I welcome you all here this morning. I thank you for accepting the invitation of the Northern Bishops to the launch of Building Peace – Shaping the Future. I welcome the Minister for Education, Mr Martin McGuinness, as I do the representatives of the Civic Forum and of the political parties, of the Department of Education and of education sector at all levels, of the Protestant Churches and of the various community and voluntary sectors. I thank all of you for the immense contribution you make to education. We are all partners in education and have much to teach one another and learn from one another. Together we can build a better and more enriched world for our children.


At this time of great change and challenge in Northern Ireland the Catholic bishops not surprisingly deemed it opportune to reflect upon the Catholic school. We ask how schools, at present, can contributes to peace and reconciliation and how they can continue in the future to play a part in the on-going process of building the peace and bringing about reconciliation between divided sections of our society.


The Catholic school is at the service of society. It has a public role to play. The promotion of citizenship must be part of the life and mission of Catholic education. Catholic education aims at the common good of society. It prepares people for active participation in the life of the community. The promotion of citizenship must be as much part of the life and mission of Catholic education as it is of any other public or private institution of education. This means an education which promotes values and ideals, an education which aims at bringing truth and justice to all, an education which dismisses and rules out of order whatever silences the Gospel message. These values derive from faith, hope and love, which are the essential expression of a Catholic educational institution.


It would be unfair to expect schools to heal all the divisions in our society. But they can play a part and I am quite sure that under the leadership of their principals and teachers and Boards of Governors they are willing to face the challenge of destroying divisions and of overcoming conflicts. I know there are many in Catholic schools who are already actively involved in quite a range of activities and local practices which try to promote mutual respect, peace and reconciliation. Too often the relationships, which we are seeking to transform, are marred by ignorance, misunderstanding and suspicion. I suggest they should be replaced – ignorance by knowledge, misunderstanding by understanding and suspicion by respect.


To break out of sectarian situations a combination of responses is required: active and responsible leadership which refuses to be stampeded by its hardliners; education; structured dialogue; listening; an insistence on the human rights of all sides, rights which have to be impartially and effectively enforced. Last but not least, cultural change is required, for example, the refusal to use derogatory language about those who differ from us. Positive and generous messages also need to be sent out to others – the message that “we are not a threat to you,” “we are listening to you,” “we want to make room for you.” These messages may have to be sent repeatedly in the face of apparent rejection, or no response. It takes time and much reassurance for threatened groups to move out from behind their defences, whether such defences are territorial, cultural or religious. Sectarianism flourishes when groups remain a distance from each other. People often demonstrate sectarian attitudes to the other group, in general, while they make an exception for individual members whom they know and live with peaceably as neighbours. It is a time for great generosity, great willingness to give for the sake of harmony and security.


The document launched today recommends that the social responsibilities of Catholic schools be clarified. It asks that Religious Education contain explicit instruction on other religious and social traditions.

Each Catholic school should evaluate the effectiveness of all their EMU programmes. Perhaps the EMU co-ordinator could present a progress report at one meeting of the Board of Governors every year. Best practice in curricular or contact programmes should be publicised and copied.

All schools should be welcoming and fair to pupils and staff from other traditions. The relationships with them should reflect justice and promote self-esteem for all concerned. Catholic schools should seek to increase their investment in projects specifically designed to improve the spirit of community within schools and between schools. Parishes should consider investing financially in programmes which would create links of friendship across social and religious divides. This would include involving representatives from other schools and traditions in school assemblies.


In summary therefore, our society in Northern Ireland has been characterised by profound conflict, and those charged with the education of our young people have an important role to play in breaking down barriers of ignorance, misunderstanding and suspicion.

In the midst of the divisions in Northern Ireland, the bishops have constantly reiterated that tolerance is at the heart of all Christian and human education.

While it is unfair to expect schools to heal all the divisions in our society, they are faced with a challenge to contribute as far as they are able to reconciling and cherishing diverse identities, creating a climate of openness, and encouraging young people to play a full part in a just and equitable society.

Catholic schools help pupils to achieve their full potential, to awaken in them a sense of their dignity and their worth for their own fulfilment, but also for the welfare of society and for the creation of a peaceful and just society. That is indeed a noble enterprise, worthy of the best efforts of the parents, teachers and the parish. Long may it continue.