21/09/04 Mass for the Opening of the School Year 2004-2005

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Homily of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
Pro-Cathedral, Dublin
21st September 2004

I am particularly happy to be present here this evening, for the first time as Archbishop of Dublin, at the Mass for the opening of the school year 2004/2005.  I greet the teachers present, the representatives of teachers’ organizations and of the Department of Education and Science, the representatives of School Management, of the VEC’s in Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare, the Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown, as well as the representatives of CORI and various religious congregations.
In the few months in which I ministered as Coadjutor Archbishop, I was especially happy to celebrate confirmation in over thirty parishes, mainly in the northern part of the diocese.  One of the most interesting experiences was meeting with teachers.  I came away from every meeting really struck at the remarkable quality and energy of our teachers.   Two of my father’s sisters were teachers and I know something about what it is to have teaching in your genes.  I refer to the genes of my two aunts, who were remarkable teachers, rather than to myself, where it would seem that the chromosomes have got mixed up somewhere along the line, at least as regards teaching!
Great schools come where there are great teachers.  Despite the many problems teachers have to face, it was heartening for me to meet so many teachers who were truly fascinated by the children they had to care for.  The more difficult the area where the school was, the greater was the dedication.   I was delighted to see many young teachers opt explicitly for schools with particular difficulties. 
The interest in the child went way beyond teaching duty.  There was knowledge, concern and great sensitivity about family and social background.  In some cases, you could see the emotion of teachers – indeed entire staff rooms – when everything went well at confirmation for a child with some particular personal or family problem.
Living abroad as I did for many years, many people asked me what was the key to Ireland recent remarkable economic progress.  I always responded immediately: “in the first place, the educational system”.   That might seem strange from someone of my generation who went through a less adequate school system than that of today, when teacher/pupil ratios were extremely high, premises poor and equipment little more than blackboard.  What made the Irish education system so good was the quality of the teachers, who were able to generate a fascination for learning, for literature, for mathematics, for history, you name it, and indeed for religious education too.
 Mistakes were made, but despite the heavy emphasis on memory and rote, creativity and inventiveness were also the order of the day.  Creativity and capacity for innovation are the fundamental requirement to enter profitably into a knowledge-based economy and society.  This is why so many Irish women and men, and therefore our economy, have done so well in a modern economic climate.
 Religious education, if it is to be taught properly, also requires similar creativity and innovation
There is a viewpoint which tends to look at religious education as something ideological, divisive and doctrinaire and perhaps not really a good thing for young people and certainly alien to what should belong to a school curriculum in a modern pluralist democracy.
The contrary is true.  True religious education leads to an opening of children’s minds and helps them along the first steps to reflection on the meaning of their own lives and values. It stimulates that openness to the transcendent which encourages the young person to go beyond him or herself. It invites young people to experience the love of God which insists on love of one’s neighbour.
Religious education has to become understood as an exciting project which is truly in harmony with a modern pluralist society. Pluralist does not mean secularist. The school, in a pluralist society that cherishes diversity, cannot be imagined as a neutral space where all beliefs and values are left at the door. Religious culture has its rightful place in a pluralist society. Religious imagination fosters a wisdom which is at the root of true personal maturity and which constitutes also the foundations of community.
Religious values can be the best antidote to a culture of consumerism and superficiality.   A religious sense will help the young person to break through some of the dominant patterns of reflection in our society. Religious education should help overcome the difficulty there is in understanding the concept of the transcendent, or the difficulty of understanding community and communion in the face of narrow individualism, or the difficulty of speaking about solidarity and gratuitous love in a market-dominated culture in which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for.
My hope is that more and more teachers would take up the challenge of keeping alive in our times the great tradition of Irish educators who understood their work not as just passing on information but as one of journeying together with young people, opening their minds to the deeper questions of life and together finding answers that enrich, in the message of the Gospel, understood in the tradition of the Church.
In a culture in which so many of us are more and more reduced to the role of passive spectator, fostering imagination and creativity within religious education is a necessary prelude to be able to teach people about the specific content of religious truth.
Young people will only come to appreciate the concept of gratuitously loving God, who is revealed in the life and death of Jesus, when they are first introduced in some way into what that Mystery entails. They have to be lifted out of the closed, measurable world into the world of mystery in the best sense of that word.
Perhaps so many of my generation, who might still like me be able to quote the Catechism, have drifted from belief because they never had that real sense of an experience of who Jesus is and what an encounter with him might mean. There are others who can regurgitate the formulations of the Church’s moral teaching but who have rejected that teaching because it was presented as superficial moralism rather than as an experience of what a truly loving and responsible relationship in life might mean.
Religious faith takes shape only within a faith community and a tradition of faith.   But the school cannot be expected to carry this task on its own. The child belongs to various communities. The more family, school, parish and community can work together, the more children will attain a coherent concept of self identity and will experience values within a coherent and lived framework. I would welcome an increased dialogue between teachers and parishes around sacramental preparation, as well as with teachers’ organizations.  
In this State all religious confessions have the right to expect the respect and the support of the State in education within one’s own denomination and tradition.   But this identity with a specific tradition can also be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions and of those who do not hold any religious faith.  The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin are increasingly sensitive to the fact of difference of ethnic and national background in the school community.   A truly Catholic ethos has shown that it can be welcoming of others and provide a framework within which the school can be a focal point of community for all, without losing its proper identity.   The Church, as the Second Vatican Council recalls,  is by its nature a sign of the unity of human kind.
Many of our schools, especially in Dublin city, are multi-ethnic. Parents who have come recently to our shores place their confidence in our schools that their children will be welcomed and will grow happily in their new environment.  All our schools must assert in their day to day practice that the new Irish are true Irish.   Our young people from different traditions bring a new wealth to our country and our culture.  They remind us that economic wealth is not the only wealth our nations needs.   We must enhance the self esteem of these children, encourage them to find a new and strong identity and give them the instruments to be builders of a new success story of Ireland today.
We heard in today’s Gospel the story of the call of Saint Matthew, whose Feast we celebrate.  It was an instant response.  Matthew simply got up and followed Jesus.   That instant response is an image of the complete response which faith formation calls for in today’s world. Education, as the Primary Management Board’s Handbook notes, involves “the full and harmonious development of all the aspects of the person of the pupil, physical, moral and spiritual and including a living relationship with God and other people”.  Only such a vision will  prepare our young people for life and responsibility.
We as teachers and educators also need a call to conversion.  Jesus calls us as we are.   He calls us, so that with his grace, we can overcome the mediocrity in our lives, so that we can give the best that is in us. Our pupils should find in our lives the best example and the best models of what faith in Jesus means today.
May the Lord bless your work in the year to come.  May his blessing encourage us to give our best to the children of Ireland.