28 JANUARY 2010

I am very pleased to formally launch Catholic Schools Week and to inaugurate the Catholic Schools Partnership. The Partnership represents a timely and forward-looking initiative between the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Bishops’ Conference in their mutual service of Catholic Education.  It is a logical next step towards the unified voice and vision for Catholic Education set out in the Irish Bishops’ Pastoral Letter Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland.

I am reminded of that ‘vision’ when I recall how Archbishop Crolly came to live in Armagh in 1840.  The first thing he built was a school, and only after that a cathedral and finally a residence.  I think he had his priorities right. He was living that ‘Vision’ of the Catholic School which we acknowledge and celebrate today. I believe that Catholic schools provide the fullest and best opportunity for all of us – and especially Catholic parents, to realize the four fold purpose of Christian formation, namely, to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel Message is proclaimed, a community in which Christ is experienced, where service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and where thanksgiving and worship of God is cultivated.

I have to say that I have a particular concern that this last aspect of Catholic education can all too easily be set aside in favour of other priorities in the school. Yet it is in the experience of thanksgiving and worship of God that we learn most about ourselves, about God and about the meaning and purpose of our life. For it is here we meet Christ – the light of the world to all generations. It is here that we celebrate who we are in Christ and through him, become what we are – Christ’s Body, a living and lively community working together in service of the Gospel.

I would appeal to all those involved in promoting Catholic education to encourage and support Catholic schools in making the participation of Catholic children in thanksgiving and the worship of God a key priority. My hope is that the same attention will always be given to excellence in worship as is given to excellence in academic or sporting performances.  There are wonderful and very laudable efforts made indeed to teach music, elocution and drama and I wish that pupils would be encouraged to place their musical talents and their speaking talents and their acting talents at the service of their local community and in their parishes at weekly worship.

The Catholic school prides itself on its links with the family and with the local community. This link was a key theme when Catholic Schools Week was founded in Northern Ireland many years ago. It was a Parish led celebration in collaboration with local Catholic Schools. The link between Catholic Schools Week and the Parish Sunday liturgy remains a vital part of the Catholic Schools Week initiative. I congratulate those who were involved in preparing the materials which support this link with the Sunday liturgy in this year’s resource book for schools. This link ensures that Catholic schools remain close to the source of their life and mission in Christ himself and in the wider Christian community.  We must work to strengthen and enhance these links at every possible opportunity.  It is vital that our schools also forge links with local organisations which are in the business of helping the less well off, the stranger and the needy.

Former US Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, once described Catholic schools, ‘as national treasures that must be preserved’. Solidarity with the poor always appeals to young Irish people.  I have visited many schools where there are magnificent initiatives towards Africa and Eastern Europe.  I know that many teachers and pupils have gone there.  People have fasted and again this is something that is very attractive and very praiseworthy.  The John Paul II Awards system, which was introduced in the diocese of Derry, and is now in the diocese of Dromore and Armagh, rewards young people who carry out, into their parishes and local communities, the practice of what they learn from the Catholic ethos of their school.  This programme has caught the imagination of hundreds of pupils in these schools and in these dioceses.  I think it is a very imaginative and praiseworthy way of involving people, bridging school and parish, to the mutual advantage of both.  The Catholic school prides itself on its links with the family and with the local community. 

The vitality of the Church is closely linked to the health of its Catholic schools.  Those schools provide a most effective way to evangelise and form holy and wholesome men and women who make God known, loved and served.  Catholic schools will continue to play a vital role in civic life if they continue to exemplify, in an outstanding way, how to be better citizens. Citizens, who are prepared to engage fully in the democratic process and willing to commit themselves to work for the common good. 

The values of a particular system of education are fundamental to it and to its effectiveness. Time and time again research confirms that ‘Ethos adds value’ to a school. Catholic ethos adds value to the educational experience of a child, not just in terms of academic performance but in terms of the complete development of the person.

In Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland, the Bishops acknowledge that – ‘Education and, in particular, the role of the Catholic Church in education at all levels, has recently become a topic of intense discussion and debate in our country.’ One only has to read the newspapers of recent days to realise just how true this is.

Catholic Schools Week coincides this year with a very public escalation in the debate about the future of the Catholic Church in the provision and management of education in this country. What has been notable is the constructive and respectful atmosphere within which the debate has been framed. A new maturity has entered the debate. In all but a few instances, the easy caricatures of the past have faded. The presumption that the Catholic Church wants to control as many schools as it can, irrespective of parental demands, is increasingly seen to be unfounded.

Equally, the idea that the only way to accommodate religious and cultural diversity in society is to remove the Church completely from state funded schools, is increasingly seen as unjust, unhelpful and contrary to the principle of pluralism. This proposition ignores the rights of parents and children to a faith based education, a right acknowledged in international instruments of human rights.

This more realistic and respectful atmosphere clears the ground for what could be the most creative and constructive dialogue about the future of education in this country since partition. It is a dialogue in which the Catholic Church is willing to be an enthusiastic and constructive partner.  If it is a dialogue based on mutual respect and a genuine concern for the rights of parents and children, then there is scope for a wide range of creative and exciting possibilities. If, on the other hand, the dialogue is simply a Trojan horse for removing faith from schools – whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim– then we are destined to remain locked in unnecessary tensions about the future of education, to the detriment of children and society.
In my opinion the possibilities for agreement about future models of provision and management would be greatly enhanced if such dialogue was framed around a number of guiding principles.

Some of these principles would include:

1.    Acceptance that all those engaged in education provision – that is parents, teachers, Church, State and all the sectors – at the moment have a shared commitment to the well-being and complete development of every child in their care, irrespective of their religious, ethnic or cultural background. This commitment is fully respected within existing Catholic School provision. To suggest or imply that Catholic schools are unable to be overtly Catholic and at the same time accommodate a degree of religious, cultural or ethnic diversity is unfair and not borne out by experience. Similarly, as a faith community we have to accept that there may be circumstances whereby the formation of children in the Catholic faith may have to be accommodated other than in a Catholic school. More recent Catholic Social doctrine speaks of the importance of a shared humanism as the basis for authentic human progress towards a more united and peaceful society. While promoting and defending the rights of faith based education, we, as a Church, should not create the impression that no room exists for mutual collaboration and sharing with other religious and secular approaches to education on the basis of our shared humanism. Recognition of our shared interest in the dignity and development of every person itself opens up new vistas of imagination and possibility, if there is sufficient trust and mutual respect in the dialogue. As Catholics we believe that humanism is completed and perfected in Jesus Christ. It is he who shows us how to be perfectly human. It is he who lights our way to a better world and our eternal future. It will be in our fidelity to this belief that others will rediscover the freshness of Christian life and the true spirit of a Catholic vision of education.

2.    Critical to this dialogue is the clear recognition that parents have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions. Consequently the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. It is important to point out that Catholic parents are tax payers. It would be helpful if the idea that the Church has no right to be involved in schools which are paid for out of public funds was acknowledged as a complete red-herring and blatantly unjust! Those parents who choose and value the Catholic education provided for their children are tax-payers in exactly the same way as parents who send their children to other types of schools. To disadvantage any group of parents because of their faith is completely contrary to the principle of equality and pluralism. There is no such thing as a value-free school. If parents want the Government of the day to define and manage the ethos of their schools it is important to ask what philosophy of life, of the human person, of the child would the Government of the day promote? What system of values would it seek to promote? That of the particular party in power? Would it change from Government to Government? History shows that Churches and other organisations have proven themselves able to work effectively with the State in the provision of a wide range of services to society. Catholic schools are uniquely placed to draw on the expertise, experience and voluntary involvement of  thousands of lay faithful in support of their schools and their effective management. They are able to draw from and contribute to the local Parish in building up a sense of community belonging and engagement in a way which no Government agency could provide. These are real benefits which Catholic schools bring to the education and formation of their pupils.

3.    In the provision of new schools fair criteria should be employed. Just as it is right to question the over-provision of Catholic schools relative to perceived demand, it is also right to ask why of all the newly built schools in areas of population growth in Ireland in recent years, very few are Catholic? Is it true that in every one of these cases only a minority of the population was Catholic or wanted a Catholic school? There is no substitute for parental choice. There has to be an effective way of establishing parental choice when a new school is being built as a result of population growth. Is it possible to create a more transparent, creative and flexible system which is more sensitive to parental choice and more able to verify it than that which is being used at the moment? The Catholic Church is open to diversity of provision but parents who want Catholic schools have to be treated as fairly and on the same basis as others. They cannot be automatically excluded from consideration when a new school is being built.

One of the curious things about the recent Ipsos/MRBI poll in the Irish Times was that in suggesting that a majority of the public wants the Catholic Church to give up its role in the management of primary schools there was no clear indication as to their preferred alternative. If the editorial comment on the poll is right then a key factor in the result was the completely justified anger with Bishops and Religious Orders over the findings of the Ryan and Murphy reports. But what then of the implications of the less publicised but very significant criticisms of state-run organisations in the same reports?

There is a real challenge here for the new Catholic Schools Partnership. It is possible than many people are assessing their support for Catholic Church involvement in education, not on the basis of their own commitment to Catholic faith, but out of an outdated and stereotypical view of a Catholic school. It was interesting that in the Ipsos/MRBI poll, younger people tended to have a more positive attitude to the involvement of Church than those in middle-age.
One possible reason for this may be that most young people attending Catholic schools today have a very positive experience of the Catholic ethos and atmosphere of their school. The emphasis on the love of God for every person, the importance of concern and respect for others, the experience of reflective prayer and participation in the liturgy mean the atmosphere of Catholic schools are a far cry from what they were even twenty or thirty years ago. The cold and disturbing images of Catholic education evoked by the Ryan Report could not be in more stark contrast to the supportive and positive atmosphere of Catholic schools today.

The Catholic Schools Partnership is also uniquely well placed to address another dimension of the current debate. It arises from its stated objective of ‘fostering a deeper awareness that Catholic education is an integral part of the mission of the Church’. When people, including a lot of people who are clearly practising Catholics, speak of wanting the Church out of primary schools or education generally, what perception of Church involvement in schools do they have? Catholic schools are the supreme example of lay leadership in the Church. It would be unjust to dismiss the superb work of so many catholic teachers, principals, volunteers and Boards of Management of Catholic schools because of the terrible failings of some priests, religious and bishops.

A more detailed and scientific analysis of exactly what is being said here would be helpful. There is value in the findings of recent reports. They are a stark reminder to Bishops and Congregational leaders of the depth of anger and disillusionment caused by the mismanagement of some Church leaders, in addition to the profound impact on those abused. Stronger systems of inspection and accountability by the State for Patrons, Boards of Management and Principals in the application of best practice in safeguarding children would be welcome. It would be a more just and appropriate response to the lack of confidence in Patrons than dismissing the rights of parents to a faith based education and impugning the superb work of whole school communities. 
We are confident that the Catholic Schools Partnership and the Trustee Support Service in the North, by becoming themselves, examples par excellence of lay leadership in the Church, will play a key role in restoring the confidence of parents and wider society in the commitment of Catholic schools to the highest standards of safeguarding and welfare for every child in their care.

If parental choice is to be the key factor determining demand and provision of education, then Catholic schools today are well placed to win the support and confidence of parents who want a values-based education for their children. This will be one in which academic excellence is wedded to worship of God, respect for others, service of the needy, building community and the pursuit of a more just, united and responsible world. The effort of teachers, principals, boards of management, priests and religious in recent years to ensure that Catholic schools are open, happy, stimulating, and mutually respectful community environments means we have nothing to fear from a future based on verifiable parental choice.

This is what makes the creation of the Catholic Schools Partnership, the Trustee Support Service in the North and the all-island Catholic Education Service such a timely, providential and Spirit-led development. I want to take this opportunity to commend all those who worked so hard to bring these new relationships.

The selfless and far seeing Irish men and women who founded the Irish teaching orders, like their European counterparts, were people with the eyes of faith. Illuminated and energised by the light of Christ, they could see possibilities that others had not even dared to imagine. They were fearless and confident in their ability to engage with the circumstances and culture of their time. 

The Spirit of the Risen Christ continues to empower God’s people today with the same charisms and dynamism that helped the generations before us respond to the needs of their time. That is why the theme for this year’s Catholic schools week is so appropriate. In establishing the Catholic Schools Partnership we are honouring those who gave their lives, energy and financial resources to Catholic Education in the past. We stand on their shoulders as we now look to future generations. We have received from them the light of Christ. We have received the life and the hope which that light brings and we want to pass that light to generations to come.

For our own part as parents, teachers, managers and trustees we must constantly ensure that we too are led by the light of Jesus Christ and the wonderful news of his Gospel.

We can take encouragement from the fact that repeated international surveys confirm the positive impact of the ethos of a Catholic school on the social concern and tolerance of diversity of pupils who attend them. We must also acknowledge with humility any gap between our ideals and our practice and seek to address those gaps in a supportive and positive way.

We should also remember that the Lord can do much more than we could ever ask for or imagine. He is our first teacher. People called him ‘Rabbi’. They were inspired by his teaching because he taught with authority. Not the authority of fear or superiority, but of integrity.  He witnessed to the truth of what he taught. He was educated in the home. As a young boy he engaged in dialogue with the teachers of the Temple – impressing them with his knowledge and his search for meaning.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas believed we should help children to learn by accompanying them on their search for meaning.  The challenge for the teacher is to be light which guides others to the source of all meaning – Jesus Christ.  He engaged them in respectful dialogue. He opened the Scripture for them.  People’s hearts ‘burned within them’ when they understood the meaning of his wonderful message – a message of good news.

Catholic education – in the home, the school, the parish – seeks to continue this mission of Jesus of bringing light and life to the world. In each generation, we as his followers, seek to fulfil his mandate to go out and teach all nations.

We should not apologise for who we are. In an increasingly diverse culture the future lies in ensuring that our schools become more authentically Catholic, both in terms of the authentic Catholic doctrine they teach and the Christian environment which they create. St. Augustine once said, Christian – “Behold what you are. Become what you see. The Body of Christ. Beloved of God.” (Augustine, Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist)

Today we ask God to bless all those who will work to implement the Partnership’s Strategic Plan over the next four years.   We pray that in your work you will help schools to ‘Behold what they are and become what they see’ – the light of Christ leading and guiding a new generation to life, peace and healing for a broken world.

Thank you.