Something remarkable is happening in the town of San Benedetto del Tronto. Located in the Le Marche region in Italy some 70 km south of Loreto, the Marian shrine, the town is the site of a new idea for Italy: an independent Catholic academy. Marco Sermarini is the headmaster of Scuola Chesterton, and he offered REGINA this exclusive look inside what may just be the most exciting development in Catholic education in Italy’s 21st century.
By Beverly Stevens
Photo Credits: Marco Sermarini, Federica Graci, Giorgio Pellei, Luca Rossi for Luci Diffuse Agency
MARCO SERMARINI: I think the deepest reason we started Scuola Chesterton was the complete lack of significant freedom in education in Italy, and the commitment to educate our children following our ideals. Here the school system is strongly based on governmental school, even if there is room for private schools. There’s an insignificant subsidy from the Government to those who establish a school, but it’s subjected to controls of many kinds.
MARCO SERMARINI: So we decided to be completely free: we discovered (I’m a lawyer) that the Constitution of Italy does allow a free choice with regard to education: it’s a little known provision and very few people take advantage of it.
REGINA: Why is that?
MARCO SERMARINI: There’s a mood against any private initiative in education in Italy, so you can’t think that you have the right to educate your children without a governmental school. This is for ideological reasons — there’s a general idea of the centrality of the State — but also from a sort of habit. The traditional Catholic teaching about education is overwhelmed by the idea that you must not countervail anyone. Showing your own Catholic identity is wrong. So you can understand that teaching the Faith is a strange idea.
REGINA: Amazing, in ‘Catholic’ Italy!
MARCO SERMARINI: But not for us, because we have so many examples and testimony, the Saints, saying exactly the opposite. Anyway, Canon Law says: “Parents… are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances” (can. 793) and “Among the means to foster education, the Christian faithful are to hold schools in esteem; schools are the principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education” (can. 796). At the same time, the Italian Constitution recognizes the right of the parents to support, instruct and educate their children (article 30), and freedom to teach the arts and sciences (article 33). In other words, parents may educate their children at home, following their own ideas. This was a great discovery because we understood that we could help each other to educate our children.
REGINA: So how does your situation compare to a ‘typical’ Italian school?
MARCO SERMARINI: The lack of good competition between schools creates the situation where Italian schools are ‘undemanding’. The headmaster of an Italian governmental school has no right to choose his own faculty. He must only select enroll teachers from a pre-approved list. It’s just like a captain with no right to choose his crew, his route, his harbor. Would you bring your children to such a school?
REGINA: Emphatically, no.
MARCO SERMARINI: Since we are a confraternity of catholic families, we needed to spend our major energies in education, because we believe in education as an integral matter: it’s not possible to educate your children in the Faith only inside your family. If the child’s school speaks another language, there’s room only for cynicism and skepticism. We chose to follow the traditional teaching of the Church through the words of a great Catholic journalist, G. K. Chesterton, who said wonderful things on education and family.
REGINA So this is a very unusual venture in Italy.
MARCO SERMARINI: Yes, strange business! When we started, such experiences were almost unknown in our country. We knew only one school following this path, a Catholic school in Sant’Ilario d’Enza, and we are still friends.
REGINA: When did you start, and how?
MARCO SERMARINI: We started in 2008, and three or four years later we discovered the existence of another twin school, the Chesterton Academy, a school based in Edina (Minneapolis, MN) that started the same year from the same Chesterton quotations and ideas. We felt at home. Now we are close friends and we are developing an exchange program for our pupils, spending time in Italy and America for volunteering and studying. It’s strange, but if we want to speak about such things we have to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Italy it’s not so simple to be understood.
REGINA: And today?
MARCO SERMARINI: Now there’s a sort of little movement, particularly because of the growing problem of gender theory. There are lobbies pushing for the approval of laws to introduce gender theory inside all educational programs, so many people are waking up and trying to establish such free schools. We receive many calls every week from people asking for help.
REGINA: Tell us about your educational philosophy.
MARCO SERMARINI: As I said, our ideals are the traditional Catholic Church ideals, the same as G. K. Chesterton. We discovered that our civilization was improved and supported by the Liberal Arts, so we are proposing to our pupils a classical approach to learning. In Italy we have a rigid school organization so we chose to establish a Liceo that would give us the chance to teach our children a wide approach to culture, such as in the Liberal Arts. We believe that freedom comes also from the hard work on our own will and soul. We have the grace to live in Italy and to be able to show our pupils many beautiful things in art, literature, philosophy and also through the beauty of our landscape.
REGINA: What have been your major challenges? Rewards?
MARCO SERMARINI: The major challenge is to persuade our people that such a way of schooling is the right way in this difficult moment in time. The best reward is seeing our pupils becoming good men and women, good Catholics, discovering the one real hope, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
REGINA: After seven years, how many families are involved?
MARCO SERMARINI: Now we have about seventy pupils enrolled, and every family is involved in our work because we ask families to sign a pact of collaboration: families who ask us to educate their children have to share the same ideals. The faculty is partly composed of parents acting as teachers. Many families send their children to us because they know we love them as if they were our own children, and because they know we teach them the good old Catholic faith. Often people come to us because of bad experiences in governmental schools, looking for a safe harbor for their children.
REGINA: Fabulous photos of your ‘Chesterton Gala' — a fundraiser?
MARCO SERMARINI: We had the idea of celebrating a Chesterton Gala following our American twins. We were fascinated to see them singing, dancing all together, spending a beautiful elegant night. We have to fund all year long in many ways — lotteries, raising money in many ways — and the Gala looked like a good and challenging idea. So we decided to do the same.
REGINA: How did it go?
MARCO SERMARINI: The result was great because all of the faculty and the pupils got deeply involved and we had 450 people attending the Gala. It was a magical night: young and old people spending time together. The eldest was my 89 year old father; the youngest was a newborn, less than two months old!
REGINA: You do realize, that as an Italian-American, this makes me so proud I could cry, right?
MARCO SERMARINI: We were eating, dancing, singing. Pupils were involved in dancing and singing performances, and we had a great gift: the presence of our dear friends from America, pupils and families of the Chesterton Academy. We were really moved by this great event. There was a sort of magic in the air.
REGINA: That ‘magic’, my friend, is called the ‘Holy Spirit’. How can people learn more about Scuola Chesterton?
MARCO SERMARINI: Yes, I do agree with you, and we can see it clearly. Learning more? Go please to our website, follow us and do read all of G. K. Chesterton — he's one of our deepest inspirations! Let's be in touch and we'll be friends, and it will be forever. This was a gift that Chesterton made to his own friends: being friends forever.