What makes a school Catholic?
Homily of Father Michael Drumm,
Chairperson of Catholic Schools Partnership,
Knock Shrine, National Novena,
Friday 17 August 2012
The theme of our reflections today is “What makes a school Catholic?” The readings we have just heard already suggest what shape an answer might take. St Matthew tells us that Jesus taught the people with authority. And the prophet Micah cries out that God tells us what is good and what is required of us: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God. Could you have a better motto or mission statement for any Catholic school than to teach with authority, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God!
Schools are important places. We spend a lot of time in them. This includes a significant proportion of that most formative period in life between 4 years of age and 18 years of age. The informal education received at home and in the community is of crucial significance. The formal education of children in schools has its own integrity related to the stage of development of the pupils. When schools are working at or near their best they are truly a remarkable human achievement. Young children have a safe place to learn and play and pray; adolescents grow into a deeper intellectual, emotional and moral world; teachers use their personal and professional abilities to nurture and challenge new generations; parents, members of boards of management and other adults give of their time and money to support the educational enterprise. The hope is that by 17-18 years of age a young adult who is free, rational and capable of mature relationships will be able to cross the threshold into higher education or the world of work.
Today all schools find themselves in challenging circumstances due to enormous social, cultural and economic changes. In an age dominated by media and information technology and during what is a really serious economic recession, significant new pressures are brought to bear on children and adolescents, on family structures, on religious practice, on community life and, not least, on behaviour in the school classroom. In this new cultural context every school needs to redefine its identity so that it is not just reacting to the latest trend or fashion but that it can truly articulate its self-understanding.
In a time of serious change it is always good to go back to our origins. This is also true of our schools. The reason for doing so is not to find the answers to our contemporary questions and problems but rather so that we might encounter again some of the energy that gave rise to the reality in the first place. There are, of course, multiple origins. Each school has its own history; the schools of religious congregations trace their identity to their founders; other schools were established by dioceses or individual lay people. Today I intend to refer not to the local history of any individual school but to the more distant origins in the ministry of Christ himself.
Jesus the teacher
Jesus is called ‘teacher’ on forty-six occasions in the Gospels. It is the title most commonly associated with him by his first disciples. So what did Jesus teach? In the villages, hills and valleys of Galilee he taught the people that the reign of God was dawning in their midst. He spoke of the reign of God as healing for the sick, hearing for the deaf, new sight for the blind, freedom for prisoners, good news for the poor. He revealed a deeper communion with God through ordinary human realities. In Matthew’s Gospel alone he speaks of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, widows, sons, daughters and children; alms, bankers, burglars, coppers, debts, deposits, employment, merchants, money, gold, silver, purses, taxes, tenants, thieves and wages; birds, cattle, chickens, donkeys, fish, foxes, goats, hens, moths, oxen, pigs, sheep and snakes; corn, fields, figs, flowers, flour, grapes, loaves, logs, plants, reeds, roots, salt, seed, thistles, thorns, trees, vineyards, weeds, wheat and harvest; banquets, weddings, brides, bridegrooms, dancing, pipes, dinners and feasts; and that still leaves boats, clothes, fires, floods, footwear, gales, haversacks, lamps, nests, nets, oil, rain, reapers, shepherds, splinters, sunset, tunics, woodworm and yeast. And, yes, he did speak about the weather!
A key element of the Christian message is that life is not the way it was intended to be. It is broken in all sorts of ways. Your life and mine, our families, and, yes, our schools and all our relationships are fraught with human limitations. Christian discipleship is characterised by healing, hearing, new sight, freedom and good news. But to grasp in a deeper way what these liberating possibilities mean we need to become aware of the realities of sickness, deafness, blindness, captivity and poverty. When we look honestly at ourselves and those around us we discover that we are the sick, the deaf, the blind, the captive, the poor and not just in a metaphorical sense but in the physical, psychological and spiritual realities of our lives. Only when we immerse ourselves in these human experiences can we discover who Jesus really was, for his ministry was all about lifting burdens. Whether the burdens were created by selfishness or laziness or a scrupulously strict religious sensibility or blind obedience or political corruption or grinding poverty or sickness or lack of self-esteem or pride or prejudice, the result was the same: people were in need of healing.
The call of Christian discipleship demands that we always seek to lift the burden. Whether this means helping people to stand up and walk on their own, or exorcising their fear of the unknown, or expanding their minds through education, or feeding them when they are too weak to feed themselves, or opening their eyes to the reality of life, or challenging them to let go of hurts and prejudice, or liberating those who are unjustly oppressed, or introducing them to ever greater horizons of transcendence and beauty, or unsealing their ears to hear the divine echo in their hearts, or unleashing their hope for the future, or sowing the seeds of eternal life, the healing ministry of Jesus is continued as ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ (Luke 7:22). To teach as Jesus taught means inviting people to live without the crutch or the grudge or the closed mind. Christian education invites people to become Christ-like in their lives so that the reign of God might continue to dawn in our world.
Notice that all of Jesus’ teaching takes place through the words that he speaks and the encounters that are at the centre of his ministry. To teach as Jesus taught is surely to speak words of honesty, words of forgiveness, words of compassion and it is to encounter people wherever they are at and invite, cajole, liberate them to move on. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well, little Zacchaeus in Jericho, Matthew the tax collector in Capernaum, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Mary from the town of Magdala at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning – all people totally preoccupied with their own worries and concerns but who are challenged to move on through their encounter with Jesus. This teaching is truly education – to lead people out of ignorance, out of hostility, out of self-centredness, out of fear, into somewhere new. Such education is an endless task in all of our lives.
Being formed in a tradition
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God. The early Christians believed that the decisive breakthrough of God’s reign in history occurred in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the messenger became the message, the preacher became the preached, the proclaimer became the proclaimed. From the beginning Christians gathered to celebrate this mystery of Christ. They listened to God’s word as it was proclaimed to them from the scriptures and they shared in the breaking of the bread. In doing these actions they believed the Lord to be especially present in their midst. This tradition has been handed down from generation to generation of Christians, from parents to children to children’s children right down to us today. And we will hand it on to the generations coming after us. This is what it means to be part of tradition: we receive it rather than create it; we cherish it and we hand it on in trust to those who will follow us. It forms us more than we form it. It gives our lives a story, a texture, a value which is more than the story of our own families, more than the texture of our own experience, more than the values that we could work out for ourselves. Thus the reality of tradition became central to Christian identity and it is the bedrock for Catholic schools. It is like the sensible person who builds the house on rock. The rain, floods and gales that inevitably come will not prevail. Schools that are embedded in Catholic tradition and seek to live it for our times are a key part of the life of the Church.
Faith and reason
There is a temptation in contemporary Irish discourse to dismiss religious belief as inherently irrational, divisive, and anti-intellectual. Some go so far as to say that schools with a Catholic ethos cannot create a sense of civic virtue. This runs completely contrary to the Catholic education tradition which is built on a respect for faith and reason. Those who dismiss schools with a religious ethos as little more than proselytising and indoctrinating tools of religious authorities show little sense of the long evolution of Catholic schools over many centuries, the rich diversity within the Catholic sector and the principles which underpin such education today. The most important principle of all is the value placed on both faith and reason. It is this principle which helps to explain why Catholic schools are so popular and respected throughout the world.
In an era often dominated by religious fundamentalism on the one hand and atheistic science on the other, this commitment to a dialogue between faith and reason was rarely more relevant. We live in an era when science and religion might completely diverge from each other as if it was impossible for the same person to be a rigorous scientist and a sincere religious believer. Faith and reason can live and thrive in the same person: while one cannot be reduced to the other they both play a dynamic role in forming and educating a mature person. There is no contradiction between being a fully educated person and a committed Christian. There are few more important tasks for Christian educators than to revisit and re-imagine the relationship between faith and reason.
Pope Benedict XVI has consistently drawn attention to this fundamental issue. At his meeting with representatives of British society in Westminster Hall he said:
[quote]I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and on-going dialogue, for the good of our civilization.[/quote]
Catholic schools and colleges are called to live out this dialogue every day.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Representatives of British Society, including the Diplomatic Corps, Politicians, Academics and Business Leaders, Westminster Hall, 17 September 2010.
Looking to the future
There has been much media speculation about the future of Catholic primary schools. Some of it is ill-informed. Let’s be absolutely clear.
- There are Catholic schools in almost every country in the world except where non-democratic regimes have banned them.
- There will be Catholic primary schools in every Catholic community in Ireland as long as parents and the broader Catholic community support such schools. This autumn there will be an opportunity in some selected areas for parents to register their support for Catholic schools. It is important that those who favour Catholic schools grasp this opportunity.
- Catholic schools are inclusive and have led the way in areas such as special needs and traveller education.
- Catholic schools are committed to, and often attain, the highest standards in all aspects of school life. In a week when students have just received their Leaving Certificate Examination results and many are awaiting offers of college places through the CAO system, we should remember that schools must serve the development of the whole person and, they must serve all pupils, including those who do not go on to third level. The real story of this week is not about the few who got nine A1s but those who achieved their potential according to the gifts that they have been given.
- The economic crisis is damaging our schools. We are in danger of seriously undermining the morale and performance of the best of our teachers. Every education system is dependent on the quality of its teachers. Ireland has been well served by an intelligent teaching profession. We should stop questioning their commitment and, in our Catholic schools, find ways to support and nourish them in their intellectual and religious lives.
- Catholic schools are well served by about 20,000 volunteers who serve on boards of management. Where would we be without the generosity of these people who give freely of their time and expertise? The cost to the State of all of these 20,000 board members is zero euro.
The future for all schools is challenging. But Catholic schools can draw on the ministry of Christ the teacher and the rich Catholic tradition of education in facing the challenges ahead.
To finish let’s return to where we began. St Matthew tells us that Jesus taught the people with authority. And the prophet Micah cries out that God tells us what is good and what is required of us: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God. Could you have a better motto or mission statement for any Catholic school than to teach with authority, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God!