Portuguese traditions

Six weeks ago I arrived in Évora for the first time. It was on the advice of a friend who knew that I was looking for a spiritual centre in Portugal, a place of peace and tranquillity. These qualities unfortunately seem more and more difficult to find in this modern world, and one has to look hard to find such an oasis.

I quickly fell in love with Évora, a beautiful city with its longstanding traditions reflecting the variety of cultures from its history. I found myself accommodation in the historical centre, and settled down to continue my work.

Around mid September, I was rather surprised and disappointed when this peaceful and ancient city was suddenly transformed into a placed of noise and chaos. What appeared to me as gangs of uneducated youths wandered aimlessly up and down the streets from morning until night for three whole weeks. The noise level from their shouting, and their behaviour in general, gave the impression that they were half drunk. My surprise then turned to shock as I was informed that these mobs were in fact students from the famous University of Évora! This, I was told, is their tradition.

During these disturbing weeks, I witnessed many things and I would like to mention three of them:

1. Students being forced to kneel on the ground in full view of passers-by and tourists, whilst their "lectures" (?) shouted or even screamed at them. Several tourists I spoke to, said this reminded them of a dictatorship country.

2. Long lines of students forced to walk one behind the other, holding the person in front and chanting/shouting. These scenes reminded me of a documentary I once saw on chain gangs in America in the 1920's - lines of prisoners.

3. One evening just as it was getting dark, I came upon an incident that I found hard to believe. One young female student was kneeling on the pavement surrounded by three of her "lectures". All the other students had gone and she was alone. I heard the "lectures" shouting and speaking harshly to her, and as I approached I could see that she was crying. She was clearly being humiliated and, despite the fact that several passers-by stopped, the treatment continued for about a further 5 minutes. I remember wondering whether or not they knew of the possible damage they could be doing to this young girl. After a while, one of the "lectures" produced the student's mobile phone from an inside pocket, gave it to her and, as if speaking to a criminal, told her harshly to go. She ran off, still crying as she passed me. The whole scene was difficult to believe. It was just like seeing something from Nazi Germany in the late 30's.

The ironical part of all this last incident was that, as I was leaving the scene, I realised it had taken place right outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. I wondered what God might be thinking.

So, if this is a tradition of the University in Évora, is it perhaps time to re-look at it to see whether it still has any value in a modern society? When the Colégio do Espírito Santo was founded in 1559, the Jesuits would have placed the teachings of Jesus Christ as the foundation for their learning. His message was one of love, compassion, friendship and respect for one another - all of these are matters of the heart, and exactly what the world needs now. What I have witnessed recently in Évora can hardly be described as "matters of the heart", but rather an old-fashioned, out-dated behaviour based on bullying and fear. In the 21st century, the world needs new young leaders who listen to their hearts and not their heads.

Michael Telfer

Évora, 9th October, 2008