Professor Isabel Capeloa Gil is one of the world’s most distinguished women in Catholic higher education. Not only is she the sixth Rector and Professor of Culture Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal (UCP), she was also the first woman to be elected president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), an organisation of more than 200 Catholic universities worldwide, including the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

In Melbourne on 30 August 2023, Professor Gil was awarded an honorary doctorate by ACU, in recognition of her academic achievements as well as her work advancing the role of lay female leaders in Catholic higher education.

This is actually Professor Gil’s third honorary doctorate, having received similar awards from Boston College in the USA and the Catholic University of Paris.

Nevertheless, in the lead-up to the ceremony, she was ‘enthusiastic’ about the award, and feeling ‘very privileged to be here and receive this honour from ACU’.

‘It’s a moment that holds great significance for me because I’m receiving this recognition from a university that has done so much for Catholic higher education,’ she says, ‘by the excellence of its academics; also by its innovation and its commitment to the Catholic message.’

In a conversation prior to the ceremony in Melbourne, Professor Gil spoke about her upbringing and shared her reflections on what Christianity uniquely offers our culture, and on World Youth Day with Pope Francis.

The Christian contribution

Before embarking on her impressive career in higher education, Professor Gil had a unique upbringing. Though born in Portugal, Professor Gil was raised in Macau, China, where her father was stationed for eight years as a Portuguese naval officer.

From 1557 until 1999, the port of Macau was a territory under Portuguese administration, although only 3 per cent of the population spoke Portuguese; the main language was Cantonese. In school, Professor Gil had to master both of these and English or risk putting her life in danger.

‘In recess you spoke the three languages, or you were dead,’ she says, so volatile was the relationship between the cultures.

This experience of growing up with such cultural tensions later shaped her own research interests as an academic. ‘Macau is very important to me. This notion of the relation between cultures, the encounter, the interest for the culture of the other, is something that has shaped my career and also the way I have grown as a person.’

When Professor Gil turned to research, she studied culture and conflict through the lens of literature and the arts.

‘Literature is a field from where you grow in understanding of the world,’ she says. ‘A literary text is one of the most complex artifacts in the world. It’s about producing, understanding and making sense of the world around you.’

Her focus was not simply on how conflict was represented in literature or how it can ‘create a memory’ of traumatic events, but how it ‘can also cater to reconciliation later.’

How do you move towards reconciliation, and how can art and literature contribute to that?

Two works of literature have influenced her especially, she says, and they offer different perspectives on conflict. One of them is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which she says portrays war as ‘bound to happen’. There is a ‘determinism’ that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, when we embrace the idea that war is inevitable, it becomes inevitable because we have embraced that idea.

A story that she feels offers a more hopeful view of the world is Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This is the story of a man—a scholar and scientist—who makes a pact with the devil to learn all the secrets of the world. In the end, however, this proves to be a ‘Christian tragedy’, Professor Gil says.

Unlike in Greek tragedy, where a character’s misdeeds lead to their inevitable destruction, at the end of Faust, it is the sacrifice of another character that saves him. ‘There’s salvation at the end.’

In this way, she says, Goethe highlights the unique Christian contribution. ‘I think that is absolutely what Christianity brings to culture. No matter how violent, no matter what the winds and drums of war bring our way, despite all the destruction, there is always a way to reconciliation. And that takes a lot of courage.’

Professor Gil feels the importance of these things, especially as a European, with the war in Ukraine still unfolding ‘very close’ to her doorstep.

‘There are no easy solutions. It’s very complex, but I think that the Christian worldview is still needed very much … We need the values of Christianity, especially in these challenging moments.’

ACU20 Vice Chancellor20and20 President20 Professor20 Zlatko20 Skrbis20 Professor20 Isabel20 Capeloa20 Gil20 Chancellor20the20 Hon 20 Martin20 Daubney20 KC20 Pr72 min
ACU Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Zlatko Skrbis, ACU Honorary Doctorate recipient Professor Isabel Capeloa Gil, Chancellor the Hon Martin Daubney KC, and Pro-Chancellor Virginia Bourke. Photo courtesy ACU.

World Youth Day

World Youth Day was a time that ‘brought healing’ to Portugal, Professor Gil believes. In January 2023, Portugal was left ‘reeling’ from a report detailing scandals that had occurred in the Church three decades prior. No matter how long ago they happened, however, ‘the pact between the Church and society was broken,’ she says. In this sense, World Youth Day came at a providential time.

Although most of the country identifies as Catholic, Professor Gil wonders whether this identification is more ‘cultural’ than ‘practising’. Many people in Portugal took an ‘early vacation’, she says, because they knew how overrun their cities would become for that week. However, as they saw everything unfold from a distance, a lot of people flocked back for the final Mass so they could be part of the ‘astonishing energy’ that came with 1.5 million Catholics gathering in one place. ‘It was a transformative moment.’

During his apostolic visit to Lisbon for World Youth Day, the first address Pope Francis gave to young people was at Professor Gil’s university, the Catholic University of Portugal. She was deeply moved by his reflections on the role of the university, the place of women in higher education and his encouragement to the youth to be ‘entrepreneurs of dreams’.

There are two messages that were repeated throughout. One, the message of inclusion—the Universal Church is for everyone … Everyone’s invited. The second one was have no fear, again repeating the message from St John Paul II.

When Professor Gil spoke with Pope Francis, she asked how he was doing with the ailment in his knees. He responded, ‘My brain is not in my knees!’

It is difficult to sum up the experience of an event like World Youth Day, Professor Gil says, but three words seem to capture the almost breathless quality of what unfolded: ‘It was incredible.’

Banner image: ACU Honorary Doctorate recipient Professor Isabel Capeloa Gil. (Photo courtesy ACU.)