Classical and cultural

It was my privilege at the beginning of August to travel to Tuscany for a symposium sponsored by The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. The purpose of the symposium was to gather leaders of the Catholic classical education movement for fellowship, education, and advancement in culture.

Centered at Capitignano—the home and retreat center of Professor and Mrs. Michael Aeschliman—the symposium combined presentations by participants, as well as excursions to Florence and historical sites in the surrounding countryside. To get full value out of their air fare to Italy, some participants spent a few days in Rome before the symposium and added a few more days in Assisi to conclude their visit.

My own participation was prompted by the fact that our parish school in South Carolina is going through transition. We hope to expand to a small upper school and are exploring the possibilities and advantages of a classical school model. The symposium was a chance to meet those who have pioneered an integrated humanities model for Catholic schools, to think, to pray, and to plan the transition—and to discover both the strengths and weaknesses of such schools. The hills of Tuscany—so abundant in the riches of Western culture and history—could not have been a better setting.

Capitignano is situated about 45 minutes north of Florence in the Mugello Hills. On the hilltop above the compound is the site of the martyrdom of St. Cresci—an early third-century missionary to the region. Just below the shrine is a Romanesque church next to a small monastery. The combination of facilities allowed for daily Mass and private prayer, as well as plenty of room for country walks, good Italian cuisine, and time for reflection and conversation. The Tuscan countryside has also been a source of inspiration for artists and poets, so I was pleased when my own imagination was sparked, and poems began flowing from my pen. (See poem at the bottom of this article.)

Our host, Michael Aeschliman, is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. Michael led three sessions on Dante and “the Restitution of Man”—a way forward from C.S. Lewis’ bleak analysis in The Abolition of Man.

Dr. Sarah Phelps Smith is a graduate of Wellesley (same class as Hillary Rodham Clinton) and holds a Ph.D. in art history. Sarah was our guide to the art and history of the region—and the person who guided us from place to place with great patience, tact, and skill.

Other sessions exploring the role of classical education were led by Dr. Andrew Seeley, tutor at Aquinas College and executive director of the Institute of Catholic Liberal Education. President and founder Michael Van Hecke—who also writes for the Newman Society’s journal—offered opening and closing addresses while Dr. Jeffrey Lehman, professor of classical education at Hillsdale College, and Luke Macik, headmaster of the Lyceum school in Cleveland, Ohio, spoke on the importance of classical history and the role of science in classical education. The chaplain for the symposium, Fr. David Ireland, gave a strong argument for the extraordinary form of the Mass being a constituent part of a classical school while a local artist, Maureen Hyde, gave everyone paint, brushes, and canvas and got us to exercise our creative minds.

The solid intellectual input was balanced by excursions. We spent a day visiting the friary where St. Bonaventure was called to the cardinalate, followed by a tour and lunch at Il Trebbio—a splendid castle-hunting lodge formerly owned by the Medici family. The week ended with a day in Siena, but before that we battled the heat and the crowds in two day trips to Florence. We admired Fra Angelico’s frescos at San Marco, traipsed through the Uffizi, marveled at Michelangelo’s David. But the highlight of our time in Florence was a tour of the new Museo del’Opera del Duomo.

This new museum was designed by Monsignor Timothy Verdon—an American art historian and priest. Monsignor Verdon spent over two hours giving us an intimate tour of what is clearly his pride and joy. The museum houses the masterpieces of the old cathedral façade, as well as notable works by Donatello and Michelangelo. Included in the museum are priceless medieval vestments, sacred vessels, relics, and altarpieces. A visit to this award-winning museum is memorable in itself, but to be given a personal tour by the museum’s designer was unforgettable. Monsignor Verdon’s tour was especially powerful because he used the art, architecture, and culture of the time to communicate the agony and the ecstasy of the artists and their Catholic faith.

In an age when the ephemeral is considered novel and novelty is mistaken for excellence, it is all the more important for Catholic education to emphasize the need to put down deep roots. The New Testament says that “in the fullness of time God sent forth His son, born of a woman.” This fullness of time was the Pax Romana—a time and a civilization which was the good soil into which the seed of the Christian gospel could be planted and flourish.

A Catholic education, therefore, is an education that is rooted not only in the history and culture of the Jews, but also in the history and culture of Rome. While much can be learned of these cultures in school and college, book and desk learning cannot replace first-hand experience of the monasteries, churches, cathedrals, and the very hills and valleys where the gospel first took root. Any visit to Catholic Europe must plunge the participant into the art, architecture, and culture that is deeply Catholic, and this experience is educational in the deepest and most experiential level.

With study programs abroad and class trips, many colleges and schools already foster such learning experiences. Parish and diocesan pilgrimages are also ripe opportunities for not only students, but all Catholics to have their faith deepened and strengthened. There are many such opportunities. Apostolates for education, diocesan school offices, parishes, colleges, and universities should foster even more.

FATHER DWIGHT LONGENECKER is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C. The former Anglican priest is the author of 16 books. He’s a popular speaker and prolific writer who blogs at

Mugello Hills

by Dwight Longenecker

These mountains are no different than the rest.
These wooded hills and valleys are not strange.
There’s no reason to claim they are the best
or superior to any other range.

And yet there’s something deeper—something more
as if some ancient, pagan spirit stalks
these hills unseen. It’s as if, at the core,
of this landscape the whole of history walks.

On this hill, an Etruscan holy ground,
there a temple to Asclepius stood.
In every town relics of Rome are found
and churches stand where martyrs shed their blood.

Here the warring factions of Florence fought
There Michelangelo and Raphael vied
Here Leonardo and Albertus taught
and Mussolini’s armies fought and died.

The professor believes that Tuscan art
somehow captures this sense of mystery.
It has Annunciation at its heart—
the Incarnation locked in history.

In other words, at a fixed point in time
the meaning and the material realm were merged.
The Word and the World began to rhyme
as into flesh the Universal surged.

That may explain why history and these hills seem one.
Every ruin and bone, every relic and stone,
are alive, not dead. They thrive. They are not set.
Because the angel and the girl are met.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.