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Many of us remember the moment when, on 10th May, during his visit to the Loppiano international centre, amid the applause, Pope Francis mentioned “… the cutting-edge academic experience of the Sophia University, of which a local headquarters — I am really happy about this — will soon be open in Latin America”. Those words made many jump with joy, not only among the crowd, but also among those who were listening to the speech live over the internet: those words gave fresh courage to the people who are working hard to make this dream a reality.

The process mentioned by the Pope started in the early 2000s, when, while studying Sophia’s institutional profile with the first group of professors and experts, Chiara Lubich introduced the idea of a global university with several local campuses, which would specialise in education and research in a variety of fields within their respective geographical contexts.

To get up to date with the latest developments of the project in Latin America, we caught up with Osvaldo Barreneche, historian and Professor at Universidad de La Plata, Argentina, currently the coordinator of Sophia LAC – Latin America and the Caribbean. Where did you start from?

“First of all, I would like to point out that the Sophia LAC project was born out of an intense dialogue between the charisma of unity and the people of the Latin American continent, a network of relationships that has been developing for more than fifty years. The formative impulse provided by the Focolare Movement has inspired numerous initiatives, some of which evolved into stable educational institutions at many levels (from nursery schools to secondary schools to university chairs).

Another aspect is the direct link that we have established with the ‘founding’ professors of Sophia over the past years, and the deep exchanges that have derived from it across the various academic fields we work in – from natural science to politics, from art to theology. Some interesting initiatives that exemplify this include the Network of Universities for the Study of Fraternity (RUEF) or the Trinitarian Ontology Research Group.

The third and most recent step has been the ‘institutional decision’ of testing, so to speak, the Sophia experience in Latin America through a series of summer schools (‘Escuelas de verano’) for young people from several countries, and it proved a fruitful decision.

What is the strength of this operation? How can we describe the new institution?

We believe that its strength lies in a new idea of collective thinking and decision-making: in a way, it’s nothing new if we look at how things are done in the academic world… However, we would like to go beyond that and experiment thinking together in an authentic way. And that is already a reality: our team is currently made up of more than fifty professors and researchers. The search for sapiential knowledge also convinced us that the most suitable locations for the new institute’s campuses would be the little towns of the Movement, the ‘Mariapolis’, for their specific cultural humus and for the opportunity they give us of taking advantage of an experience that is already underway. Then, since our university needs to be immersed in the social, economic and political reality of the continent, its other characteristic will be its ‘itinerant’ nature, so that students will have the opportunity to undertake social internships and experience the striking diversity of our regions: Andean America, Mesoamerica, the Southern Cone, Brazil, and the Caribbean. We will be able to do that with the help of advanced technology.

In short, I think our work is best described by a concept that Pope Francis himself mentioned, creative fidelity. The Sophia campus in Latin America is part of Sophia, it is Sophia, but at the same time we want it to have a personality of its own, it’s not going to be a copy! And that is the main challenge: it is a project generated in dialogue, in intense unity with the Loppiano headquarters, but at the same time it has Latin American characteristics, because its objective is to contribute to the social and cultural transformation of our continent, with its intrinsic variety and diversity.

What do you aim to achieve in the short to medium term?

We are moving fast. In this phase, we are elaborating regulatory frameworks for each national context: Sophia LAC will offer a Baccalaureate in Brazil and Master’s degrees and diplomas in Hispanic America. In the meantime, we are working on the study programmes, which will be centred around two key aspects: the perspective of universal fraternity – which concerns the circular relationship with the absolute, with women and men and with nature according to the vision of integral ecology as discussed in Laudato Si’– and an outlook on our cities of today and of tomorrow, in order to effectively respond to the great challenge of inequality. Our dream is to be able to offer a genuine contribution to Latin America, made by Latin Americans for the benefit of the human family.

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