Address at Opening of the Extended Coláiste Muire, Cnoc Beag: 10.09.21
I vividly recall the guard of honour at the funeral for the late Fr. John C. O’Reilly in St. Mary’s, Drogheda in May 1998. The route to Calvary Cemetery was lined by the students of St. Mary’s Diocesan School. I thought they had then the finest and classiest of school jumpers, their school crest emblazoned on a two toned maroon and navy garment. That was until I came to know Knockbeg. And Knockbeg’s is a very particular blue as I recall debates during the earlier stages of this restoration and extension programme between Brendan Byrne, Michael Regan and Mike Carew around the pantone colour of blue for the school crest on the front of the new extension.
There are thirty-eight diocesan schools, spread across nineteen dioceses, some of them have roots in a variety of religious congregations. I am a past pupil of St. Pat’s in Navan. I spent ten years as spiritual director in St. Finian’s College, Mullingar. Here in Kildare & Leighlin I have built up strong links and collaboration between our four diocesan schools – St. Mary’s, Edenderry; St. Paul’s, Monasterevin, Holy Family, Newbridge and Knockbeg. Over the past eight months I have become very familiar with St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. I am a passionate believer in the diocesan school identity and the need we as church and society have to protect and embolden that identity.
Catholic diocesan secondary schools exist to support parents in providing an education for their children which is inspired by a Catholic ethos. I want to tell you about an email that arrived in my inbox on August 6th last. The subject title was ‘School Enrolment 2021’. It was for one of the diocesan schools in my diocese. I won’t dwell on the content of the email, but the parent, a dad in this case was animated in his belief and value of a Catholic education. I loved his line “our Catholic faith is of utmost importance to us, not in some tribal or tokenistic way, but as a source of great hope, comfort and reassurance”. Further on he added “it is ultimately the responsibility of my wife and I to ensure that our children grow steadily in our cherished faith”.
Obviously all I could do was read the email, reflect and respond, but I could not intervene. And sadly, as you all know as soon as the email disappears from your screen view, you move on to the next irritant, the next issue. Every school has admissions policies and must adhere strictly or be faced with endless rounds of appeals. You will be interested to know that dad’s son got a place in their desired diocesan school in the early days of September and emailed me back to tell me so. If only all our parents were as earnest on the need and place for faith schools.
There is a wide ranging debate concerning education in Ireland today. I welcome this debate. The Church has over the years made an enormous contribution through its teachers – lay, religious and clerical to education in our country. Our diocesan schools have many examples of staff members who went way beyond the call of duty or indeed post of responsibility in their care of their students. I witness this very often in the affection Mgr. Brendan Byrne is held in by many past pupils whom he taught French to, including our special guest today former Minister and President of the Past Pupils Union, Charlie Flanagan. I affectionately think of Fr. PJ McEvoy today, no one more than PJ would relish this occasion and he definitely would be in rush back home afterwards.
It’s important for us to have a clear vision for diocesan schools. Each of our thirty-eight diocesan schools must be helped to articulate the elements of that shared vision. Diocesan schools operate under the trusteeship of the local Bishop. In the new reality, with more pressure to have a cohesive voice of this small but unique sector within the education landscape, it is critical that our voice is articulated and heard within the newly formed APTCS (Association of Patrons and Trustees of Catholic Schools). Each school brings a unique charm of its own and each school shares the very same mandate – helping its students to grow and develop in an environment which takes its values from the gospel.
I mentioned Fr. John C. O’Reilly. He was ordained out of the Maynooth class of 1949. I was privileged to succeed him in St. Mary’s, Drogheda. Another of that ’49 Class was Fr. Dan Deady who looked after the farm here at Knockbeg. Dan had volunteered as a Diocesan on the Missions, working in Kenya. He was sadly killed on the way to a retreat with three Holy Ghost missionaries on December 8th, 1986. A man who looks after the land reminds us of the responsibility we have to this sacred ground that is Knockbeg. Ground that speaks of a very proud place in Irish history, but more importantly ground that has formed generations of young men who are today equipped for life from their time here alongside the River Barrow.
Only a few weeks ago I buried the last surviving member of the Maynooth ’49 class, An tAthair Seán Ó’Laoghaire who died in his 98th year. His niece Olivia speaking at his funeral poignantly remembered her uncle:“Jack was the last stitch on the knitting needle keeping us all together. Let’s hope we can now keep the garment from unravelling”. Perhaps our Diocesan Schools and Colleges are that stitch which keeps a troubled youngster’s life from unravelling.
Let’s return to the Knockbeg jumper. James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy, 15 lessons in Leadership’ distils the lessons the All Blacks rugby team might teach us about leadership and life. Kerr tells us that central to being an All Black is to leave the jersey in a better place. It’s not about you; it’s always about something higher and greater. We are simply custodians of the jersey, of the jumper. Someone else will wear that jumper after us, let’s leave it in a better place. The mammoth extension project which is being opened and blessed today equips Knockbeg for the next century and certainly leaves the Knockbeg jumper in a better place.