Bishop Denis presided at a Mass for the National Association of Primary Diocesan Advisors in the Killeshin Hotel, Portlaoise on Tuesday 25th April at 5.30pm
DAs will be very familiar with the education issues that confront today’s Primary School landscape. They include School Admissions, the Baptism Barrier, School Divesting and proposals around Curriculum Structure. Will Religious Education be consigned to a discretionary time that will change entirely the face of education as we have come to know it? Are the days long gone when religion was ‘religiously’ timetabled for the period 12noon – 12.30pm? Has the element of discretion already crept into our schools? I vividly remember my early days as a curate in the Cathedral Parish, Mullingar, I could call into Scoil Mhuire CBS and guarantee that nearly every class would have a half hour religion class from 12noon to 12.30pm, there is no guarantee of that or anything like it today.
Schools are very familiar with a WSE; they tend to go into overdrive in the weeks leading up to one. The Whole School Evaluation looks at every aspect of management, leadership, teaching, learning, assessment and self-review. DAs don’t do as such a detailed WSE on the teaching of religion in our Primary Schools. I think if we did, we would discover such a wide varied approach that it would be a bit like a tray full of curate’s eggs!
The DA today must work in an environment that has changed hugely in recent years. I recall Fr. Fallon who was DA during my Primary School days; we called him ‘the catechist’ then. It was familiar language to us. He came around Confirmation time. I remember being asked to simply recite the ‘Hail Mary’ and even then I spoke quickly, too quickly that I had to repeat the prayer several times until I got the last line right: “now and at the hour of our death. Amen”. My earlier versions had all of us at the door of death! Because we were a family who were catechised around the kitchen every night as the Rosary was recited, I was accustomed to older siblings leading prayers and many times rushing those same prayers, one word tripping into the next. Faith those days was caught as well as taught. I don’t need to remind you how faith today is at best taught with minimal practice. Often at sacramental moments it’s not the children who need the practice, it’s the parents and godparents!
It makes for a very challenging context within which you work. But like the woman who met Jesus at the Well in John’s gospel – she was where she was and we are where we are. It’s essential to make the most of every encounter we engage with. Karl Rahner reminds us “things never turn out exactly as well or as badly as we had hoped or feared …”, the grace of the Lord supports us enormously in what we do, in where we go and in whom we encounter. The context is challenging for Religious Education, for our Faith Schools, but we face that context with great support and affirmation by parents, pupils, staff and principals. I know in Kildare and Leighlin how much the schools appreciate all that Maeve Mahon does to resource them.
Pope Francis urges all of us to be on the front line in practising a grammar of dialogue. It’s not about us and them. The Catholic School system that we work to support is most inclusive and welcoming. The burning issue is not school places but school accommodation. I think we must always be wary of polarising ourselves so far to the right or to the left that dialogue is fruitless or pointless. The DA can support a school by picking up the signs that suggest this school is what it says it is. The new curriculum, published in 2015 gives a breadth to our expectations around the teaching of religion, expectations put down in print for the very first time. The curriculum gives us the reservoir that feeds the wells of Catholic education in our country. The Veritas programme ‘Grow in Love’ is the first bucket to be drawn from that well. The DA is the one who stands closest to the well.
During our Ad Limina visit last January, Pope Francis told us of the influence his grandparents were on his faith, particularly his grandmother. We should never underestimate the role families play in religious education. Catholic Schools Week has brought Grandparents’ Day into all our schools; next year’s World Meeting of Families will offer us great opportunities of exploring the many ways the larger family can support the faith of the younger ones. In John’s gospel the Samaritan Woman alone went to the well; today it may be an aunt, a grandmother, a grandfather, a neighbour but it is someone who loves their faith and cares deeply about the next generation. As I return to Confirmation later this week, I continue to be amazed at the reason a young candidate chooses a sponsor. I think of the young girl up the Diocese who chose her next door neighbour as her sponsor, because she taught her to pray and brought her to Mass.
There are 2,880 Catholic Primary Schools in Ireland. As DA’s you resource, support and accompany them, many of you in a part-time role, some of you in full time positions, but all of you doing it, because you believe in the fundamental value of Catholic education. I thank you for what you do; I thank you for standing at the well, often in the midday sun. I thank you for being there often carrying the tools for the teacher and for the pupil to draw the water out. At the outset I mentioned the landscape has changed and will change at a faster pace in the immediate future. None of us know what the future terrain will look like, but we all realise there will be many people who still will come to the well and will need a hand to draw the water. May you and all who us, who care about our schools and faith formation, be there in the midday sun.
Post Communion Reflection:
Prayer to Our Lady
Take my hand O Blessed Mother,
Hold it firmly lest I fall;
I am nervous when I’m walking,
So to thee I humbly call.
Guide me over every crossing
Watch me while I am on the stairs.
Help me with my undertakings
Lessen many of my cares.
Then when darkness falls upon us
And I fear to be alone;
Take my hand O Blessed Mother,
Once again and lead me home.