Opening of the School Year Homily

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Homily Notes of

Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop of Dublin


19th September 2012


We come together at the beginning of the school year to invoke the gifts of the Holy Spirit on our work as educators, on those who work with us and those are entrusted to our care.  We pray for inspiration and commitment, we pray for support and protection.  We pray for a strong renewal in our commitment.  The Gospel reading reminded us of the futility of procrastination and empty tittle-tattle when the call to renewal of faith is urgent.  The first reading reminded us that our ambition must be “for the higher gifts”.

These are challenging times.  They are, however, great times to be involved in education.  For the first time in generations there is real ferment in Irish educational reflection as we take a fundamental new look at our entire educational system.  There is a sense of common search for a new and integrated educational policy which responds to the needs of today and tomorrow. 

Unhappily, we have to realise that the achievement of such a vision is being curtailed by the need to reduce public expenditure.  In some cases, however, the need for financial rationalisation has paradoxically led to a better understanding of best use of resources.  In the coming years we will see many changes in the patronage of primary and secondary schools, greater integration and cooperation at third level and a radical reform in the formation of future teachers on all levels.  The value of life-long education will be enhanced and attention must be paid to finding ways of integrating into education those who at any stage in their lives may have dropped out due to social disadvantage.   Education policy must foster inclusiveness.  Life-long education is the key to inclusion. 

At the same time the demographic profile of the country is changing and the percentage of young people in our population is on the increase.  Investment in our young people is a vital dimension of the roadmap of the future of Irish society and its economy.  It would indeed be short-sighted if economic constraints became such that the most valued element for a flourishing economy and a stable and integrated society of the future – investment in our young people – was undermined.

This is a time of ferment and indeed very much healthy ferment in educational reflection.   Change in itself is not however necessarily healthy.  Precisely at a time of such ferment as we are experiencing, it is especially necessary to reflect carefully and cautiously on fundamental questions about the very nature of education. Educational policy and its implementation must always be measured and evaluated in terms which focus on the fundamental needs of young people and their overall human formation.  Young people are not just cogs to be trained for the techniques of a future economy.  Education must focus on enabling young people’s talents to flourish and that they become fully rounded human persons.

Education is therefore not just about allowing the talents of the young person to flourish, academically and technically.  It is also involves education to responsibility. Young people must be helped to see that they belong to a community and a society for which they must take responsibility.  This involves education to morality and fundamentally to the ability to seek and discern what is truthful and good in the fullest sense.

No one will doubt that one dimension of the current economic crisis is due to a crisis of public morality, where the quest for profit and prosperity became separated, both in individuals and perhaps even on a broader societal level, from serving of the common good.

Education towards responsibility in society requires that the young person encounters in the educational process a society which fosters and welcomes broad participation and ownership.   Education is too important and too central to what society is about to be the exclusive property of teachers or of government or of patrons.  One of the most significant dimensions of the Irish educational system is precisely the dimension of community involvement, and of community responsibility.  I would like to pay tribute to those men and women who voluntarily take on responsibility as Members of Boards of Management and other forms of parental and community responsibility in and for our schools.  Theirs is an increasingly complex role and they should receive the support they require, in terms of training, financial backup and an institutional framework to support them in their governance role.  

In looking at the need for diversification in the educational system one sees also that there is a strong demand in Irish society, urban and rural, for religious education as a dimension of our public schools system.   The changed cultural situation requires that all young people acquire knowledge of the variety of religious traditions which are present in today’s Ireland.  This is important in order to foster mutual respect and religious tolerance and recognition of the richness which religious diversity brings. 

Religious diversity in society does not however mean the exclusion of denominational education in which young people are helped to grow and flourish within the religious tradition to which they belong.  All the indications are that many parents wish to see high quality denominational education remain an essential pillar, alongside other models, of our national educational system.  It is the responsibility of those who have leadership roles in providing denominational education to ensure that it does not became exclusivist but always has as one of its aims openness to the diversity within society.  I refer here to religious diversity, but also to openness to those who are less advantaged.  Denominational education must not become divisive or exclusivist, but neither can religious education become simply a colourless presentation of the history or the sociology of religion.  

One cannot at the same time speak of the richness of religious diversity as a value and then not foster denominational religious education which is authentic.   Diversity is not about eliminating difference.  Men and women who have a robust formation in their own faith and who feel fully secure in their own religious beliefs are indeed more likely to be able to live together in and contribute to a pluralist society.  Those who are insecure in their own religious belief or whose level of religious education is low are those who are most prone to intolerance and fundamentalism. 

If denominational education is going to be a part of our educational system in the years to come, then there is need to ensure that religious educators – parents, teachers and religious leaders – have access to adequate formation and training on a high professional level.   The growing religious diversity in Ireland calls not for banishing religious education from the public square but would indicate that there is a genuine public interest – and thus a corresponding responsibility of government – in providing adequate high quality training for those who are called to teach religion in public schools.    I welcome the proposals here in Dublin for a new cooperation between Dublin City University, Saint Patrick’s College Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute and the Church of Ireland College of Education.  This new cooperation can become a driving force in educational training.  It can enable the integration of religious education into the overall programme, fostering cooperation between denominations yet maintaining their originality and integrity.

“Be ambitious for the higher gifts”, we heard in the first reading.  One of the comments that I have most heard concerning the Eucharistic Congress was that it gave people a renewed sense of purpose and pride in their faith.  In the field of education we need a similar ambition for the higher gifts, a realisation of the contribution which Catholic education brings to education also in the changing and more pluralist society we live in.  That contribution can be recognised in the measure in winch the quality of the education provided in Catholic schools really attain the highest level of commitment and loving dedication to the children entrusted to our care, enabling them to be model of that Christian love we heard of in our first reading. ENDS