Holy Week puts ‘community education’ into focus

The performative and communal elements of Holy Week provide an opportunity to discuss the importance of bringing academic research into the community, according to Prof Peter Mayo, who speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the activities currently being held at the Cottonera Resource Centre in Birgu

Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was discussed alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo’ during one of the Cottonera Resource Centre’s Holy Week sessions
Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was discussed alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo’ during one of the Cottonera Resource Centre’s Holy Week sessions

Perhaps the institution of the university will never quite shake off its ivory tower aura. To many people it will forever remain the provenance of enlightened but detached scholars, squinting away at ancient tomes and occasionally popping out to deliver a lecture and deign to submit to an – equally hermetic – academic journal. 

The fact that this stereotypical impression continues to gain traction is as sad as it is inaccurate. University research is often the first port of call for not just thorough and elaborate research at the highest degree; it can also have a direct bearing on tangible work that needs to be done for us to better our lives. 

The Cottonera Resource Centre (CRC), set up under the auspices of the University of Malta, attempts to short-circuit these clichés.

It sets out to provide an adequate and enriching platform to discuss issues and topics pertaining to the Cottonera region – with the same thoroughness applied to ‘conventional’ academic research but at the same time, with complete sensitivity and awareness to the community’s dynamics and needs. 

And Holy Week in particular provides an excellent jumping-on point for such discussions and activities, with the CRC holding a series of sessions tackling this landmark period of the Catholic calendar from various angles – as part of a lecture series by the CRC which began back in 2013.

Speaking in his own capacity to MaltaToday, University lecturer and CRC board member Prof. Peter Mayo said that the Cottonera region’s “strong Holy Week tradition” is something of a given, and that “the purpose of this project is to draw on something which captures the communities’ imagination in the area and use it as a starting point to venture into discussions on related issues concerning different disciplines and forms of knowledge”.

Having hosted a discussion led by Anna Spiteri on ‘Holy Week and the Environment’, the sessions held so far have incorporated politics, visual arts, film and the role of women within the historical and cultural remit of Holy Week.

Mayo himself led a session on Imperialism at the time of Jesus Christ and much later periods, venturing into a discussion on colonialism and neo-colonialism in later and present times, “including aspects such as the current intensification of globalisation with its colonising foundation and the plight of immigrants perceived as victims of a colonial legacy”.

Other sessions focused on film – with Michael Grech juxtaposing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo’ against Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’ – and music, with Eric Montfort and Dr Albert Bell delving into solemn music, marches and rock; while Nathalie Grima spoke about issues pertaining to women and gender and Dr Marco Galea delved into the theatrical dimension, while curator Sandro Debono dealt with the visual art dimension of the Holy Week experience. 

Mayo stresses that the CRC’s activities aren’t limited exclusively to the religious dimension, but Holy Week proved to be an important bridge to the community in question, once again highlighting the importance of sensitivity and engagement.  

“In my view, it makes no sense for one to move into a community, about which one knows little, and simply replicate lectures and courses given at the home institution, in this case the University.

“One needs to learn about the community and see what captures its members’ imagination, avoiding the pitfall of divisive measures and see the connections between this and different forms of knowledge,” Mayo said.

Even though session leaders may be recognised experts in the discipline, Mayo said they should be disposed to learn from the participants who might have a lot to share and shed light on the subject, through their specific experiences in related areas. 

Mayo says this “dialogical process” has been considerably successful.

“The level of exchange and sharing of experiences is quite encouraging. Of course, we constantly monitor the situation to see how we can do things better in this project and others that follow. Learning is an ongoing process. This applies to any project not just this one. One never ‘arrives’ in education and this community project is no exception,” Mayo said. 

He adds that the outcome of this particular lecture series will determine the future of similar events organised around the Cottonera community by the CRC.

“This is not a centre’s holy week activity or series of activities,” but part of the overall remit to “provide meaningful experiences for people from the region who alas have been severely underrepresented at University”.

“The question I personally would bear in mind, as a member of the board for this centre, is: on whose terms is the engagement taking place? This explains the need to draw on motivating factors such as events and issues that capture the communities’ (and I stress the plural) imagination,” Mayo said.

 “It has to be a two-way engagement, in terms of project choice and pedagogical approach adopted”.

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