Good morning everyone. Thank you all for accepting the invitation to join in this important work of reflecting on and renewing our sense of vision for Catholic education. Thank you for your generosity with your time. I deeply appreciate your willingness to bring your very considerable experience and expertise as Catholic educators to this forum today – people like yourselves who have made Catholic education your life’s work are supremely qualified for the role of facilitating your colleagues in re-stating our vision and renewing our enthusiasm. I know that the excellent resources which will be shared out today will be truly effective in helping us all to engage with this timely and valuable initiative.

Every one of us here has our own unique story, our own unique experience of Catholic education. As time passes, we come to reflect on and appreciate that experience more and more. Let me share with you a little of my own story, my own experience as pupil and as teacher.

I understand that Yesterday Sir Menzie Campbell, at the Lib-Dem Conference used the word ‘opportunity’ frequently. As I reflect on my experience of education I am very grateful for the opportunity that it has given me and that gratitude makes me very happy. I am very thankful for the fact that even though I attended a small one teacher rural school the teacher found time to teach us to pray – building on what we had learned at home. I am glad that she prepared us well for our First Confession and First Communion, teaching us the wisdom of recognising that we are not perfect and there is a deep joy in confessing and in asking forgiveness. I am also very grateful for the amount of preparation we did for two of the happiest days of my life – My First Communion and my Confirmation.

Of course, I now realise the importance of belonging to a community that worshipped God, first and foremost and had, as its First Commandment – You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.

I went to boarding school in St. Patrick’s College, Cavan for five years. I now know that our education was subsidised by a hefty contribution from the salaries of the priest teachers. There I learned to stand on my own two feet but also the advantages and delight of sometimes being part of a team. I also discovered the importance of giving a lot of time and thought to trying to discover what God ws calling me to do with my life.

The next ten years were spent in Seminary – first in Maynooth and later in the Irish College in Rome. They were notable for the purposes of this meeting for the fact that they brought me into close contact with those who had been educated here in Northern Ireland. In fact there were only five of us in the Classics class in Maynooth – three of them were from St. Patrick’s College, now St. Patrick’s Grammar School, Armagh – now my next door neighbours. During those years I did have the opportunity of seeing, at first hand, the excellent results and products of your educational system.

In 1967 I got the opportunity of putting something back into the educational system from which I had received a lot. I was appointed to teach in St. Patrick’s College, Cavan where I spent thirteen years and then I spent a further thirteen years on the staff of the Irish College in Rome and they were happy, fulfilling years.

Now for the last eleven years – not quite thirteen just yet – I have had the privilege of seeing, at first hand, the work of education here in the North at both primary and post-primary level and to appreciate its excellence. Only last night I was at Prize-Giving in St. Patrick’s High School, Keady and it was a very satisfying experience.

As I reflect on all of this I see in it God revealing to His people His love for them and teaching them that that love is to be found in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. As Pope Benedict told an Education Conference in June, that is the big challenge of all of Christian education.

When we come to reflect on Catholic education and on the Catholic school we realise that we have so much to be thankful for, and so much to celebrate in the long tradition of Catholic education in this country and around the world. We give thanks for the great religious orders who dedicated themselves to education, who identified the needs of local communities and responded with energy, enthusiasm and generosity. Down through history, Catholics have made admirable sacrifices to provide for the education of the young. We call to mind the commitment of teachers, lay and clerical. We pay tribute to persistence in good times and in tough times. And, above all, we give thanks for the ongoing and living dedication that is our inheritance in our Catholic schools today.

I would like to reflect with you on the immense contribution that Catholic schools have made over the centuries, serving the faithful and serving society. Looking back at a time when education was not readily accessible to all, great sacrifices were made to provide for the education and formation of the young by founding and building Catholic schools. These schools were inspired by a Catholic ethos and based on a Catholic vision of life. Our schools are grounded in a positive view of the person, made in the image of God, who is present with us bringing joy and hope to our lives. Prayer and the sacraments nurture and nourish, sustain and strengthen and help each individual grow to full potential and personal fulfilment – not in isolation but in love and service. Our schools promote a respect and reverence for the “bits and pieces of everyday life”, as Patrick Kavanagh put it.

The reach of the Catholic school goes far beyond the school gates as it seeks to form a just and caring community and society. Our schools are firmly planted in a Catholic Christian tradition and from this sound foundation they promote the formation of young people who are able to take their place in all kinds of roles in Irish society and in the world of the 21st century.

Catholic schools are crucial to society. They respect the rights and responsibilities of parents; they strengthen religious belief and identity in a young person’s life; and they hold an admirable track record in contributing to the common good of society in general. It is worth elaborating on these three important themes, because, from a Catholic Church perspective, they are timeless.

The basic rights and responsibilities of parents.

Parents, of course, have the primary responsibility for the care, upbringing and education of their children. It is the task of the State to help them fulfil this vital responsibility. Because of their primary and irreplaceable role, parents have the right to choose the kind of education they want for their children. They are entitled to choose a school that corresponds to their own convictions, subject to standards of viability. Public authorities must guarantee this parental right. There are parents who wish to send their children to Catholic schools and accordingly the duty of the State to provide such schools is paramount. The guidance and direction of the Second Vatican Council is clear:

“The State should keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that no kind of school monopoly rises. For such a monopoly would militate against the native rights of the human person, the development and spread of culture itself, the peaceful association of citizens and the pluralism which exists today in very many societies”.

Pope Benedict XVI put it very clearly when he addressed the President of Italy in June 2005, he said, “I cannot but express the hope that the right of parents to choose education freely will be respected”.
It is the faith traditions themselves which have the competence and the right to determine what is taught about their particular religion in schools. This is not a function of the State.

If there is one popular myth about education which needs to be challenged it is the assumption that to remove religion and religious ethos from schools is to make our schools somehow “neutral” – and therefore acceptable to all. This is simply not true. There is no such thing as a neutral view of education and the values inherent in it. Similarly it is not valid to argue that the only appropriate way for a pluralist society to deal with religion in schools is to present all world religions equally, without any in-depth formation in one particular tradition.

Parents will tell you that their children sometimes have a great knowledge of world religions but they express concern that their children are almost unaware of belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Now these parents have a right, recognised in international instruments of human rights, to have their children educated in accordance with their own philosophical and religious convictions. Catholic parents here should not be reluctant, or shy, about claiming this right. Such a claim is fully consistent with respect for diversity and with participation in a healthy, pluralist society. Genuine pluralism respects religion: it does not seek to marginalize or stifle it.

Those for whom religious belief is inspirational in their lives are entitled to have their approach to education and its values reflected in the provision of schools and curricula. Religion is more than a classroom subject: it is a way of life, and a faith to be handed on.

The Faith school supports the mission of the particular denomination or religion to pass on its values and beliefs to its own members. It enhances the ability to see the value of the particular religious tradition. Living examples of this mission are evident today in Catholic schools throughout Ireland, Britain and indeed all over the world.

The contribution of Catholic education to the common good.

Roman Catholics share with other Christians and members of other world religions the view that education has a spiritual element. A Chief Rabbi of Britain once said: ‘Secularise education and you diminish it’. You diminish its power for children; you diminish the dignity of teachers; you diminish the value of education as an end in itself. We are convinced that faith-based institutions in general, and Catholic schools in particular, contribute to and enrich Irish society. Their students acquire a sense of meaning and values by being assured that love, spirituality, sexuality, social justice and care of the universe ultimately do matter.
It is clear that families and society as a whole benefit from these institutions which pass on moral and spiritual beliefs, together with those attitudes necessary for a continuing sense of community as well as cultural and spiritual identity. The 1988 Vatican document on The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School states:

‘That Catholic schools help form good citizens is a fact which is apparent to everyone. Both government policy and public opinion should, therefore, recognise the work these schools do as a real service to society. It is unjust to accept the service and ignore or fight against its source’.

But students cannot do this alone. They need to be members of a community that encourages them in the task of living out solid, sound faith values. In a society that is growing increasingly secular there is more need than ever for an education community which is inspired, driven and led by the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, who came that we may have life, and have it to the full.

As Catholic educators in Ireland today, we are keenly aware of the unique situation that prevails here as the society is still emerging from decades of conflict, mistrust and lost opportunities. We stand ready to engage with positive strategies and structures to secure the peace, promote reconciliation and develop cohesion across our various communities. We are conscious of the growing numbers of immigrants now settling among us and we have a responsibility to cater for the educational, spiritual and social needs of those for whom the Catholic school is the most obvious school of choice – such as the Polish, the Lithuanians, and the Filipinos in particular, as well as, indeed, citizens of many of the new EU accession states.

The growing fragility of families and the over-extension of parishes put new demands on Catholic schools. In some cases, they have become the primary place where young people experience the Church as a meaningful community. That is, a community shaped by faith, hope and love, rather than by the demands of our consumer culture. This places a solemn responsibility on the school to become, itself, a faith community in communion with the parish and the wider Church.

Let us, together, rise to that challenge, firm in faith and sure in hope. May God, who has begun this good work in His Church, bring it to completion under the guidance of His loving care.