In this, the bicentenary year, we remember the past 200 years – namely, the 200 years that have gone by since Edmund Rice set up his first school. It was in a stable in Waterford in 1802. We remember these 200 years with gratitude. Gratitude and praise in our hearts, to a God who always gives gifts of grace for every time and season to His Church. For, in every age, God guides and helps the Church through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let us have no fear – God always provides – we may not always be listening.
Tonight we give thanks for the guidance and the help given by God to very many people in the Church through the Presentation Brothers and the Christian Brothers, founded by Blessed Ignatius Rice. We now see how God was present in this sacred story and in particular tonight; we give thanks for that presence here in Armagh from 1851 until 1999.

We remember how on the first Pentecost Sunday in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles with the sound of a mighty wind. It was the fulfilment of Christ’s promise that they would receive power and that they would be his witnesses to the ends of the Earth. Later Peter had stood up and told his audience that what they were seeing was not men getting drunk but rather God fulfilling His promise.
Jesus became one of us, a human being like us, that we might have life and have it to the full. When he returned to the Father he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. The Spirit comes to us to remind us to play our part in bringing the world to perfection. Tonight we celebrate the past; we give thanks for all that has been achieved. We ask pardon and forgiveness for the failures and shortcomings.

On the first day of Pentecost, 3,000 were baptised after the coming of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of Peter. We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that they spent their time listening to the teaching of the apostles.

In every age there have been people who are prepared to take up that task of handing on and living out, in their own lives, the teaching of the apostles. They have been attentive to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and have responded to the Holy Spirit.

Recently I was in a school and I asked, What did it mean to be a witness? One young man said, it meant preaching the Gospel. I said, “Would you be prepared to play any part in preaching the Gospel?” He shook his head. I though it was an example of somebody who had a clear idea of what was involved but like the rich young man in the Gospel, was not prepared to give up what he would have to give up if he was going to be a preacher of the Gospel.

Tonight we give thanks to those Brothers who came here to Armagh, not to make a profit, not to get rich, far from it. We know that. They came not to do their own thing – to throw up their heels and enjoy great freedom. They came not to have children, wives and families and grandchildren of their own. In their choosing this way of life they were giving up doing without things which a lot of people rate very highly. They were prepared to do that because they felt that is what God was calling them to do – to be witnesses to Jesus Christ – to be witnesses to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We remember once again the remarkable story of the two congregations founded 200 years ago. We try to become more keenly aware of the presence of the loving God in that story. We look more closely at how God has been moving and working. We look back to see what has happened during those last 200 years – trying to see where God has been moving. Normally the work of God is, in a deep sense, peaceful and consoling. We give thanks for all the good that has been accomplished. We ask forgiveness for the failures.

Our gathering this evening is not just one of nostalgia. We live the present at a time of new beginnings. This is indeed a time of new beginnings when we realise that the future of the Catholic school is very much in the hands of a lay Church. One big challenge for the future of Catholic education is to help lay teachers see and realise the central role they now play in the Church. I appreciate the work that is being done to equip and prepare new leaders and I am thinking of the

Always, the question of the ethos of a school is very important. It is now just as important as ever. Today teachers of religion point out how hard it is to teach this subject in schools. However, it is a task that cannot be avoided. God gives His great gifts of grace for every time and season. He will provide a grace as we work out the strategy for the present we go back again to the vision which Edmund Rice, Patrick Finn and Thomas Grosvenor had when they set up a school in a stable in New Street, Waterford, 200 years ago.

Yes, we live the present at a time of new beginnings. We examine this present era and its signs to detect there the presence of the Holy Spirit. We rejoice in the fact that vocations to the Christian Brothers are flourishing in Africa and India and in other parts of the developing world. This is in line with the increase in the number of seminarians worldwide, which has grown 73% during the last 24 years – that is, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

Of course the number has dropped dramatically in this country. That raises questions, not about vocations to the religious life or about the Church worldwide, but about the Church here in Ireland, about the quality of our faith, about the depth of our relationship with Jesus Christ. While we recognise, with gratitude, the efforts to be open to the poor and the marginalised of the world we see that there is a spiritual poverty, and needs which need to be addressed. I see spiritual quotient is now being regarded as something important.

The 2001 issue of Network News is full of ideas and activities as it outlines the Programmes of Events to mark this bicentenary. I mention the Vision Conference in April; the Adult and Community Education Programme; the Catholic School Conference in March, “God is in the ordinary projects” and a whole lot of other projects. They indicate to me great vitality, great life, great strength, despite the smaller numbers, the smaller presence in schools and the ageing profile of the Province. I see there great signs of hope, great honesty and great obedience to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

Now, after 200 years we face the future. Yes, the age profile of the Province and the declining numbers introduce a note of uncertainty as regards the future but Jesus himself was clear that his future involved a certain amount of uncertainty, about being rejected by his fellow countrymen, about being handed over to the Romans and being put to death. In the eyes of the world it was a future of failure. His disciples got it hard to see that and to accept it.

You know what happened immediately after that fantastic promise which we heard in today’s Gospel, which Jesus made to Peter when he promised him the key to the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus began to say plainly to his disciples – “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much. I will be put to death but three days later I will be raised to life”.

Jesus understood that the shame of the cross would lead to the glory of the Resurrection. His disciples did not understand and so the future was, for them, very uncertain. Peter, was spokesman for the rest when he expresses there their doubts. He says, “God forbid it, Lord, that must never happen to you”. Jesus turned around and said to him, “Get away from me Satan. You are an obstacle in my way, because these thoughts of yours don’t come from God but from human nature”.

I think that as we face the future, in order to share in the vision of Ignatius Rice, we must go back to this evening’s Gospel where Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the son of the living God”.

As we face the future we ask again, What was the vision of Edmund Rice? I would say that he and his companions saw themselves as primarily sharing with their pupils, faith in Jesus as the Son of the Living God. I would say that they saw their main task as one of handing on their faith to their pupils. They saw themselves as serving Jesus in the person whom they taught, because they were quite clear that when he said, ‘Whatever you do to one of these, the least of my brethren, you do to me’. I believe that they were interested in the development and formation of the faith and personality of their pupils. As baptised followers of Christ, they knew they were passing on the words of eternal life. They were part of the Church, sent to teach all nations and to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, to the ends of the earth. They knew that they were teaching in the name of Jesus Christ – a Christ who keeps his promises – who suffered and died – who was rejected by his own people but accepted by his Father who rose from the dead, who promised to send the Holy Spirit – and he did. He promised to come again to judge the living and the dead and he will, and will reward them according to what they deserve.

Peter was quite clear that the reward promised was high – “I will share in the glory that will be revealed”. What a headline he sets for all of us. Be shepherds of the flock God gives you – a shepherd feeds his flock, protects and guards them. Take care of it willingly as God want you to. Do your work, not for mere pay but from a real desire to serve – be examples to all. When the Chief Pastor appears – “you will receive the glorious crown, which will never lose its brightness”.

Dear brothers, parents, teachers, dear people of Armagh and beyond, let us never lose sight of that glorious crown. Let us press on every single day in our efforts to win that glorious crown.