are confirmed. We are planning as if the lessons will be able to be face-to-face, but if this is not possible we will work with the flexibility of online teaching, bolstered by the experience of these recent months. Likewise, if there are students who still cannot be present in Rome in October, we will certainly accept them, and  by video they will be able to follow the lessons taking place in the classroom. We will definitely not leave anyone by the wayside. I think that even when the situation returns to normal, the use of multimedia in teaching will continue, making our lessons richer and more stimulating.

The one real concern at the moment is with regard to visas and entry permits for non-European students. I hope there will be a particular sensitivity to this aspect on the part of the government; but I repeat that if any student is unable to arrive in time for October, he or she will not be left behind. One point I would like to emphasize as President of the Conference of Rectors is that there has never been such a strong collaboration among all the Pontifical Universities in Rome as there has been in this situation. And it is a wealth that will not  be dispelled”. “I would like to thank L’Osservatore Romano for giving us this opportunity to send a message to all its readers, especially bishops and major superiors: do not be afraid to send clerics, seminarians, novices and lay people to Rome next year as usual: they will be guaranteed health safety and the customary high-level curricula that all our universities offer”.

“At the Gregorian the situation is not much different, if not for the higher number of foreign students, mostly residents in the national colleges. In total they are nearly 75 per cent of our 2,800 students”, noted Fr Mark A. Lewis, Vice Rector of the prestigious academic institution, “but few returned to their countries when the pandemic broke out” he continued,  adding that:

“At the end of February when the situation began to become serious we gave ourselves three objectives:  maximum attention and care for the health conditions of our staff and our students; immediate activation of distance learning and online submission of all educational materials necessary for continuing studies; a commitment not to modify the university’s academic calendar, also confirming the dates of both grades and advancement, whether online or in-person. We sought to digitize as much material as possible in order to remedy the lack of access to the library. Our library consists of approximately half a million books. Our three reading rooms reopened on 18 May with their seating capacity reduced to a third, that is, 75 seats, which can be reserved online. We are pleased to say that the entire periodical section is now accessible online, and this is a great help to our doctoral candidates. Thus, we are pleased with our ability to respond”, Fr Mark continued. “Even the programming for next year is proceeding swiftly: we have confirmed the commencement of the academic year on 5 October, and we are well prepared to proceed with a mixed system of online and in-person participation. We have modified classroom logistics to allow for social distancing. And we are recording preparatory Italian language lessons for new students, in order to help them begin their courses with a basic knowledge; especially for cases of delayed arrivals to Rome due to visa problems. We are also coordinating with the principal national colleges where most of our students generally stay, so that they too will be ready for the annual return. We are maintaining the same tuition fees as this year, but we hope that with the global economic uncertainty there will not be a decrease in the vital flow of scholarships that the Propaganda Fide and other foundations dispense to our students”. Fr Nuno da Silva Gonçalves, Rector of the Gregorian, had no hesitation: “We will definitely be prepared to welcome and support both the students who are in Rome and those who are not able to get here due to difficulties with international travels or visas. We will not leave anyone behind or alone”.

In the splendid setting of the Aventine Hill, the University of Sant’Anselmo stands out like a fortress visible from most of Rome’s historical centre. Prof. Bernhard Eckerstorfer, an Austrian Benedictine monk, is the Rector of the Anselmianum which, along with the faculties of Theology and Philosophy, is famous for the Pontifical Liturgical Institute and for the institute of monastic spirituality. His strong, purposeful energy does not hide his subtle amazement over events: “Do you understand? I was appointed Rector of this university last 16 December. My head was filled with plans and new ideas. I had barely a few weeks to look around me and meet the professors, and this pandemic swooped in on us! But I can assure you that none of the development projects that we have in mind for the university will be set aside”.

“With regard to Sant’Anselmo as the Pontifical University with the greatest number of foreign students in Rome, I am very confident that we will have no defections. Our institution is both university and college; we host, in our monastic way of life, approximately 120 students, out of 700 enrolled. Did you know? I am very proud: none of our students has left the college due to the coronavirus! And this is because of our specific characteristic: la stabilitas monastica. Which in this instance is not just a spiritual lifestyle but also a guarantee of health security. No one leaves the abbey unless absolutely necessary, while guaranteeing a satisfying and stimulating living environment. Indeed we have started to receive enrolment applications for next year, actually conditioned on lodging at the college. Bishops, abbots and superiors feel more at ease knowing that their students will be in a protected study environment that does not require transfers. After all, as you well know, in 15 centuries of Benedictine monasticism there have been many stories of abbeys and monasteries that have been formidable bulwarks against epidemics and plagues. In the practical sphere, we immediately began working online, strengthened by the fact that we had already been offering e-learning courses on one of our platforms for several years. We also have a great focus on asynchronous lessons: in case students are unable to come to Rome, they will still be able to follow the lessons regardless of the time zone. For this reason we are investing some 7,000 euros per classroom in order to equip each one with cameras and suitable technologies for recording and transmitting lessons. And, in respect of copyright laws we are seeking to digitalize as many texts as possible from our library, which is a treasure trove of unique liturgical and monastic materials. I think that at the end of this pandemic we will be stronger than before. I am thinking especially of two aspects: multimedia will finally allow us to bring theological culture even into our cloistered monasteries around the world, and moreover will make lessons more stimulating, allowing for outside interventions by experts and ‘digitally-visiting’ professors. And then tell me: how can anyone give up the opportunity to study theology in Rome? It is a unique experience in life; unmissable”.

If one cannot give up Rome, imagine giving up Jerusalem. Fr Alessandro Coniglio, OFM, is a professor and secretary of the faculty of Franciscan biblical studies in the Holy City, the SBF, connected with the Antonianum University of Rome. “Our institution is highly specialized and small in numbers, in which we provide only second and third level courses. Since last March we too have been doing only online lessons and three licentiate dissertations have already been defended with this method. The impact of the pandemic in Israel has not been as tragic as in the rest of the world, and the country is already recovering. We too hope to recommence soon, because in-person participation is essential for us; our advantage is studying immersed in the environment of the Holy Land”. From Rome like Jerusalem the message especially to bishops is the same: “We are ready. We are restarting. Do not be afraid to send your students. With flexibility from instruments, of course, but with our longstanding quality and passion”.

Roberto Cetera