7 MAY 2010
When I spoke to Bishop Freeman earlier this week, I asked if there was any volcanic ash cloud hovering over Kilkenny.  His reply was clear and emphatic.  “No, definitely not” He said, “The only ash that concerns Kilkenny people is the ash in the camans with which they hope to win more titles this year.

I am honoured to have been asked to speak here tonight.  I congratulate all concerned with the organisation of this timely initiative.  It is good that, from time to time, we reflect even on the most sacred, important and most familiar institutions of our life.  

I am glad to be here in Kilkenny and in the diocese of Ossory.  I attended St. Patrick’s College, Cavan for my secondary education.  I was taught there by a Maths teacher who was a Kilkenny man and therefore I presume a past pupil of some of the academies of Ossory.  He was famous for his colourful language and his witticisms and, as he was teaching in an era before affirmation became an important value, they may seem, by today’s standards, as a little bit harsh.

To a classmate who was not exactly too fast on the mathematical calculations, he offered this career guidance– ‘go out and join a bank; preferably a turf bank’.  To those tempted to back horses he advised:  “The only sure way of making money following horses is with a shovel and a bucket”.  

One summer when he returned and saw his class programme, which was not to his liking, he said, “It is true what the Greeks said:  Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad”.

In 1957 I again met some of the people educated in the Catholic schools of Ossory such as Seamus McEvoy when I went to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.  In  1960 I transferred to the Irish College in Rome and there I met people such as Tom Norris and Jim Cassin, who is here this evening.  In 1967 I joined the staff of St. Patrick’s College, Cavan and I was put teaching French.  Since my French was not exactly fluent – I remember coming here to St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny to do a refresher course in French sometime in the 1970s.  I am glad to have Mr John Curtis on the panel this evening.  I have very pleasant memories of our encounters in previous chapters of our existence.

I welcome the presence of Michelle Cullinane from Loreto, Kilkenny.  I have had many links with the Loreto Sisters down through the years.  My only sister was educated and teaches in a Loreto school.  My niece studied in a Loreto school. It just shows that when you go reflecting on the Catholic school you discover how things are fite fuaite tre na ceile.


I am particularly delighted to open this Conference on Catholic Schools in the week in which the Church celebrates the memory of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice.  I am honoured to do so here in Kilkenny, his native county, and in Ossory, his native diocese.  Blessed Edmund, as we all know, was a man of enormous energy and vision. He had the ability to see and respond to the most pressing needs of his day. A successful businessman, he understood the importance of profit and entrepreneurial skill. A man of deep faith, he realised that profit and skill are not ends in themselves. He understood that the fiscal economy only has value when it is at the service of the human economy. He realised that personal skill finds its greatest fulfilment in collaboration with others, for the good of all. And so, as you know, he invested his hard -earned wealth in setting others free – free from deprivation, free to become all that God called them to be. He did this by giving young people one of the most valuable and humanising gifts of all – an education rooted in the message of Jesus Christ.

As we open this Conference on Catholic schools today I think it is worth recalling the vision and commitment of this extraordinary Kilkenny man. It is worth remembering that tremendous time in Irish history when God raised up a host of outstanding Irish women and men who gave their lives and their wealth to founding Catholic schools in this country. I am thinking of course of outstanding women like Catherine McAuley, Nano Nagle and Mary Aikenhead as well as Edmund Rice.

Even though later on some darnel grew among the wheat and the legacy of the many may have, in some cases, been tarnished by the sinful and criminal activities of the few, nevertheless, the overwhelming contribution of Catholic education in this country has been enormously positive. Your presence here today, your schools, the happy, confident pupils in your classrooms are ample evidence of that.


We have every reason to celebrate our Catholic schools. We have every reason to be confident in the future of Catholic education and its importance for our society. We have every reason to believe that God is faithful.  God still offers his charism of teaching and inspiring others to hosts of very talented Irish lay women and men who teach in our schools today. The cultural setting has changed and has changed enormously.  The blackboards may have been replaced by whiteboards and some books by computers and ‘i-pads’, but the fundamental mission remains the same. We are artisans of a new reality, architects of new possibilities for our pupils and for our world. We are builders of the Kingdom of God, of a world rooted in justice and love. We are bearers of hope – of eternal hope – a hope which saves.  For only hope can save us from the emptiness, the superficiality and the temptation to despair which seems to be increasingly gripping our society, including young people, more aggressively in recent years. We are heralds of the Word of life, people who proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ has come so that we may have life and have it to the full.


In all of this every Catholic educator is a steward of Christ’s mission to the world. We, together, lay faithful, priests, bishops and religious are stewards of a great treasure given to us by Jesus Christ on trust. In spite of the fragility of the earthenware vessels which hold this treasure – and we all experience that fragility at times – we are called to share that treasure with the whole of creation, with the rest of the world.


In recent times the setting up of various Trusts is a feature of the educational scene.  But for teachers of the faith, I think the notion of stewardship is particularly important. A steward is someone who has been given responsibility to protect and nurture something on behalf of someone else. When we speak of stewardship of Catholic education we are talking about a mission we have received.  We have received a sacred trust from Jesus Christ.  The Risen Christ called his followers to ‘go out and teach all nations’. We are also talking about a sacred trust which has been given to us by the community of Christ’s believers, the Church, to continue Christ’s mission of justice, mercy and love in the world.

We are also talking about stewardship of a sacred trust given to us by parents.  I refer to those who wish to have their children educated in a school community defined and inspired by Catholic faith and values on a daily basis. Parents, whatever their denominational background, have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions.
This right is recognised in international instruments of human rights, including the European Convention on Human Rights. Catholic schools have a duty to respond to that right conscientiously. Trustees, Boards of Management, Principals, teachers and supporting staff, we all have a duty to ensure the Catholic ethos and identity is a key feature of the life and mission of our schools. This is an identity which is specifically characterised by respect, love and justice for all. It is an ethos based on the vision of a peaceful world and a selfless concern for others modelled on Jesus in the Gospels.  

We are also talking about a whole estate of schools.  The right to establish them was only won after a hard struggle.  The finances were raised from a poor but generous faithful.  The Trustees have been given control of the administration of those schools in trust, with a legal obligation to deploy them for the purposes specified.  


It flows from this that Catholic schools have a right to have teachers, staff and management boards who will respect and support the Catholic character and mission of their school. This does not mean that every member of staff has to be a perfect Catholic or indeed to be a Catholic at all.  What it does mean is that the school requires an environment that supports and encourages its ideal and its values.

The values of a particular system of education are fundamental to that system 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.  Perhaps that is why Sam Miller, a prominent Jew in the Cleveland area of the USA, could say in March 2008 “Needless to say that Catholic Education at this time stands head and shoulders above every other form of education that we have in this country and costs approximately 30% less”.  That is why, in my opinion too, that Catholic schools are in demand world-wide and are often over-subscribed.


We should never have to apologise for our Catholic convictions. We should never have to apologise for insisting that our rights as a community of faith are respected and treated on the same basis as others. This is what we should expect from a society which claims to respect pluralism, diversity and the rights of all.


One right I believe we should particularly cherish as people of faith is the right of a child to know and to love God. Children also have a right – to know God’s love for them. They have a right to receive the truth and life which God offers them in the Sacred Scriptures, in the sacraments and in prayer. If we really believe that Jesus Christ reveals the whole truth about the human person, then children have a right to receive that truth. If we really believe that the message of Jesus Christ is the key to a better world and the source of our eternal hope, then children have a right to be part of a school community in which Jesus and his message are lived, respected and promoted. Children also have a right to worship God as part of their daily activity. They have a right to be trained and formed in the worship and prayer of the faith community to which they belong.


Every education, worth its salt, must, at least, ask the fundamental questions about the meaning of life.  Jesus came that all may have life, and have it to the full.  Surely this includes shining a torch on what life is all about.  What is its purpose?  Why are we here?  Is it simply to seek pleasure at all costs or to find our happiness in giving glory to God? – our first beginning and our last end.  In fact, that discovery could transform not alone the individual human life of the pupil; it could, in fact, through them, transform the wider society which they hope to build.


Renewing our stewardship of Catholic schools has to involve renewing our commitment to respecting and promoting the right of children in our schools to be led and formed in authentic worship of God in the Catholic tradition. This is not some optional extra. Children and their parents have a right to expect a Catholic school to provide children with a formation in prayer and worship. That is why I make a special appeal to you as leaders of your school community – pupils, teachers, parents, principals, members of Board of Management who lead – I ask you to reflect seriously and with commitment on this essential part of our shared duty of stewardship. A Catholic school without worship and prayer is a contradiction in terms. It is also a school which is failing in its fundamental obligation to parents and children.

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 also wonderful and very laudable efforts made 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.  There is no higher service to be given.


“Let this mind be in you” St. Paul tells us “that was in Christ Jesus”.  It would seem to me important for anyone involved in Catholic education to ask what is the mindset of Christ regarding children?  Why so?  So that parents and teachers and priests and religious and all involved in the Catholic school may strive themselves to understand and embody that mindset.  Nobody can give to another, what they have not got themselves. It would seem that the mind of Christ in regard to children is that they be initiated and formed into the same mindset of loving compassion that he himself displayed towards all that he met.  

Why did Jesus say of children – “of such are the Kingdom of Heaven”.  It was, in my opinion, because children are his brothers and sisters. They are people who can reveal the face and the heart of Christ.  

Traditionally we speak of the family, the State and the Parish as the main players in the education of children – both in and beyond the school.  But nowadays what about the peer group, the media and the market?  In addition to the home and the school, the school yard and the shopping Mall must be recognised as dynamic arenas of education.  Today in Ireland many children are vulnerable – very vulnerable in a number of ways.  They can sometimes become a quasi pawn in quite a different game than Jesus ever had in mind.  

They can be very vulnerable to the pressures of the market and indeed to the pressures of the peer group, with its role-models, power persons and in language.  Then there are elements in our society anxious to exploit the vulnerability of children and to exploit for their own interests, usually profit, the preoccupation of children with such things as style and fashion.

I imagine that the Catholic school is well aware of that vulnerability.  At every Confirmation ceremony I see the great goodness, earnestness and innocence of those being confirmed.  I would urge all concerned in education – parents, teachers and parish – to do all in your power to protect that goodness and innocence.  In a sense I see the role of the sponsor at Confirmation as pledging the help of the community to protect that innocence and earnestness and goodness.

I return to the example of Edmund Rice.  At the age of 40 he saw that the poor and marginalised children of Waterford City were vulnerable to the danger of losing their faith and being subjected to a life of poverty and degradation.  As a parent himself, with a daughter with special needs – his heart was moved to compassion. So he first of all devoted himself to a life of prayer for the preservation of their faith. Then he established a makeshift school in a converted stable in New Street in Waterford City.  But soon he saw that this was not enough.  The children proved so difficult to manage that the teachers resigned.  But Edmund was not defeated or daunted or disheartened.  He sold his thriving business and devoted himself to training teachers who would dedicate their lives to prayers and to teaching the children, free of charge.  Educational expertise plus the life of prayer and generous sacrifice gave better results.

As I reflect on my own education and experiences of school – I now appreciate the immense part played by the sacrifices made by my parents and siblings and the expertise of teachers to help me on the road of life.


The link with society, with the local parish, the local community and the wider world has been a constant hallmark of Catholic schools. 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.

Solidarity with the poor always appeals to young Irish people.  I have visited many schools where there are magnificent initiatives towards Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.  I know that many teachers and pupils have gone there.  People have fasted to raise funds. They have come up with creative and ingenious ways of raising money and involving people in support and giving that only teachers and young people can.  It is important that we recognise and celebrate this essential dimension of the Catholic school. The John Paul II Awards system, for example, 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.
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 by being better Christians. That is, Christians who are prepared to engage fully in building a more cohesive, responsible and caring society and who are willing to commit themselves to work for the common good.  


Developing a mutually supportive relationship between parents, the home and the school is also a critical dimension of the Catholic School. Parents are the first educators of their children and the Church recognises that the primary right and responsibility for the education of children rests with them. There is a real danger however, that parents will somehow feel excluded or left merely on the periphery of their child’s education, especially as schools become so comprehensive in the range of curricular and extra curricular opportunities they provide for children.

There is equally a danger that parents might abdicate important areas of responsibility for their child’s education and formation to the school which properly belong to them, including their critical role in spiritual and moral formation. It is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘leaving these things to the experts’ in the school when in fact Catholic education in particular respects and is built upon a partnership between the home, the school and the community of faith. It is important that both parents and the school develop effective ways of supporting each other in this shared and vital task.


Some people ask me why I am so anxious to ensure that we keep our Catholic schools. Would it not be easier to have a Church – a community of faith – without them? Well, let me make it clear that I do not believe we should have Catholic schools simply for the sake of having them.  As I have said before, and as other Bishops have been at pains to point out, the belief that Catholic Church wants to manage as many schools as it can, irrespective of parental demands, is unfounded.

The Church is willing to be a constructive and enthusiastic partner in the debate about future educational provision. The Church recognises that changes in the religious demography of our society make it necessary to look at relinquishing ownership of some Catholic schools.  Therefore it will be necessary to look at new models of shared provision in some cases and in other cases to consider how existing Catholic schools can accommodate diversity more effectively.

What is needed is a constructive dialogue based on a realistic assessment of needs and resources. The historic development of ownership of schools and the right of parents to have their choices for the education of their child respected as much as possible must also be considered. 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 new and creative possibilities. If it is a dialogue which respects the right of Catholic parents to have Catholic schools on the same basis as other groups of parents then I am confident the Catholic Trustees will continue to be a constructive and flexible participant in the dialogue.

Often this is also true in regard to the wider issues affecting our society as it is about education.

It would be enormously helpful if we could all move beyond the superficial caricatures and prejudices which have contributed to something of a false stand-off between faith, politics and culture in Ireland in recent years. There is too much at stake. At this critical moment in our nation’s history, we would benefit from a new, more mature and mutually respectful collaboration between all who can help build a more cohesive, just and sustainable recovery both of our fiscal and of our social economy. Catholic schools have a vital part to play in this recovery. They are a critical part of a society in search of a new realism and balance between the excesses of the Celtic tiger on the one hand and a historic memory of poverty on the other.


In many other parts of the western world, the dialogue between faith, culture and politics has recently taken on a new and more constructive dynamic. The lines of legitimate autonomy and distinction between them are becoming clearer while the possibility of mutual engagement in support of a sustainable economic framework and greater human solidarity is more widely accepted.

I fear that Ireland will lag behind in this important move towards a more constructive engagement with Churches and faith communities. There is reluctance on the part of many in Ireland to talk about faith, to work or meet openly with Churches or to support the legitimate social, legal and ethical concerns of communities of faith. It is as if the fear of criticism from those who would wish to see all religion relegated to the private sphere overrides the legitimate democratic interests of people of faith. There is no significant and ongoing dialogue between the Churches and the main political parties about issues of common concern or interest. This probably reflects as much a lack of urgency and organisation on the part of Churches and faith communities as its does a lack of willingness of political parties to engage. Either way, it is a great pity. We could benefit so much from communicating with each other face to face in a structured dialogue.  I cannot help but note the more active and constructive approach of the main political parties in Northern Ireland to dialogue and partnership with Churches and faith groups.

The Catholic school is a good example of living and lively intersection of faith, culture and the social and moral issues of the day. Catholic schools are not – as some in certain quarters would like to portray – places of staid conformity and arid religiosity. They are vibrant communities of ideas and ideals permeated by the hope and possibility of the Gospel message for the world.

A man of worldly success and competence, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice was an outstanding Catholic lay man – an example to any Christian businessman today. A dedicated teacher, he became the inspiration for generations of lay teachers, religious brothers and young people in Ireland and abroad.

In wishing you well with your Conference on Catholic schools this evening, I commend his energy and his enthusiasm to you as a guide and inspiration. I also commend to you one of his contemporaries from another land, Don John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian Order. Among his many gifts, Don Bosco was said to have the gift of dreams.  Dreams in the Sacred Scriptures can be one of God’s ways of helping us to see the new and unimagined possibilities of the future. The aim of Catholic education is to help every child to catch a glimpse of the dream which God has for them and for their part in the world. It is to help them see a horizon of possibility which sets them free from all that brings death to the mind, to the heart, to the body and to the soul. To be really part of a Catholic school is to be committed to nurturing that dream. It means being committed to becoming all that God has called us to be. And with that in mind, I leave you with the words of St. Paul to the Philippians, words that I have often thought of as the perfect charter for both teacher and pupil in a Catholic School:

‘Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought worthy of virtuous or worthy of praise. Keep doing all of these things that you have learnt and been taught…. Then the God of peace will be with you.’ (Philippians 4:8-9).

Thank you and enjoy the rest of your evening.