14/09/06 Homily for Mass for Schools

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Homily given by Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of all Ireland
at the Mass for Schools, at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Huntstown.
Huntstown, 14th Sept 2006
There are few places in Dublin, indeed in Ireland, which mirror the educational challenges of our nation today more completely than this area of West Dublin.  West Dublin – and indeed this parish of Huntstown – constitutes an icon of the changes taking place in our society.  This is an area where the population is growing and changing, an area where young people are filled with hopes and aspirations for their future, an area with great schools – not without their difficulties – and with extraordinary teachers.
It is important, as the recently published OECD report did, to pinpoint the past inadequacies of our country’s investment in education and the negative effects that this has had on our schools.  It is equally important to pay tribute to those teachers who despite such inadequacies have inspired in children a real passion for learning.  Our teachers have worked in difficult situations to ensure that every boy or girl under their care, with their individual talents and problems, really could become the people that God wants them to be and become a new generation of which we can all be proud.
As a society we have much to be grateful for in our teachers.  But gratitude would be empty if it was not accompanied by a desire to ensure that the profession of teaching is accompanied with the economic and social recognition it deserves.  
There is a tendency in society to turn to schools in order to heal all the ills of society.  This cannot and should not be the case.  The teacher cannot resolve all the problems of society. Teachers are however in a unique situation. After the child’s parents they are the most influential person in a child’s life, especially in primary school. For a growing number of children the teacher is indeed the most stable influence in their lives.  This is a great responsibility and I am genuinely humbled at the enthusiasm with which, especially young teachers just out of College, throw themselves with passion into not just teaching but into real education and formation of young people in such a dynamic manner.
Nonetheless teachers can only play their part.  One of the strong characteristics of the Irish educational model, especially in primary schools, is that it is community-rooted. You can see here in Hunststown how this bond between school and community is of great benefit to both.  
Broads of Management not only carry out the difficult task of ensuring the day to day management of the school but they also represent a strong bond with the local community which looks on the school as a genuine social good.  In Fingal County there have been innovative experiments in making the school building a resource for the school and community together.   Boards of Management need greater resources, however, and they need formation to improve their capacity.
Hopefully it will be possible in the years to come to foster an even greater involvement and support of parents in the work of the school.  This is important also in the area of religious education.  I am acutely aware of the isolation which many teachers feel in their work as religious educators in Catholic schools.  I would hope that Parish Pastoral Councils will be catalysts in identifying ways of shaping a new configuration of a unifying relationship between school, parents, parish and the wider community which will bring out the best of our community-rooted educational system.
One of the characteristics of a Catholic school is that it should be a unifying force.  Catholic ethos is often regrettably portrayed as a kind of ideology, set within an ideological battle.  The primary witness of the Catholic school – shared with Schools of other Christian denominations – is that of witnessing to the extraordinary vision of life that faith in Jesus Christ offers to young people.   Religious education is not a marginal extra in the Catholic school.  The message of a God who loves – who reveals himself in Jesus Christ as one who gives himself totally out of love – is the transforming message that the Catholic school brings to the child and to society.   That love embraces everyone.  That love can transform everyone.  The Catholic school must reflect such a vision of transforming love.
One of the characteristics of current reflection on Irish education is the emergence of a new culture of evaluation.  It seems to me that there is a much greater public awareness of and attention to what is happening in our schools than there was when I was a student.  Schools are increasingly being held to account by parents and other public institutions.  “Whole School Evaluation” is just one of the results of this culture.  We have seen the publication of crude forms of school league tables, students are invited to rate their teachers on websites and schools themselves are increasingly seeking to draw attention to their “achievements” as they compete for students.
Such accountability is not necessarily a bad thing.  Parents, in particular, will naturally seek as much information as possible in order to provide the best possible education they can for their children.  The real difficulty is often with the criteria that are used to determine what constitutes the “best education” and how schools are to be ranked.  There is a danger that education will be measured merely in terms of “points” achieved and entry to what are considered the most desirable professional careers.  Could schools be tempted to accept only those students who promise to be “successful”?  How are we to value the achievements of schools and teachers who work with students who because of disadvantage or inequality of opportunity could not easily aspire to the highest leaving certificate grades?
We must be attentive as a society that we do not allow a system of evaluation to emerge that would, perhaps inadvertently, privilege a utilitarian understanding of education.    Education cannot be judged exclusively in terms of quantifiable economic or technical outcomes.  A good educational system undoubtedly brings economic advantages to society but education should never be seen merely as a form of economic investment.
Catholic schools, on their part, may be in need of their own instruments of evaluation.  Our Gospel, this evening, focuses on the judgment and evaluation to be effected by the Son of Man at the end of time.  What should interest us most in this context are the criteria of judgment.  The real measure of fidelity to Jesus and his teaching will be the ways in which his disciples are seen to have treated the weakest; the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. 
In Catholic schools, we must never cease to ask ourselves how we are serving the poor and the marginalized.  Jesus always demonstrated a special care for the poor.  Schools that seek to be faithful to Jesus and his teaching will always have service of the poor at the heart of their mission.  They can only judge themselves to be “successful” when they are satisfied that they are welcoming and meeting the needs of the poor.  Catholic educators should be recognized as advocates for the poor and, as I have repeated on many occasions in education, as in healthcare, only the best should be good enough for the poor.  Catholic schools and educators should never imagine they have a monopoly on the care of the poor but commitment to the poor should never fail to be their hallmark.
I would like to make a special appeal to religious congregations, who in the past have made such an enormous contribution to Irish education, as they now focus their attention on their future role.   Take up the charism of your congregation with the same inventiveness as your founders and foundresses did in the past and identify how you can address the needs of those who might otherwise miss out on educational opportunity.  I would personally be concerned, for example, if the religious presence in voluntary secondary education were to become predominantly associated with the education of the elite.
Coming back to our Gospel, I am pleased that welcoming the stranger has become one of achievements of Catholic schools in Dublin and again I pay special tribute to the schools here in West Dublin. I am proud of your openness to the children of the many immigrants who are now present in and contributing to the life of our nation.  I am aware of the challenges that are faced by many schools – challenges of an unprecedented nature – but I want to acknowledge and give full credit to the schools, teachers and parents who are committed to meeting these challenges and offering a first class education to all the “children of the nation”.  It is in your classrooms that a new Ireland is being created.  It is in our schools that the values of acceptance of and respect for all peoples irrespective of difference – values that are at the heart of the teaching of Jesus – are being taught and fostered. 
Catholic schools will find distinctiveness in their mission to provide an education that is in accordance with the words, the teaching and the healing actions of Jesus Christ.  Catholic schools must communicate to their students something of God’s all-encompassing and inexhaustible love for them thereby assuring them of their absolute worth and dignity.  In a world that seems to say that a person’s worth depends on his or her achievements or possessions the importance of this teaching cannot be overstated.  Children must be challenged to understand and interiorize Christ’s teaching. The teaching of Jesus includes also the equally counter-cultural assertion that true happiness is to be found in service of our neighbour rather than just in pursuit of our own needs. 
Our young people will respond.  I have just returned from our Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes where we were accompanied by over 200 young helpers who showed in their extraordinary care for the sick the best that is in our young people.   The goodness of such young people shows me at least that our efforts in Catholic education are worth it.  My hope is that as many young people as possible will come away from school with that same sense of goodness, idealism and commitment.