26/09/07 Mass for the Opening of the School Year

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Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham,
25th September 2007
 I remember well the occasion on which I, as Archbishop of Dublin, celebrated this annual mass for the opening of the School Year for the first time.    It was a dark evening at the end of a dark rainy day.  I remember well that the atmosphere at the Mass in the Pro-Cathedral was one of a certain tiredness and fatigue.
Then it came to the moment of the singing of the responsorial psalm and one of the young boy singers of the Palestrina Choir appeared, stood confidently at the microphone and began singing the psalm with a forceful, stunning voice, perfect diction and without the slightest sense of strain.
Suddenly from the missalettes, heads popped up, full of curiosity and attention.  They were the heads of teachers shaken awake as only a good teacher can be by the immediate recognition of talent.  You could see this in the expression of the faces of teachers.  It was not just the recognition of talent, but recognition of talent that had been properly tutored and that was full of hope for the future.
There have been many words spoken and printed in these weeks about our educational system and its problems, its teething troubles and its challenges.  I would like this evening to turn our reflection towards what is of excellence in our system and to render our thanks to God and to those who for years have been the protagonists of our education and for what they have achieved.  We thank God above all for the talent of our young people recognised, encouraged, enhanced and indeed rejoiced in by our educational community.
The Gospel which has just been read is about vines.  Vines are notoriously difficult plants to grow and tend.  They grow slowly.  They are highly sensitive to changes in the weather and the damage done in a few hours can take years to fully recover from.
Vines require much attention if their growth is to be successful and if the fruit of the vine is to be quality fruit.  That is the task of pruning, which city people like me look on primarily as a process of breaking off unwanted shoots.  The process is of course much more complex.  It is not just about cutting off this or that particular branch.  It is a real art, the art of trimming and tending the plant so that its growth potential becomes optimal. It is work which requires knowledge, technique and love.
Becoming a mature human person is something that is never fully achieved but is worked on over an entire life span.  This applies to the pupils but also to teachers and also all of those in the school community.  All require renewal.  All are required to take a look at themselves and their role to see whether they are formed in such a way as to ensure – to continue with the analogy – optimal growth and productivity, to ensure that our children encounter an educational process which brings out the best in them.
Teaching, like any of the caring professions, is not just about technology, techniques and training.  The prime instrument of any teacher is himself or herself.
I am constantly amazed by the dedication of our teachers I meet around this diocese, young and old.  At a time when it is commonplace to accuse young people of being short on idealism, vision for life and responsibility, our young teachers belie that myth and they do it with a vengeance.  I meet young teachers who opt immediately after College to go to the more problematic areas of the diocese; I meet teachers who at the end of their teaching career, after thirty or more years in the classroom, are filled with the same idealism they brought with them on their first day as teachers.  I see teachers who began their careers in a world radically different from ours, as bright and attentive and creative as they ever were in addressing the needs of children today.   I see how teachers, who could never have imagined the new configuration of the ethnic and religious make-up of our communities, have risen marvellously to the challenge, well before the pundits had even noticed what was going on in our society.
Our nation and everyone in it owes a debt of real gratitude to teachers.  Whatever problems we encounter, we should never downplay what we have achieved in our school system, based on a collaborative model rooted in community    Where changes have to be made, let them be made and made in a timely fashion.  But this requires that it be done in a reflective and systemic manner so that the final result will be to optimise our school system to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.
This is a challenge for all.  It is a challenge which requires us to look at the facts as they really are and not to be driven by polemics or ideology.  When in education ideologies win the day, it is children and communities that pay the highest price.   The fact is that Catholic schools in North and West Dublin, and indeed in many of the smaller country towns, cater for thousands of children of very different ethnic backgrounds and religions. They have done so quietly and effectively for many years -– notwithstanding the undeniable challenges and tensions. Some commentators have evidently not been in our schools in recent times.   In some cases comment has been offensive to teachers and management alike of Catholic schools which have been taking a leading role in integration.
Integration is a challenge for all.   Integration is not just for the poor.  It would be tragic and dangerous if the current debate were to lead parents to consider how they might “opt out” of integrated education by seeking schools that might not have broad ethnic mix. We all – including providers of Catholic education at primary and secondary level – have the responsibility to avoid a two tier or elitist education system.
The future requires working together.   It is a challenge for our communities, for government, for local authorities, for Churches and other patron bodies, for boards of management and indeed for teachers themselves, for school principles, for teachers’ organizations and indeed for structures representing parents.  Integration will only take place when we address the needs and interests of all. That will happen only when all of us can work together and rise above sectoral interests so that what emerges is the greatest benefit for our young people.
I have already expressed my views on the way forward in a pluralist society and my willingness to follow through with a changing role for the Roman Catholic Church in Irish education.  That will involve divesting much of the current presence of the Church in patronage, but it is not a cry of retreat.
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 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 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.
We give thanks to God for all that is good in our educational system. We pray that Jesus, who gave himself so that we could have life, will accompany and inspire us all as we give from the riches we have received so that future generations can flourish.