Address of Archbishop Dermot Farrell to the CPSMA Annual Conference
13th May 2021
I wish to commence my address by thanking the school principals and staff for how well they have cared for the school children throughout the Covid-19 pandemic that affected and disrupted freedoms, habits and certainties. You have engaged very closely with parents and guardians throughout the health emergency to ensure that the education of their children continued. I commend the Catholic schools for their tremendous work in providing for and encouraging young people, supporting their parents, and being of service to the community more broadly. To be a school leader, or chairman of a Board of Management, can at the best of times be a lonely occupation, but none more so than during this present health crisis when for several months all activity had to be carried out remotely without the actual physical presence of teachers, pupils and parents.
I congratulate you on how you have embraced technology to ensure continued interaction and teaching. Your generous engagement, and that of school staff, in remote and online learning platforms has done a great deal to support the children and their parents, and has greatly assisted them in navigating what for them was a very abnormal educational landscape. The children’s wellbeing, and indeed their mental health, has been a key priority for you and your staff. In this way you have given a very strong witness to the nature of Catholic education. There was a focus on and concern for children who didn’t have resources, such as access to the internet, or those who did not possess a laptop or an iPad. Notwithstanding these issues, the real benefit of technology has been established by this pandemic.
At the same time, your decision to return to school, despite being apprehensive about the coronavirus – putting the children first – is a recognition that no technological device can replace the dynamics of the classroom. When the emergency situation passes, the perspective of the school community should not be to revert back to the way it was before, but to innovate and improve, learning from present difficulties. This challenge requires the commitment of all the educational partners.
When students first went to a teacher training college – as it was known at the time, they would have said that they had got the call to training! Teaching is a call, a vocation. Teachers have in a very real, practical and resourceful way proclaimed the Good News. They were called to be leaders in our Catholic schools and they deserve great praise and recognition for their commitment.
We have seen evidence of the increased use this year of the resources for Catholic Schools Week as they were online and thus very suited to the online learning conditions. From my time working in parish I know the importance of Grandparents’ Day for Catholic Schools Week. This year, however, they could not come into the schools and they were really missed by teachers and children.
Children have come to appreciate school much more – its importance for socialising in particular. Nowhere is this function more important than in the schools who cater for the education of pupils with special needs. Following the easing of restrictions, they were the first classes to return. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) units and Special Schools provide a most vital service to these pupils. I would appeal to Boards of Management to be welcoming of a request from the National Council for Special Education and the Department of Education and Skills to open an ASD unit in their school so that children can be educated locally with their family and friends. The DES, NCCA and HSE in making these requests to Boards, must ensure that proper accommodation and all the necessary support services are in place, so that students will receive an education that meets their needs and that proper services are put in place to provide speech therapy, physiotherapy and play therapy.
Out of the above will come a real sense of the importance of engaging the whole school community in doing the very best for the children in their care. Parents have come through the experience of home-schooling to a new awareness of the vital role of the school and the teacher – this has led to and will lead to a real appreciation and understanding on their part.
In addition, all the above has seen the teaching cohort carry out in practice the real caring mission of the Catholic school. Schools really went the extra mile! For example, some schools arranged that pupils who were availing of the school breakfast and lunch services had the food service continue during the lockdown. Schools supported families effected by Covid-19 and kept in contact especially when a member of a pupil’s family died because of Covid-19. Chairpersons and principals were available through telephone and email all during the pandemic to the teachers, staff and parents for any issues concerning the school, especially preparing for the establishment of ASD units for opening in September 2020 and now for September 2021.
Pope Francis has described the principal element of education as learning to be generous, especially in terms of the desire to do great things and responding to what God is asking of us. This generosity the Holy Father tells us, is shown by doing well the simple things, the daily chores and responsibilities and the ordinary encounters with people. And above all developing the human virtues such as loyalty, resilience, respect, faithfulness and commitment (Pope Francis speaking with students and teachers from Italian and Albanian Jesuit schools in Rome, 7 June 2013). Schools have modelled this generosity and these virtues by the manner in which they have responded to the unparalleled situation they have had to deal with since the sudden closure of the schools was first announced on 12 March 2020 and again in January 2021 in response to the Third wave of a lethal virus.
An immensely valuable component of the Catholic school is the partnership between family, parish and school. This is not something that happens without effort. There is a need for Catholic schools to work continuously at connecting strongly with local parish/parishes – opening up what the school can give to the faith community – and what it can receive from the faith community. The Covid-19 pandemic made us realise that we are more fragile and dependent on each other. Seek to revitalise the connections locally between home, school and parish, such that the school can be a support to families in connecting with parish, and to parishes connecting with families.
In this way the Catholic school will become fully engaged in its role of supporting young people and their families when they decide in favour of sacramental participation in the life of the Church – First Holy Communion and Confirmation cannot be a one day ‘school event’ organised in a local church – young people and their families should understand that the young person is registering for initiation into the life of the parish community, deepening their life as a Christian, committing to becoming step by step an engaged disciple of Jesus and an active member of the Church, supported on this journey by the school.
Parents, when you enrol your children in the parish for these sacraments you are enrolling them on a lifelong journey of faith, hope and love – and also in making that decision you are re-entering yourself into awareness of the love you have for God and the love God has for you throughout all the ups and downs of life. The parish and the Catholic school are supports for you in developing your own relationship with God and that of your young people. There is always room for adult members of the Church, parents and grandparents, clergy, teachers, all of us, to reflect further on our faith and re-engage with our own adult faith development.
The Catholic school adds value. It promotes a positive spiritual reflection on life, speaking to all that we learn from Jesus as young people and throughout the whole of life. It sets the young person out on life valuing the spiritual, the religious, the moral, as well as the intellectual, creative, physical and social aspects of life.
The Catholic school speaks from its deepest values to all, opening its doors not only to young Catholics, but to those of other denominations, other religions and other worldviews, in a hospitable, respectful, inclusive manner – inviting them to participate in appropriate ways in what it offers them.
In all of this Religious education is important. The suggestion in the Draft Primary Curriculum Framework that Religious Education could somehow be separated out, or even left out of a school curriculum, seems like a backward step. We need young Catholics to be offered a holistic education, wherever they go to school, that takes account of the spiritual and religious. In fact, I would suggest that we need all our young people to be religiously literate and to learn at least to respect the beliefs and understandings of others. Otherwise we leave ourselves open to the possibility of a future where coming generations find themselves ignorant of their own tradition and that of others. The place of Religious Education in Catholic schools is central, and the curriculum should facilitate it generously and with ease, not simply as a possible add-on. In all schools Religious Education, in one form or another, has a contribution to make to the holistic development of young people. In the plural reality of society today we need to build up respect for others rather than diminish it by mistakenly downplaying significant questions – such as the fundamental importance of Religious Education in schools provided in ways that are wholesome and open to difference.
Respect for all people, for human life at all its stages, and for the deepest understanding of sacredness of human life, is a well-known fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church. I welcome Flourish, the resource for Relationships and Sexuality Education for Catholic Primary schools, available now on the CPSMA website. Flourish is a series of resources designed to assist teachers in following the NCCA Curriculum while being respectful of our Catholic ethos. They were designed to fill a need which became apparent after wide consultation with parents, teachers and school leaders in our sector.
Flourish, which is resource and not a programme, celebrates life and love. The Introduction to the 1999 Primary School Curriculum included some specific aims: “to enable children to apply what they learn to new contexts in order to respond creatively to the variety of challenges they encounter in life; to enable children to develop spiritual, moral and religious values; to enable children to develop personally and socially and to relate to others with understanding and respect” (pp. 34-35). Speaking about the theme ‘Fostering Wellbeing’, Flourish notes, “this competency is understood as developing a pupil’s ability to be as physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually healthy as they can be. It fosters self-awareness and promotes the importance of children seeing themselves as capable and resourceful. This supports their ability to deal with the normal challenges of life, become resilient and cope in a variety of situations and circumstances” (p. 5). Catholic schools seek to create reflective learning spaces where all of life is dealt with in an appropriate, integrated, life-enhancing manner, and where the spiritual is given its rightful essential role in the establishment and maintaining of wellbeing.
One particular actualisation of a life that is flourishing is sacramental marriage. While the concept of sacrament may be difficult to grasp, the reality of sacramental life forms the bedrock of the Catholic approach to life and its mysteries. Mystery, because of its depth and intensity, puts before us the complexity and multi-layeredness of life. This is true for every person. It is a mystery to be embraced, not a problem to be solved.
In this context then is the sacramental marriage between a man and a woman to be seen. This does not mean that sacramental marriage in Church is for everyone, but our faith asks that we put before our young people and their families, such an understanding of marriage as part of their formation for life, and in the faith.
That is not to say, that what is presented in a resource – even a resource as contemporary as Flourish – may be assumed to replace the wisdom and love that comes from the commitment and joy, the giving and the sacrifices that all real marriages entail. You will know as well as I that pre-fabricated answers are no substitute for the wisdom that comes from the experience of life. Indeed, there is always the risk of life-sapping ideology, which is the very opposite of the wellbeing, vibrancy, and hope that Flourish set outs to nurture.
Flourish affirms the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition: every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is loved by God as they are. The resource material clearly states that any young person grappling with questions around their own gender identity or sexual orientation is be treated with the utmost care and respect. Flourish addresses the issue of family type and acknowledges that love is at the heart of family life, no matter what type of family it is.
The Catholic Church in Ireland and Catholic schools celebrate joyfully the presence of the Risen Christ in the life of the Church. We cherish his presence with us in love, supporting us and teaching us along the journey of life. May he continue to bless our Catholic schools, showing us how to open ourselves to his Spirit, share what we have learned, and become ever more responsive to the needs of all.
In times of crisis, while seeking not to leave any child behind or alone, our mission is to place greater emphasis on education, as it ensures a better future.