Speaking notes for the keynote address by Archbishop Eamon Martin for The Irish Catholic conference on education

Speaking notes for the keynote address by Archbishop Eamon Martin for The Irish Catholic conference on education

Gresham Hotel, Dublin

“Where is their soul? – Nourishing the evangelising mission of the family”

I have discovered that there is a setting on my mobile phone called “location services” which means that no matter where my mobile phone is, it can be tracked by satellite; my network knows I am here at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

I know a mother who keeps track on her teenage children via their mobiles – I suppose it is just the next step up from the baby monitor, or those reins you sometimes see harnessed to children on the beach to make sure they won’t stray too far!

In chapter seven of his 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis cautions parents against being “obsessive” in wanting to control their childrens’ every experience and movement (AL 261).  Much more important, he says, is “the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy … The real question, then, is not where our children are physically, or whom they are with at any given time, but rather where they are existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams”.  Pope Francis continues: “The questions I would put to parents are these: ‘Do we seek to understand ‘where’ our children really are in their journey?  Where is their soul, do we really know?  And above all, do we want to know?”

“Where is their soul?” The question might seem old-fashioned but it lies at the heart of our discussions at this conference.  As Ireland prepares to host next year’s World Meeting of Families, it is appropriate to begin by reflecting on the role of family in education, and, in particular, on the calling of parents to be the “first teachers” of children in the ways of the faith.  Back in 1982, after the first Synod on the Family, Pope John Paul II described the right and duty of parents to be the first educators, as “essential”, “original”, “irreplaceable” and “inalienable”.  A loving family is therefore the “first school” for well-rounded personal and social development of children and young people (see F.C. 36).  Paul VI puts it in another way: Family life can be “an itinerary of faith”.  Family life can be “a Christian initiation and a school of following Christ” in which “all the members evangelize and are evangelized” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1976).

Two years ago I attended the Synod on the Family in Rome.  I heard delegates from all over the world speak about the importance of Family in the Church and in the world.  Going out to the Synod I was very conscious of the struggles and pressures that families face, and of the need for the Church today to minister pastorally to the Family.  What really impressed me at the Synod were those who spoke not just about mission TO the Family but also about the evangelising mission OF the Family – the Family as an agent of evangelisation.  It is primarily in the family that prayer, faith and values are nurtured, the choices between right and wrong are evaluated, that connections with parish and diocese are made and sustained.  In Amoris Laetitia 290, Pope Francis draws this out further:

“The family is thus an agent of pastoral activity through its explicit proclamation of the Gospel and its legacy of varied forms of witness, namely solidarity with the poor, openness to a diversity of people, the protection of creation, moral and material solidarity with other families, including those most in need, commitment to the promotion of the common good and the transformation of unjust social structures…”

When I came home from the Synod I reflected on the concept of an “intentional” Catholic Family.  An intentional Catholic Family might describe themselves like this:  “Our faith is obvious in our daily routines.  We go to Mass on Sunday and holy days; we pray together; we are conscious of the environment and we do not waste; we say the Rosary; we protect our children as much as we can from the influences of alcohol, drugs, internet addictions; we do our best to give good example; we have religious symbols displayed in our homes; we try to do penance of some kind every Friday; we regularly go to Confession; we fast for Lent and we abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; we visit the sick and elderly; we try to forgive one another after family quarrels; we do not tolerate violence or abuse of any kind in our home; we visit our family graves and we pray for our dead; we contribute to our parish, not just financially, but also by participating in the liturgy and in parish groups; we help the poor and marginalised at home and abroad; we support our Catholic schools; we talk about faith issues at home and we speak up for our faith at school, at work and in the community; we are pro-life and we support causes which promote Respect for Life; we pray for vocations and our children know that we would encourage any of them who felt called to serve God in the priesthood or religious life.

My description of an intentional Catholic Family might seem impossible to most, but I thank God that there are families like that in Ireland, families who try to have the courage to be different and who do so intentionally and deliberately because they are a Catholic family. Last month while celebrating Mass in one of our parishes, I was moved to see a young mother in the front row, cradling her infant daughter during the Post Communion hymn, and, as the choir sang, she rocked the baby to the music, all the time whispering prayer into the child’s ear. 

Such quiet confidence emerges when loving parents ask: Where is their soul?  Parents like this have a strong sense of their role in evangelisation and catechesis. Without becoming obsessed, they are vigilant about what their children are exposed to; they are conscious that they transmit the Gospel and influence the moral development of their children by their own witness and example.

Of course we all know that there are Catholic families who do not experience that enriching friendship with the person of Jesus Christ or have such an intentional relationship with the Church.  Ireland’s most recent Census (2016) figures confirm that we are moving from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith seems to have become one human possibility among others.  In this context we must ask ourselves: “how can parishes and dioceses best support the evangelising mission of the family?”

Parish and diocese supporting the evangelising mission of the family
At the coffee stand in the airport recently the young pregnant woman who served me was reading a book about how to be a good parent.  It was touching to notice her apparent enthusiasm to learn all she could about motherhood – I wondered what opportunities and resources have we to help young Catholic parents like her to understand their role as ‘first educators’ of their children in the ways of faith.

Back in 1979,  the Irish bishops’ pastoral letter Handing on the Faith in the Home sketched out a pastoral strategy, built upon the three interdependent pillars of parish, home and Catholic school to sustain and consolidate the practice of the faith.  Almost forty years later, it is obvious that all three pillars have been rocked by the waves of secularisation which has swept across Ireland.

The landscape for evangelisation and catechesis has shifted dramatically.  Parishes are now called to support families across a broad spectrum of faith commitment: 

– the fervent, intentional family whose daily life is transformed by Christ; 

– the family which is supportive of Church, but has perhaps lost a living sense of the faith and does not practice regularly; 

– families who remain culturally Catholic but do not see themselves as active members of any parish community and who rarely attend Mass or the sacraments; 

– those who are indifferent or who passively no longer consider themselves members of the Church; and, 

– those who feel alienated and have chosen to reject the faith and actively resist all that it stands for.

“Where is their soul?” Our deliberations about Catholic education at today’s conference must not naively presume that home, school and parish are always adequately networking together to respond to the challenges of today’s Ireland.  Nevertheless, the Church is “Mission”.  It is our mandate and our privilege to put in place the infrastructure which will support handing on the faith and which can connect with the very diverse pastoral needs and situations of families today.

The National Directory for Catechesis, Share the Good News, emphasises that this task rests with the entire Christian community of parents and families, religious, deacons, priests, all exercising their particular callings in communion with the bishop.  It also calls for the introduction in every parish, or group of parishes, of lay catechists, suitably formed, who have a particular vocation or charism for catechesis.  The important conversations which Share the Good News encourages and inspires, have already begun in many dioceses and parishes, and the balance of home, parish and school in terms of contributing to evangelisation and catechesis, is being slowly reconfigured to meet the challenges of today.

Around the country new parish initiatives for catechesis and faith development are growing and developing – let me name a few: opportunities for RCIA, for lectio divina or Bible study; workshops on aspects of the social teaching of the Church; prayer groups, adoration apostolates, ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminars; adult Catechism and various theology courses; sacred music workshops and other opportunities to deepen the experience of worship.  It is true, however, that our efforts to introduce new catechetical resources and opportunities have been somewhat sporadic and experimental – the challenge now is to integrate these into a comprehensive and structured catechetical programme in each diocese.

There are moments in life when people are particularly open to deepening their knowledge and understanding of how to live the faith – I am thinking of pre-marriage preparation and supports during the early years of marriage and family life eg pre-baptismal courses; pre-sacramental formation (like Do This In Memory) for parents of First Communion and Confirmation children; Catholic ‘mother and toddler’ groups; Catholic parenting courses for parents of teenagers; youth retreats and associations; opportunities like the ‘Pope St John Paul II Award’ in which young people can grow in their faith journey whilst linking more closely to their parish community; networks like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) at Third Level; even our grandparents now have their own thriving association!

A coherent and systematic programme for catechesis in each diocese would help to structure, resource and maximise opportunities like these for people to grasp the whole truth about God’s plan for us; to deepen or recover their faith; to participate more fully in prayer and the liturgy; to draw out the moral and social consequences of witnessing to the Gospel.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church marks its 25th anniversary this year and it remains the doctrinal reference point for all catechesis.  Earlier this month Pope Francis described the Catechism as “an important instrument” which “presents the faithful with the perennial teaching of the Church so that they can grow in their understanding of the faith.  But it especially seeks to draw our contemporaries – with their new and varied problems – to the Church, as she seeks to present the faith as the meaningful answer to human existence at this moment of history”.

During his visit to Ireland in the summer, Cardinal Schonborn, the General Editor of the Catechism, explained how it is “an essential tool” for evangelising.  He explored how the Catechism is structured around the Creed, the Sacraments, the Decalogue and the Our Father; it holds in equilibrium: the ‘Church believing’, the ‘Church celebrating’, the ‘Church living’ and the ‘Church praying’.

Catholic Schools supporting the Evangelising Mission of the Family
It may be surprising that the keynote speaker at a conference on Catholic education would take so long to get to the point of discussing the role of Catholic schools!  However, by concentrating so far on the roles of parents, family and parish in handing on the faith and catechesis, I have been trying to emphasise that the Catholic school is not separate from, but integral to the mission and outreach of the family and the parish.  As the Congregation for Catholic Education put it, back in 1988, “the school as a whole is inserted into the evangelical function of the Church” (RDECS 69).

The question “Where is their soul?” is therefore a question for family, parish and school to ask TOGETHER, and to respond to, TOGETHER.  Perhaps in recent years we have come to rely too much on the Catholic school to be the ‘driver’ in this process, rather than affirming, embedding and building links between the family, the school and the local Church community.  It is little wonder that many teachers today speak of finding themselves left quite literally in loco parentis as the FIRST teachers of children in the ways of faith.

In choosing to send their children to a Catholic school, parents not only exercise their human and constitutional right to have their children educated in accordance with their religious beliefs, but they are also placing trust that the school community will assist THEM in accompanying THEIR children on their itinerary of faith.

For decades the Catholic schools of Ireland have played an essential role in supporting parents and families in their role as first educators of their children.  Despite a changed context, Catholic schools remain as vital centres for evangelisation and catechesis, closely linked to parishes and local communities.  It is reasonable, then, for boards of management of Catholic schools, in establishing their admissions criteria, to be concerned about ensuring that pupils from the local parish or group of parishes, are able to access their Catholic school.

There is no need to rehearse here our understanding of the distinctiveness of the Catholic school which has been well articulated, amongst others, by the Catholic Schools Partnership.  Just as there are ‘intentional’ Catholic families, so also there are ‘intentional’ Catholic schools.  An ‘intentional’ Catholic school is one which says loudly and clearly: This is who we are.  We are a Catholic school community inspired by Christ.  We know what that means for us; we celebrate our distinctiveness; we deliberately nurture and develop our Catholic ethos in the whole school community.  We can name and demonstrate the experiences, Gospel values, knowledge and understanding, attitudes and behaviours which we want to pervade everything that we do.

The difficulty for such schools, of course, is that young people are bombarded with messages that to be successful they have to be strong, powerful, popular, wealthy, self-reliant, healthy, fit, trendy and attractive; the world persuades them to focus so much on themselves and their personal interest; it holds up excellence and high achievement as the chief goals and dismisses, or even punishes, weakness or failure.  It is sometimes tempting for schools to buy into this prevailing culture, even to the extent of measuring their own success in terms of popularity or in league tables of examination results.

Catholic schools recognise however, that our young people will have to find their way in a world filled with aggression, war and torture, abuse, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, homelessness and austerity; they will have to cope as often with failure and disappointment as with success and achievement.

It is no surprise, then, that Catholic parents, families, and parishes will defend the importance of their school’s ethos, or ‘characteristic spirit’ against those who lack an understanding of it, or would actively seek to undermine it.  There is a reasonable concern that much of current educational policy in Ireland would promote a generic model of primary education and dilute the right of parents to have access to a school which unashamedly and intentionally lives by a faith-based ethos.

Catholic schools make no apology for asking, in turn, “Where is their soul?” and for valuing the spiritual, religious and moral dimensions of the person – they cannot stand back and allow faith and religion to be side-lined or privatised out of the realm of schools and education.

The Second Vatican Council explained it like this: “The Catholic School … tries to relate all of human culture to the good news of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person (GE, 8).

The Catholic school is rightly described then as “a privileged place of intercultural dialogue” and of creative engagement between religion and the secular world.  (Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools, 2013,6).  Of course Catholic schools are not simply ‘schools for Catholics’; the ethos of Catholic schools aims to be inclusive and welcoming; it is respectful of, and engages with, people of all beliefs and ideological backgrounds; it encourages the religious development of all in their own faith.

The founders of our Catholic schools were clearly inspired by inclusion, and in particular, a preferential option for the marginalised and poor.  I salute the role played by our Catholic schools as inclusive and caring communities throughout Ireland, and in many places leading the way in integrating migrants, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and pupils with special needs.

It is important, however, that we continue to evaluate policies in our Catholic schools, like assessment and admissions policies, exclusion policies, special needs, uniform and bullying policies, to ensure that those who could be marginalised are not being neglected or unfairly disadvantaged.  We must always look out for those who are being ostracised or left behind.  Catholic schools must remain alert to inequalities in our educational system where too many of our young people, particularly the socially disadvantaged and those with greatest educational needs, leave without meaningful qualifications or opportunities, many of them in turn ending up marginalised or forgotten by wider society.  These are problems to be shared and tackled by all our schools, not just a few.

In a Catholic school, religion is therefore not an added extra to be fitted in during break time or twilight hours or during registration.  Everything that happens in the school community is rooted in the Gospel values of Respect for Life, Love, Solidarity, Truth and Justice; the Catholic school seeks to harmonise faith and culture.  In an ‘intentional’ Catholic school, Prayer and Worship form a natural part of the day; there will be opportunities during the year for Confession and for the celebration and adoration of the Eucharist.

The principals and boards in intentional Catholic schools will ensure that Religious Education is given a high priority in curriculum planning and resourcing.  In cooperation with diocesan advisers, it is important that there is a strong catechetical component to Religious Education so that all pupils can systematically learn the truths of the Catholic faith, be instructed in all aspects of the moral life and grasp the essentials of Catholic social teaching.  Other subjects can also help pupils engage in dialogue about the interaction of faith and culture, promote a culture of life, love and respect for creation and develop a sense of wonder through the beauty of religious art and music.

We should not neglect the contribution that faith schools make to society – as the Commission for Catholic Education and Formation of the Irish Bishops’ Conference put it recently (May 2017 response to NCCA Consultation, p 20): 

“The isolation of Religious Education from the rest of the curriculum also underestimates the ethical contribution that Religious Education can make by: promoting the dignity of the individual; developing personal identity in a way that also highlights the social dimension of human identity; promoting human rights and responsibilities; highlighting the importance of human relationships; developing social justice and climate justice, with its particular emphasis on the preferential option for the poor, and providing a foundation for social cohesion and solidarity”.  


One wonders how a State – which appears to recognise the importance of ERB and Ethics – at the same time appears to want to remove Religious Education from the core curriculum.

Concluding Remarks
I have presented in this address a vision of families, parishes and schools responding together to the question about our young people: “Where is their soul?”  It is a challenging task. Religious instruction or catechesis in a Catholic school will only mature as it is lived out in family and Church community of faith.  We should not ignore the fact that increasing numbers of Catholic children are no longer attending Catholic schools.  This presents clear issues for parents, families and parishes in ensuring that these children are receiving appropriate religious instruction and are being suitably prepared for the sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation.  For example, as ETBI (Education and Training Board Ireland) has taken a decision to end faith formation during the school day in its Community National Schools, and as it has been determined that programmes such as the Goodness me, Goodness you are not adequate as a Catholic religious education programme or for Sacramental reception, the challenge remains for parishes and dioceses to support families whose children attend these, and other schools which are not Catholic schools.

Situations like this will perhaps be the catalysts to restore the core responsibility for evangelisation and catechesis in Ireland to parents and family, assisted appropriately by the living parish community.  As Ireland prepares to host the World Meeting of Families next August, we will all benefit from a renewed focus on that question: “Where is their soul?”, a question that is ultimately one for parents, who are the first educators of their children in faith, but not the only, and certainly not lonely ones.

In all of our deliberations, whether it be at home, or parish, or school, let us remember the ‘first proclamation’, which Pope Francis stated in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, must ring out over and over from the lips of the catechist: the proclamation that “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life for you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelic GaudierThe Joy of the Gospel, 164).

To conclude, may I invite you to join me now in the official prayer for the World Meeting of the Families:

God, our Father,
We are brothers and sisters in Jesus your Son,
One family, in the Spirit of your love.

Bless us with the joy of love.

Make us patient and kind,
gentle and generous,
welcoming to those in need.
Help us to live your forgiveness and peace.

Protect all families with your loving care,
Especially those for whom we now pray:

[We pause and remember family members and others by name].

Increase our faith,
Strengthen our hope,
Keep us safe in your love,
Make us always grateful for the gift of life that we share.

This we ask, through Christ our Lord,


Mary, mother and guide, pray for us.
Saint Joseph, father and protector, pray for us.
Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.
Saints Louis and Zeelie Martin, pray for us.