17/9/2011 Homily at Notre Dame Anniversary

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Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Holy Cross Church, Dundrum, 17th September 2011

This morning this community linked with the Notre Dame School in Churchtown celebrates 150 years of the foundation and work of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame des Missions.  We celebrate the work of the Sisters in Ireland and around the world, especially their work with the poor and in the education of girls.

The celebration of an anniversary of a religious community is always the celebration of a charism, the charism first identified by the founder or foundress and then developed and adapted through on-going reflection and practice over different times in different cultures and circumstances.   But something of that original charism and characteristics always remains and remains unique. That is what we celebrate this morning.  That is what animates the spirit of Notre Dame School from its foundation right down to our day.

Mother Euphrasie Barbier did not originally set out to found a religious congregation.  She felt very much called to dedicate herself to religious life and that initial calling was further developed when along with the Marist Sisters she felt a call to reach out to what at that moment were countries where a special need for Catholic education for girls had developed, in particular New Zealand and Australia.  It was then she founded the Congregation of Notre Dame des Missions which over these 150 years has spread to many countries, at times with moments of renewed growth and with deepening of the charism to respond to the needs of the time.  After the Second Vatican Council, in particular, the sisters began to expand in new ways to different and new countries where the needs of the Church and of Catholic education seemed to be particular.

The Congregation came to Dublin in the early 1950’s and the Churchtown school was one which has developed and flourished and today continues to keep much of the original charism of the Sisters alive in different times and circumstances, now under the guidance of lay trustees.

What is education?  Pope Benedict some years ago addressed a special letter to the Catholics of his own diocese of Rome speaking about “an educational emergency”.  He was not talking as one might imagine about the specific problems of Catholic schools and the challenges they face.  He was talking about a crisis in what education is really about.

Today Ireland faces new challenges about education.  There is much fruitful reflection going on in Ireland today about education and educational provision and education policy.   There are challenges of curriculum and of the challenges of teaching curriculum.  There is talk about the fundamental values which must underline education in an Ireland which is more pluralistic and in many ways more secular than in the past.  There are problems about the funding of education and of ensuring that funds are used efficiently, but also in such a way as to ensure that those whose needs are greatest – the marginalized and the disadvantaged – can have access to educational standards and levels which respond to their abilities.  Education is about people.  The future of our economy and society is about people.   Cutbacks in education touch directly our future and must be carefully thought out.

I note in the mission statement of the school the emphasis on educational excellence.  It is a term that is often used and perhaps not often enough analysed.  The overall educational climate can at times lead to redefinition of what educational excellence really is.  In day to day management of schools there will inevitably be calls for and need of rationalisation and compromise and attempting to attain a balanced programme of education which fits into what is possible within the funds and the time available.

There are, however, some fundamental educational needs that can never be overlooked and curiously can be attained even despite poor curriculum or poor facilities, as the history of education in Ireland’s poorer days reminds us.

If I were to ask any of you here today what was the single most significant positive factor that you can look back at from your days at school, I doubt that many would answer it was the curriculum or even that it was the building.  The answer would inevitably, I believe,  be the name of a teacher, a teacher who did more than just teach a subject, but taught a subject within a broad context of life and not only taught but allowed and fostered pupils to think and explore, to be curious and reflective.

This is important to remember today when we speak of Catholic education.  I smiled recently when a priest in Italian television said that when he asked his pupils a question about what the Church taught; he immediately got a series of answers all of which began with the phrase “the Church is against”.

Catholic education is not about a list of don’ts.  It is about fostering the God-given talents that are present in each pupil.  But to foster those talents one has to identify them and allow them to emerge and be recognised.  Each child is different.  From my generation I can say that many of those who became successful business leaders were often the ones which a system where conformity was dominant regarded as somehow difficult and whose future was considered problematic.  The teacher does not attribute talent to a child; the teacher seeks to help a child discover their unique gifts.

Education should rejoice when pupils’ God-given talents are fostered and developed and where each child develops a real passion for learning, rather than the ability to memorize.

However education does not cease with ensuring that talents and ability can flourish through educational excellence.  We allow our talents to flourish so that we can use them and use them not just for our own fulfilment but through placing them at the service of others.  This is an area in which I believe Catholic education should wish to be in the forefront.  We do not live just for ourselves.  The interconnectedness of today’s world requires that we rethink what solidarity is about.  Solidarity is not just an optional extra when we give to some collection or cause.  Solidarity is a fundamental attitude which must infuse educational policy but also the vision of life and the world in which we live. Solidarity must become a dominant characteristic of the men and women of our times; it must be developed in each profession and calling.

In the past one might have been tempted to think that solidarity was expressed by those who embraced religious life or who took on what we called the caring professions.     Today, solidarity must be made a fundamental characteristic of the globalised.  The task of each of us in our professional lives is to nourish and develop the evident interdependence we encounter in our world through solidarity.  Solidarity is the soul of interdependence.

Solidarity today belongs to every profession and the way in which that professions exercise.  When business or banking or industry become trapped in sheer production and profit then they can quickly fall into the trap of a policy which may be profitable for the short term but which is in the long term is unsustainable for the enterprise and damaging to society.

Growth and equity are not separate poles in society.  Profit and solidarity do not rule each other out.  We need to bring young women and men who set out in society to bridge some of the traditional divides in the way we reflect on economy and society to ensure that solidarity really enhances sustainability rather than being either marginal or a distraction.

Catholic education is not about does and don’ts.  It is about a person, Jesus Christ who revealed to us truly who God is and that God is love.  Jesus revealed that in what to those around him seemed the most unlikely way, a way which seemed only to lead to failure, ending in the disaster of dying the death of a criminal.  Jesus showed us really what life is about and who God is by giving himself out of love for us, in a way in which that love became total.    He gave his life for us that we would be able to understand what life is really about: about giving and sharing and not just about being focussed on ourselves.  As the reading recalled “our faith must be planted in love and built on love, a love which is beyond human understanding”.

Mother Euphrasie Barbier could never have imagined what our world today would be like, but she had within her own temperament a sense of determination which was also matched with innovation and courage and sensitivity to needs of others. May her spirit inspire and guide Notre Dame School.   The future of Catholic education will be determined by the ability of leadership in Catholic education to show the value, even in a secularised society, of truly Catholic schools, which really open children to the liberating message of Jesus, a message which can challenge future generations to bear fruit in solidarity and love.