PROMOTING RECONCILIATION THROUGH EDUCATION:
A VISION FOR CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
An Address by
Cardinal Seán Brady
Conference on Promoting Reconciliation through Education
Radisson Roe Park Hotel, Limavady
Tuesday 22nd February, 2005
Distinguished guests, members of the Educational community, colleagues and friends:
I am grateful to Bishop McKeown and the organisers of today’s Conference for giving me this opportunity to address such a large and distinguished gathering of educationalists, community representatives and community relations professionals. The theme is a vital one: Promoting Reconciliation Through Education.
I am also delighted, as a trustee of Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland, to have this opportunity to pay very special tribute to all of you for your outstanding work in promoting education.
The theme I have been asked to address speaks of A Vision for Catholic Schools. A vision is a way of seeing the future. It is a way which inspires confidence, energy and direction. A vision is something which is often caught rather than taught. In biblical terms, the concept of vision is closely related to the concept of dreams. Dreams lift our imagination to new horizons. They extend the limits of what we hope for, of what we believe is possible.
The Bible is full of dreams. There are two aspects of the biblical tradition of dreams which stand out in my mind today as we reflect on the contribution which Catholic Education can make to the urgent work of reconciliation in our divided society.
In the Scriptures, dreams or visions occur at moments of great challenge and change. They transform the challenge of change from obstacle to opportunity. We meet today at a moment of great challenge and change for the whole educational community in Northern Ireland. Imminent demographic change, curriculum change, policy change, notably in terms of the Costello proposals, legislative change, political change, the constant ebb and flow of cultural change among young people and others, this is the maelstrom which currently confronts the Educational community in Northern Ireland. We are searching for direction, for vision, in the midst of uncertainty and change. Yet the biblical view of change is that it is also an opportunity. God always acts most decisively and most powerfully to create new direction and energy in moments of confusion, challenge and change. In this sense, we do not seek to catch or create a vision of the role of Catholic schools today by relying solely on our own human genius or imagination. We rely instead on a vision of history and life which is rooted in the simple, yet profound conviction that ‘God is with us’! Indeed, God in his own creative, transforming and life-giving activity is the supreme educator, the model of all teachers. God is the source and end of all educational activity. From the beginning to the end of time the divine work is to educate the chosen people.
This is very important for the overwhelming majority of people in our society. Through intellectual reasoning and conscience, they have arrived at the freely chosen and persistent conviction of religious faith. The right of parents to have their children educated in accordance with that faith is a human right. It is a human right which has been recognised by a wide variety of national and international instruments. These include the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The explicit protection of this right of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their religious beliefs is important. It is an acknowledgement that it belongs to parents and to those who act in the place of parents, such as trustees, to determine how the values of a particular religion or philosophical approach to education are best secured and promoted in a school.
As the Catholic Bishops have pointed out in Building Peace: Shaping the Future, it is ‘a source of encouragement that central government [in Northern Ireland] explicitly commits itself to ensuring that parental choice will be a key factor in the provision of educational experience for young people.’ (p.4) This in itself is an acknowledgement that education is not limited to the transmission of knowledge and ideas. Education is intimately connected to the whole philosophical and religious system of beliefs and values which each human being is entitled to hold and propagate, as an essential expression of their freedom and dignity.
This point is often misunderstood by those outside of the Catholic system of education. Catholic education is not simply about the presentation of Catholic teaching in the classroom or about sacramental preparation, as the Equality Commission has apparently presumed in its recent decision to propose the removal of the Teacher’s Exception, or at least to limit it to primary schooling for the time being. Catholic education is a complete philosophical concept of the educational process, one based on a Judeao-Christian understanding of the world and the human person. We have a right to hold that view and to promote it in the same way that others have a right to promote theirs. Governments in a free, democratic and pluralist society, respectful of the principle of subsidiarity, will not impose their own philosophical view of the world on parents and children but will honour the right of parents to have their children educated in a manner consistent with their philosophical and religious convictions. Of course we uphold the right of other faith-communities to have their own schools as part of the rich diversity of a pluralist society.
Building Peace: Shaping the Future, reminds us that we live in a society which has an increasingly diverse, sometimes overlapping range of philosophical and religious approaches to life and the human person. It goes on to state that ‘it is reassuring that in Northern Ireland, the contribution of Catholic education is taken seriously and that it will be treated with parity of esteem.’ (p.4) This appears to me eminently sensible because a homogenous system in education is rarely the best way forward. A diverse society with diverse sources of identity and conviction requires a diverse range of educational systems, bound together by the fundamental principles of respect and parity of esteem. This is the key to any authentic pluralism. The Catholic Church welcomes the current diversity of provision of education in Northern Ireland provided all sectors are valued equally.
There is a second dimension of biblical dreams, which is of particular significance for our theme today. Dreams in the Bible do not just present a vision of the future. They also provide the path to that future. They do so by re-energising and refocusing our understanding of what motivated and inspired us in the past. The convictions, ideals and visions which inspired the prophets to great energy and activity in the name of God were often at risk from fatigue, familiarity or fearfulness. But, when the prophets became tired, disillusioned or overwhelmed by the scale of the task before them, God often intervenes by way of a dream or vision to remind the prophets of what it was that once inspired them. This in turn would refocus their energy on some aspect of their original mission which has particular significance for the new challenge to which God is calling them.
I believe that in focusing today on the role of Catholic Schools in the urgent task of reconciliation, that is precisely what we are doing. We are re-discovering, refocusing and re-energising an aspect of our original mission and task. This is something which has always been there. Now it requires new emphasis and new direction. In the midst of the division in Northern Ireland the Catholic Church has constantly repeated that tolerance and reconciliation is at the very heart of Catholic education. Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, we have pointed out that the fundamental aim of a Catholic school is to make the civilisation of love a reality. Indeed love, for the Christian, is the foundation of all education. The supreme model and source of that love, in turn, is the Blessed Trinity. The Blessed Trinity is a community of persons who exist with distinct identities. The three divine persons exist in perfect unity, in mutual harmony and communion with each other but with particular missions and roles in the whole work of salvation.
In this theological motif of the Blessed Trinity and community, the vision of Catholic Education finds a potentially powerful and renewing ally – an ally which is a source of imagination and action in its work of reconciliation and contributing to a shared future in Northern Ireland. Renewed theological interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. A doctrine so closely associated with the tradition of our national Apostle Patrick suggests that we find in this primary truth of the Christian faith an important social model for the dynamics of inclusion and diversity in an increasingly pluralist society. On the one hand, the integrity of distinct identities is honoured and recognised. On the other, each identity is enriched and sustained by the generosity, respect, and ultimately the love of the other. This is the source and ideal of human community, living in communion, truth, fellowship, justice, peace and love. This is the origin, and model of the Kingdom of God which Jesus introduces as a radically new and exciting opportunity for the world in his life, death, resurrection and the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. The key to the harmony of this community of truth and justice, of love, service and peace, however, is that the boundaries of distinct identity are recognised, honoured and celebrated. However, these boundaries are sufficiently selfless and porous as to allow the other to feel welcome, cherished and unthreatened. This is the perfect model of the reconciled, diverse but vibrant community which we wish to see in the increasingly diverse society of Northern Ireland.
This model of Trinitarian communion is also the defining motif for both the internal and external relationships which define the Catholic School. On the one hand it affirms what is and should be the most obvious and defining and tangible aspect of the ethos of a Catholic School. That is, a spirituality and atmosphere of communion and community, in which the individual is cherished and nourished by the community. The individuals in turn celebrate and nourish the community to which they freely assent to belong.
Many people often comment on the community atmosphere of Catholic schools. I believe it is a tangible consequence of our Eucharistic culture, our deep commitment to the family and to our particular understanding of the essential relationship between the family, the parish and the school. Commitment to a pervasive ethos of supportive, nurturing and pedagogically professional community is, I believe, one of the keys to understanding the distinct identity of the Catholic School. It is one of the factors which ensure the continued high demand for this particular type of schooling both nationally and internationally. It also responds to the developing sense of international solidarity and interdependence, which characterises much of modern culture, particularly among the young. Developing and protecting this sense of community which rooted in respect for the individual and in a shared commitment to justice and the common good, in every aspect of the life of a Catholic school, should be a particular priority for principals, teachers and Boards of Governors alike.
In Building Peace: Shaping the Future, the Catholic Bishops have set out some of the implications of this commitment to inclusive community in the particular context of Northern Ireland.
Like others, Catholics believe explicitly in a God who actively and endlessly reconciles. In doing so God draws people to each other and into a loving community of faith. God is a God who heals and who enters into a personal relationship of love with all women and men. To believe in this God is by definition to promote reconciliation, especially where it is urgently needed.
This process, we believe, begins at the level of the individual. Those who learn to be most convinced, realistic and confident about their own identity and worth, I believe are best able to establish mutually-enriching relationships with others. The same is true of communities. By fully appreciating initially their own school community, Catholic schools foster a healthy social awareness that will naturally want to reach out to the wider community. Catholics, by the very nature of their religious identity, rooted in the Gospel of Trinitarian love, are committed to social action and the promotion of the common good. This includes, as a matter of fidelity to their own religious ideals, an obligation to reach out to the wider society of which we are a part.
This is why, for example, Catholic schools have played their part with others in recent years in providing children with a vision of tolerance, diversity and reconciliation. They have played their part in Education for Mutual Understanding, in inter-school activities, in cross-border initiatives, in cross-community exchange, in developing peace education within the curriculum. While it is now a welcome part of the new Core Syllabus for Religious Education, the RE programme for all Catholic schools has, for some time, included extensive material on the beliefs, practices and traditions of other Christian traditions and world religions for some time. The positive and restraining impact of this commitment of Catholic and other faith-based schools in Northern Ireland on the attitudes and behaviour of young people, particular during the worst periods of conflict and disorder, is not often acknowledged by those who perpetuate the profoundly unjust and wearisome notion that faith-based schools in Northern Ireland are inherently divisive. No one system of schooling has a monopoly on seeking or achieving respect, tolerance or reconciliation in our society. Bringing children together in the same school is only one way of approaching this important ideal. The distinct contribution of the Catholic School to the promotion of reconciliation is the ability to ensure that tolerance, respect and openness to others is fundamental to the formation of a confident, respectful Catholic personality. In addition, Catholic schools, while inviting respect for their right to a particular identity and ethos, are welcoming to pupils and parents from the broadest possible range of social, academic, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
In practical terms, it is manifestly unfair to expect schools to heal all the divisions in our society. Catholic schools are nonetheless faced, with others, by the challenge to contribute as far as they can to the resolution of this problem. They do so by:
Reconciling and cherishing diverse identities
Creating a climate of openness and inclusion and
Encouraging young people to play a full part in a just and equitable society
Inculcating respect for and courtesy towards those who are different.
I am happy to see that these are the themes which will be explored in the group sessions to be held this afternoon. It will include considering what we mean when we say in Building Peace: Shaping the Future, that Catholic schools do not exclude and should not be seen to exclude other children. In particularly they welcome children of other denominations – whose parents accept the Mission statement and Aims of the school. That means, in principle, Catholic schools are open to pupils of all denominations. It means unpacking the practical consequences of the Costello Proposals for our understanding of economic, social, cultural and academic diversity within and beyond the Catholic sector. It means exploring more thoroughly the opportunities, which exist for closer and more effective partnership with others in the interests of the common good.
The school is, in fact, the principal means of helping parents to educate their children. Catholic parents have a serious obligation in conscience to seek and provide that system of education which most comprehensively supports their religious and philosophical convictions. Catholic schools exist in support of those convictions and are an essential part of the mission of the Church in a free society. What we are called to do today, is to re-energise those convictions in favour of peace and reconciliation while cherishing the integrity and hard won rights of our own Catholic identity. This is the essence of authentic pluralism. This is the spirit and intention of the working party’s report on ‘Integrating Education’, Towards a Culture of Tolerance, when it asserts that: ‘it is a seminal purpose of the Northern Ireland Education Service to promote a culture of tolerance and reconciliation’.
We acknowledge that Catholic schools have to play their part in breaking down traditional division. We ask others to recognise and celebrate the particular identity and character of Catholic schools and to promote their right to exist and flourish in a pluralist and diverse society.
In this regard it is interesting to note that the Marino Institute of Education, Dublin has recently embarked upon a project entitled ‘Re-imagining the Catholic School’. People engaged in that project have had the opportunity to work in an intensive and interactive way with all sections of the school community, in most of the second-level schools in our diocese. Their considered opinion is that there is still a relatively warm welcome for the Catholic ethos in most of the schools in which they have worked. The warmth with which they have been accepted throughout the diocese has encouraged them. The feedback from staffs has been very positive. They have discovered some wonderfully committed educationalists who are superb advocates for the continuation of the Catholic ethos. They are living witnesses and authentic role models for all the in the school community.
However, in the project there are also clear indications that secularism is alive and well and a growing threat to the religious character of Catholic schools. There has been a constant and persistent erosion of faith practice within the secondary sector. Growing percentages of the student body, the parental body and indeed many of the staff, no longer actively espouse the Catholic ethos. There are few articulate voices that speak cogently on behalf of the Catholic school. As mature teachers retire there is less likelihood that their successors are committed to the transmission of the Catholic ethos.
It would seem that there is danger that the Catholic school may not be valued so much for its transmission of a Catholic ethos or its articulation of Catholic values as for other perceived values such as good academic results, good discipline, and good pastoral care.
The report suggest that most young people still operate out of a pre-Vatican II model of Church, as indeed do most of the adults with whom they spoke to within the school community. This significant failure of catechetics needs to be addressed urgently.
At second level there is lack of connectedness between the school and the parish community. The shortage of full-time chaplains compounds this difficulty. Principals are isolated. They are custodians of such large numbers of students and have a huge responsibility and influence. Yet they have received little training or support in how to be a spiritual leader. This suggests that there is a need to recognise how pivotal their role is and to establish structured on-going methods of training and support, not just in the techniques of management and administration, but how to develop and promote a vibrant and inclusive Catholic ethos.
RE teams often feel beleaguered and isolated. They have a sense of going ‘against the current’ and they feel that too much of the responsibility for the faith life of the school is put on their shoulders That responsibility should be a whole school or a whole community issue.
This suggests that there is a need for a comprehensive catechetical programme to educate people about the Vatican II understanding of the Church, an understanding which has at its heart the vision of the Church as the ‘sacrament of the unity of humankind’, rooted in the life and love of the community of the Trinity. Such a programme should offer effective working models of schools which are vibrant and inclusive communities of faith. Evangelisation of schools must begin with teachers who are a unique group of professionals with incredible influence over the lives of young people. Their spiritual formation needs to be addressed. Innovative and practical ways, to mesh the life of the school community with that of the parish and the diocese are required.
The Catholic school creates a sense of Christian community. The GAA builds a sense of local community as also does the local communications media, for example, local radio, local newspapers, but the Catholic school is uniquely placed to create a sense of Christian community. That is, a society that is noted for its sense of caring, bound together by a sense of belonging and inspired by a spirit of justice and truth. How can this happen? One suggested way is to employ full-time trained chaplains.
We speak of the need to involve home, family, school and parish in the education process. We need to motivate and inspire and empower the students themselves to grow in faith and to engage positively with their education. Students are eager to play soccer, or Gaelic or other games because role models are pointed out or indicated and they are given the good experience of playing sport and watching sport. They find it life-giving and life-enhancing. There is a great need to ensure that they find religion life-giving and life-enhancing in all its celebrations and manifestations.
In the Our Father we pray “Father may thy Kingdom come”. The Catholic school is one instrument for the coming of the Kingdom, that is, for the reign of God to come into our world. We need to remember that fact always, if the Catholic school is to retain its distinctive characteristic. So, let’s hear it again, the school is an instrument in the reign of God which is breaking into the world. That reign is coming; of that we can be absolutely certain. And the certainty of that promise is what assures those who are involved in the Catholic schools that their work will never become just another mundane task.
The Second Vatican Council has said that the future belongs to those who offer hope and reasons for living. This is precisely the task of a Catholic School. We have something unique, dynamic, inclusive and positive to offer in the Catholic school system. If we lose sight of our dreams, of our core vision and purpose, however, we run the risk of settling into apathy, bland pursuit of personal comfort and wealth, or a destructive cynicism about all that aspires to be good.
In conclusion, therefore, let me remind you of one of the first dreams described to us in the Bible. Happily, it involves a young person, a young person who, like so many of those in our schools finds himself disillusioned with family, with life and with God. So much so, indeed, that this young man called Jacob chooses to run away from home and eventually finds himself alone and lost in the middle of the desert. So, in his frustration and his fear he does what many of us have done in our time, he begins to ‘wrestle’ with God. But if any of you have ever wrestled with God you will know what this young man was about to discover – that God always wins! Not by fighting back, or by returning impressive answers to our angry questions, but by simply letting us get tired of the anger and the fighting. And so it was that this young man, like so many before him and since, exhausted his energising in a fruitless fight with God and decided to go asleep in the middle of the desert. While he slept, he had a dream. And in the dream the clouds separated over the place where he sleeping and a ladder descended from heaven. On the ladder, the angels of God ascended and descended, bringing the things of heaven to bear upon the things of the earth, and bringing the concerns of the world up the ladder to be transformed by the vision of heaven. After some time enjoying this dream, the young man woke with a strange sense of calm. The fighting was over and in his mind, the Scriptures tell us, he said to himself – ‘Truly God was in this place, and I did not know it’. What a wonderful phrase to with which to see anew the daily challenges and frustrations of our Catholic Schools – truly God is in this place, and I do not always see it!
This young man then took out the little vessel of oil, which all desert people would carry to keep themselves moist, and much like a bishop anoints the altar of a Church on which the Eucharist is celebrated. He poured the oil over the stone on which he had slept and had his dream. This young man went on to become the leader of one of the most successful and enduring of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Jacob, and the place of his dreams became a great shrine honoured by the people for centuries.
As we gather here today, to reflect on those dreams and visions which inspire the work of Catholic education, let us turn to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who expands the limits of our horizons of expectation and possibility. We ask the Spirit to renew our sense of the original dream which inspires and motivates us. It is the dream of Jesus, of which Jacob’s dream in the book of Genesis is an anticipation, the dream of in-breaking into human history and affairs of the Kingdom of God. In this dream, which defines the life and mission of Jesus, the Trinitarian life and love of heaven became a reality among and becomes the source and model of all of our relationships and actions, relationships based on justice and truth, on respect and love, on healing, reconciliation and peace.
It is only by events such as today, by courageously and creatively recovering our sense of mission and purpose in the particular context of our own society, that this powerful dream will remain alive in our schools. I wish you well for your deliberations, in which you are not alone or relying on your own power. My prayer is that you will rediscover the dream, and in doing so, like Jacob, become the bearers of new and exciting possibility to the young people in your charge.