12 MARCH 2009

Today we give thanks in this Mass for this wonderful new College.  We thank God in this Mass for the talents of all the people who built it. We give thanks for the gifted pupils and staff who will continue to make it a vibrant, welcoming and creative community of life and learning every day.

St. Paul wrote of the importance of building on good foundations. I am sure the architects of this school put a lot of thought and care into building the foundations. Yet the good architecture and foundations of this new school are not just physical. They are also spiritual and religious. They were laid by those who first founded this school. St Patrick’s College, Dungannon was founded when the Presentation Brothers’ School and the Mercy Sisters’ School amalgamated some years ago.  The Mercy school and Brothers’ school had, in turn, been founded to meet the need felt by the Catholic parents of Dungannon and the surrounding area for help in educating their children at post-primary level. 

The Presentation Brothers, founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, and the Sisters of Mercy, founded by Mother Catherine McCauley, responded to that need.  They came from every part of Ireland and dedicated their lives to the glory of God and to the service and education of young people. We should never forget their generosity or their dedication.

The people, and especially the parents of Dungannon, were, in turn, inspired by this generosity and spirit of self-sacrifice. They responded by contributing generously and faithfully to the building of the Schools and Convents.  They did so because they saw in these religious sisters and brothers something of great value for their children and for society. They saw in them people who could provide an education based on Christian values and on faith.

Parents know that to prepare young people for a happy and fulfilling life involves much more than helping them to do well in exams. They knew that young people cannot grow into mature and responsible active members of society just by learning facts and figures, or dates and diagrams. Education is about the formation of the whole person – morally, spiritually, physically, mentally, intellectually, culturally and in so many other ways.

That is why Catholic education emphasises the partnership between the home, the parish and the school in preparing young people to achieve their full potential. There is a profound truth in the African saying that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’.

As Christians we are part of the body of Christ. Every one of us has a vital part to play in building up that body. Every one of us makes a vital contribution to that body through our own God-given gifts and talents.

No one person has all the gifts which make up the body of Christ. No one person has all the gifts which make up a school community. We depend on each other. For those who have a Catholic understanding of education, the value of faith, family, communion and community are all vitally important.

A Catholic approach to education can never be limited to the interests of any one school, of any one Parish or to any one Diocese or Religious Congregation. The deepest level of communion and unity among the family of Catholic schools is what St. Paul in the second reading describes as our common foundation – that is – Jesus Christ. There can be no deeper bond than this. There can be no more morally binding principle for a Catholic school than the great commandment of Jesus – that we should love God and our neighbour, as ourselves.

This simple commandment challenges all those tasked with managing Catholic schools through the period of extensive change that now confronts us in Northern Ireland. That change includes the prospect of a substantial demographic downturn in the school-going population, the difficult challenge of an unregulated system of post-primary transfer, a new curriculum and area-based planning, not to mention the end of CCMS and the prospect of a highly centralized Education and Skills Authority.

Each of these imminent changes will present a significant challenge for every school in Northern Ireland. For the family of Catholic schools, responding to all of these changes in a unified and coherent way is very important.  For those who claim to offer schooling based on Christian principles and the Gospel, commitment to the commandment of love of neighbour means, in fact, that I am ‘my brother’s keeper’. I would appeal to every principal and to every Board of Governors in the family of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland to give priority to this Gospel value in responding to the changes in educational policy which lie ahead.

In vigorously defending the right of all parents to have schools for their children that are in accord with their religious convictions, I also want to emphasize that to be Catholic is to be called to peace, reconciliation, tolerance and respect for diversity. The Catholic sector in Northern Ireland is fully committed to exploring ways of working in co-operation and partnership with other educational stakeholders and school sectors.
A lot of progress has been made in this area in recent years and I encourage every Catholic school to have a project of co-operation with at least one school from another sector.

The Presentation Brothers and the Mercy Sisters may have moved out of St Patrick’s College, but it is clear to me that the Catholic people of this era in Northern Ireland are still prepared to take up the mantle of responsibility for providing Catholic schools for their children. They are still committed to that tradition of generations of Catholics in Northern Ireland of helping parents to educate their children in the values and beliefs which sustained their own parents and grandparents through the most difficult of times. This included those times when Catholic parents in Northern Ireland struggled to provide Catholic schools for their children with little if any support from the State.

Today, I would like to appeal to politicians in Northern Ireland to continue to respect the hard won right of Catholic parents to have fair and appropriate support from the State for Catholic schools. I would appeal to them to remove the threat to the very future of Catholic Education in Northern Ireland posed by the draft Education Bill currently under consideration by the Northern Ireland Assembly. While public attention in recent months has been focused on the future of the eleven-plus, an even more urgent and fundamental issue for the Trustees of Catholic schools has been the implications of the draft Education Bill for our ability to continue to provide schools with a Catholic ethos. As this Bill stands, it can not be accepted by Catholic Trustees as providing a viable basis for the future of Catholic schools.

For this reason, I make an appeal on behalf of the Trustees of Catholic Schools to the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and to all those who believe in religious freedom in our society. I appeal to you to ask your political representatives why would they allow the right of those who wish to have their children educated in Catholic schools to be undermined in such a fundamental and unacceptable way.

The author of Book of Ecclesiastes in our first reading reminded us that for everything there is a season – a time for keeping silent, and a time for speaking. The welcome establishment of a local administration at Stormont, with locally elected representatives, means that it is time for Catholic parents and others to speak out in defence of their right to have schools which reflect their philosophical and religious convictions. This is a right which is recognized in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a right which is recognized more fully in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland than it is in this draft Education Bill. It is a right which we defend and support for all Churches and faith communities, not just for the Catholic community.

How ironic it will be, if one of the fundamental and hard won rights of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland were to be so radically undermined by a new power-sharing administration – the right to Catholic education! How ironic and unacceptable it would be if parents in Northern Ireland who want the option of a faith based education – whether Catholic or otherwise – for their children, would find their right was less respected in Northern Ireland than in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

I ask all Catholics, whatever their political allegiance, and all those who believe in religious freedom in our society, to ask their elected representatives not to put the future of Catholic Education in such jeopardy and what will they do to respect your right to have schools with a Catholic ethos and defining character.

In our second reading, St. Paul also goes on to say: ‘Do you not realise that you are God’s building, his Temple. YOU ARE SACRED’. In this he captures another key value at the heart of a Catholic school – respect for the inherent dignity of every person. This is a God-given dignity which exists irrespective of our particular gifts and talents.  It involves absolute respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death.

All human life is sacred. Those who deliberately set out to murder or to maim others commit a grave offence against God, against their own humanity and against society. The recent murder of Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon on Monday evening was an evil, odious and cowardly attack. Anyone with information about this or about the murderous attack on Masereene Barracks on Saturday night which killed Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, should give that information immediately to the Police, so that those who carried out these attacks can be brought to justice.

To members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in particular I want to say – have courage. You enjoy unprecedented support across the community. That community is with you. You have a noble vocation in service of the common good of all. Honour your vocation by what you do and how you do it in service of a just and peaceful society.  I will continue to pray for you, for your safety and for the success of your vital work.

I also want to say to all young people. Give serious consideration to the noble vocation of policing as a future career. Whatever section of the community you are from, we need courageous police women and men who will protect and lead our society with integrity and with a genuine commitment to the safety and rights of all.

To all young people I would also like to say – you have a right to peace. No one has a right to take it away from you and with it the economic and social opportunities which are also destroyed by violence. Do not give any heed or support to those who might seek to lure you into violence for political ends. Do not be tempted to glamourise the violence of the past. It brought misery and death and destruction.

The spontaneous, united and prayerful response of so many in our society in rejection of those who have committed these acts of violence has been most encouraging.  It is an inspiring source of hope. It is vital that the whole community continues to stand together against any attempt to undermine the progress towards a just and peaceful society which has been made in recent years.
Our politicians have given outstanding, courageous and dignified leadership over recent days. They deserve our encouragement and support. Let us pray that the tragic events of recent days will help all of us, including our politicians, to redouble our efforts to build a vibrant, peaceful and reconciled society.

Teachers of course, also deserve our thanks, our encouragement, our praise and our admiration.  To form the minds, character and future of the young is one of the most privileged vocations in the world. I want to thank the teachers, past and present, for their excellent commitment and dedication to the young people they teach and seek to inspire. Young people will remember you for the type of person you are and the way you treat them perhaps more than the facts and formulae you have taught them. Be the best of teachers by what you say and what you do. Teach as Jesus taught – by word and example. Thank you for the wonderful work that you do in this school.

I was at World Youth Day in Sydney last July and Pope Benedict said to the three hundred thousand young present:  Dear young people let me now ask you a question. What will you leave to the next generation? Are you building your lives on firm foundations, building something that will endure? Are you living your lives in a way that opens up space for the Spirit in the midst of a world that wants to forget God, or even rejects him in the name of a falsely-conceived freedom? How are you using the gifts you have been given, the “power” which the Holy Spirit is even now prepared to release within you? What legacy will you leave to young people yet to come? What difference will you make?      Today, I put the same questions to each of you.

Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice answered them in his life. This is what he said: “were I to know the merit and value of only going from one street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God, I should prize it more than Gold or Silver”.

If each of us could find an answer like that in our lives, then our lives and the future of the new St. Patrick’s College would continue to be built on very firm foundations indeed. Like Edmund Ignatius Rice and Catherine McAuley, we too could become a light of Christ to the world, a city built on a hill top, which can not be hidden.