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Homily of Bishop Denis at Mass with teachers and ACE Ireland

Bishop Denis celebrated Mass with teachers from Abbeyleix, Emo and The Heath as they concluded their weekend induction programme with ACE Ireland (Alliance for Catholic Education Ireland) on how to be intentionally Catholic schools.

Sunday 9th September 2018


Today Jesus touches our lips with those same wonderful words he first uttered to the deaf man in Mark’s gospel – “Ephphatha” – “Be Opened” / “Be Loosened” / “Be Freed”. The healing of one in St. Mark who was both deaf and mute with the utterance of a single word. The power of language, the power of articulation, the power of encounter.

Schools are places of encounter and you have spent the weekend reflecting on how to make your encounter in your school more culturally and intentionally Catholic. I thank Jonathon, Ciara, Ian & Angela for journeying with you over this weekend; I thank Maeve & Bryan for accompanying you over these past few months, getting you on board and promising to walk with you on the road ahead.

Ephphatha” means “be opened, be loosned, be freed”. Openness is central to what it is to be Christian, let us call to mind our sins as we open ourselves up to His grace, His love, His mercy …


We are still basking in the visit two weeks ago of Pope Francis. This very time, two Sundays ago we were assembling in Phoenix Park for the Papal Mass to conclude the Ninth World Meeting of Families. The only other Pope to celebrate Mass in the Phoenix Park at the very same spot was Pope St. John Paul II in 1979. Just after visiting us over those three days in 1979, he travelled to the United States, where amongst the groups he spoke to there were American educators. He said then: “In order that the Catholic school and the Catholic teachers may truly make their irreplaceable contribution to the Church and the world, the goal of Catholic education must be crystal clear. Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others”.

I talked briefly on Friday evening before you checked in and as you were settling into the weekends reflection that my interests as a Bishop, as an educator, as a baptised Catholic is that in our diocese we have schools that are Catholic, rather than simply a list of Catholic schools. Schools that are intentionally and culturally Catholic.

I grew up on a farm, it was and still is today a dairy farm. When you walked out the kitchen door you knew it by the smells in the air, sometimes a little noxious, often very pleasant odours filled the air, but it was a farm and that’s exactly what you expect on a farm. We didn’t live in a Jo Malone perfume plant! Silage brings a distinct smell of its own, as does hay, indeed effluent, even milk has a particular strong odour.

What is the smell of our schools that are intentionally Catholic? The flag, the charter, the Statue are all a little facile I suggest. It’s something, much deeper, much more penetrative, like todays encounter in Mark, chapter 7 with the one who was deaf and mute. He who struggled to find a word, now speaks clearly and succinctly. Hearing and speaking are very much part of the one package, once his ears were opened, his speech impediment lifted. Isn’t the same true in life, once one issue is solved, often other unconnected issues fall into place.

I recall my own school days and the time the teacher took with the boy who had a speech impediment. Painstaking exercises were carried out, then in large classrooms of maybe 36, because our school amalgamated in my time. I am a subject of school amalgamation. Slane sat on one double bench with the two ink-wells; Monknewtown or Rossin on the next, eventually we sat side by side. But the lad with the stammer, rooted probably in nervous anxiety was helped find his voice. They were the days before SET rooms or Resource teachers, then the Class Teacher did everything. I recall much later in life, a seminarian colleague also getting great help from the late and much lamented Fr. Ronan Drury to deal with his stammer; today he is one of the best preachers of our generation.

Ephphatha”, be opened. There are many working in our schools, who rehearsed lines before an interview around school ethos. Now that they have the job they are really unsure what is mean’t by ethos, by culture, by the smell of the school. I’m amazed at how smoothly teachers move from one teaching sector to another, often seamlessly, one week in St. Mark’s down the road, the next week in Educate Together a few kilometer’s away. It shouldn’t be so seamless, if our schools were culturally and intentionally Catholic. We have to reach out to our colleagues on staff and give them a voice, a language, an articulation to understand the school they teach in and why their school is Catholic. At least then they will know what they are teaching in and the new culture that awaits them up the road.

St. James reminds us, it’s not what we’re wearing, it’s not what we’re driving, it’s not even where we live … God works below the surface. Two walk in at the same time into that synagogue, the book is judged by the cover, his clothes, his garb, his poise suggests he deserves recognition. The other by the stench of last night’s beer, the clothes that have never seen a Fairy non-bio pod suggests he can easily be ignored. Isn’t this the very thing that education is supposed to prepare us for, to be open, to be free, to be loosened. Openness is central to what it means to be Christian. Our schools have a strong track record of being open and embracing to all, this is something rooted in our identity. My blood pressure boils when suggestions are left unchallenged that the only schools open to all are non-faith schools. Our school system founded often on the shoulders of the religious has designed the template that offers inclusivity, openess and dialogue.

You return this afternoon firstly back home to family and friends but tomorrow morning into staffrooms that will perhaps be curious as how you spent your weekend. Don’t rush to answer. The question is often asked by someone who knows the answer already, but is themselves curious, searching, unsure. By your actions, you will inculcate the smell of a Catholic school; if you must use words fine, but the best way of doing it will be living it yourself and your two colleagues sitting next to you. By your deeds, by your words, by your actions you will allow that beautiful word “Ephphatha” to bounce around the walls of the staffroom, the school corridor, the office, the classroom and the playground. By doing so you will make your school truly Catholic, because our Catholic schools are always open!