3/2/2011 Homily for Catholic Schools Week

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

Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, 3rd February 2011


Our celebration of “Catholic Schools Week” offers me in the first place the opportunity to greet a broad representation of all those in the Archdiocese of Dublin involved in Catholic Education. I greet especially the teachers, principals and members of boards of management of the very large number and very varied types of Catholic school which exist across the Archdiocese, in all of County Dublin, large areas of Kildare and Wicklow and in areas of Counties Wexford, Laois and Carlow.

You represent a group of people who have made and continue to make an extraordinary contribution to our nation.  Teachers play an enormous role in the life of the children entrusted to their care.   I can emphasis that in a rather roundabout way.  In my early years as a priest, many parents of a local school came to me to express the upset at the effect on their children of a teacher who was really not suited to the job.  Children, who once loved school, became troubled and agitated, did not sleep, and caught every cold and flu and any other bug that was in the air.  It was when I saw the extraordinary effect of a poor teacher on the life of a child that I realized even more clearly then ever something that we often take for granted: the effect that a really good teacher has on the life of a child.

Two of my aunts were teachers. One taught in Northern Inishowen in Donegal in a two-teacher school where I used see the children arrive with turf under their arms to keep a somewhat bleak windswept school building warm.  Coming, as I did, from a recently built well-heated large Dublin school, I wondered if anything good could come out of that school: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  The interesting thing, as I learned only recently, was that out of that school came four school principals, two ambassadors and many more highly successful men and women.  The explanation for that was “the Master”, the male teacher, who was a genius who inspired a passion for learning.

That Master was extraordinary but he was by no means an exception.  The country was full of schools with many physical inadequacies and yet the produced some of Ireland’s finest.  Today we are facing many challenges in the area of education and there will inevitably be less money available for what are extravagances but not even for basics.  This will have its negative effects, but there is one thing that I can say without fear of contradiction.  Teachers will never fail in the duty towards their children.  Teachers who have a passion for teaching will continue to send out from their schools children with a passion for learning.

Last year we celebrated the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who had worked here in Dublin as the first Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.  His task of establishing the University was faced with enormous challenges.  There was no precedent. There was no ready pool of Catholic intellectuals since Catholics had not been able to study at third level.  There was political objection and the degrees of the University had little recognition. The Archbishop of Dublin – always the villain – while enthusiastic was fearful of innovation in education.  Added to all of this, Newman began his work just two years after the end of the Great Famine when resources were at zero and the people were still living in a state of trauma and anxiety and fear that such a calamity might repeat itself.   People were concerned with surviving and little more.

What was Newman’s response in the face of such a negative starting point?  His response was that of vision and idealism.   In those years, Newman wrote what is still today considered one of the greatest works, not just on of the “Idea of a University” but on the value and purpose of a broad, liberal education, of an educational community which embraced people in their totality.

This current moment of unprecedented economic challenge, when the cost of public services must inevitably be reduced, is not the moment to loose our vision of the centrality of education or our ideals of what education is about.  Vision and idealism are not just the fashion of better times.  They are essential – indeed more essential – also in a time of downturn.

The real success of the Ireland of the past twenty years was not the high salaries, the house and the second house, the holiday and the car.   They only misled our search for the meaning of what success is and in any case for many they are gone.   The real success – what still remains – was, and is our people, our young people and those who enabled our young people to realise their talents and to use their talents for the common good.

A correct vision of education remains today the key to real and lasting success for individuals, for our communities, our economy and our nation.    Any economic reform-package which does not recognise this is short-sighted.    Financial cutbacks may well be inevitable and indeed necessary.  But cutbacks can be blunt instruments, especially for the poor and disadvantaged, if there is no focus and targeting on what enables us to produce – across the entire economic and social board – a new generation of talented and innovative young people.

The tradition of Catholic education of which you are the heirs today was marked in a special way by reaching out to the disadvantaged and offering them something extra which enabled them to step into the mainstream of society and indeed to become leaders of that society.   The tradition of Catholic education of which you are the heirs today saw that education, to paraphrase some words of Pope Benedict, is not just about teaching the “how” questions, but also about asking the “why” questions.  Education is about leading young people into a genuine search about the deeper questions about life.  Through an appreciation of the message of Jesus Christ, Catholic education can lead children to find a sense of meaning and purpose and hope in life when they are embraced by a style of schooling which gives them a sense of self-respect and self-esteem and the ability to reach out in a similar vein to others.

This was sadly not always the case.  The cost of failing to live up to the vision of Catholic education is seen in the life-long hurt that those who had such bad experiences carry with them.

Where is the future of the Catholic school?  As society becomes more affected by secularising tendencies, the future of Catholic schools is certainly not in weakening their Catholic identity.  Catholic identity is not just about some vague ethos or a vague mission statement beautifully framed.  It is about Jesus Christ, through whom God reveals himself.   Catholic education must be rooted in a broad vision of what Catholic means.  The Catholic school belongs within a Catholic faith-community.  It involves a values complex to which belong families, parish community and the broad reality of Church life and activity.

The particular educational excellence which marks Catholic education will only survive if Catholic schools are really Catholic, inside their walls and within the broader community.  The Catholic Church in Ireland has recently launched a new National Directory for Catechesis: Share the Good News, which presents a wide range of proposals regarding Catholic education in the broadest sense.

There are today a substantial number of parents in Irish society who do not wish their children to be involved in a Catholic or even a religious-based education.  That is their right and it is the responsibility of the State to ensure that they can exercise their right. There is also a substantial sector of Irish society which wants their children to enter into a process of Catholic education in the fullest sense.  The rights of both sets of parents are enshrined within the Irish Constitution and in the major international human rights instruments including the Charter of the Rights of the Child.

The future will bring a plurality in the forms of patronage in Irish schools.  This is enrichment.  There is almost a sense of contradiction when pluralism is invoked to favour total uniformity in educational provision.  Pluralism in patronage does not mean ghetto-ism.  It must be accompanied by programmes of interaction which recognise diversity and which foster mutual respect in diversity.   I believe that the various Christian Churches, while respecting each other’s identity and culture and difference, could work more closely to support their witness in today’s world to our common faith in Jesus Christ.

We live in difficult times and in challenging times.  We face many cultural, social and political unknowns.  In the face of this challenge we need to remember the words of our first reading “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you… and with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us look after the precious things given us in trust”.  What greater trust can be given us that of enabling the young people of tomorrow to fully realise themselves in the image and likeness of God their creator.

May the Lord accompany you in your task!