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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Bicentenary of Christian Brothers in Limerick  - 7 February 2016

Welcome to this gathering marking the Bicentenary of the arrival of the Christian Brothers to Limerick. Two hundred years – a long time of service to education and the Catholic faith in the Diocese. As a past student myself of a Christian Brothers’ School, I know the debt of gratitude many will want to express this year. I welcome especially Mayor Gerry O’Dea, Minister of Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, Aide de Comps to the Taoiseach, Commandment Gorey, Chief Superintendent David Sheehan. And of course, I welcome the Christian Brothers here present and the students, past pupils, parents, teachers and staff, members of the Parents Association and Boards of Management of Scoil íosagáin and Coláiste Mhichíl.

One hundred years ago the centenary celebrations were also held here at St. John’s Cathedral. We also know that the Christian Brothers and boys of the CBS schools attended the opening Mass of this Cathedral. This year’s celebrations are taking place in the context of the Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis. Education has provided the Christian Brothers and those associated with them with many opportunities for exercising “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” as they are called. We can be grateful for the myriad works of mercy, both seen and unseen, that have marked the CBS schools in Limerick over the past two centuries.

Mass, the Eucharist is a time to say “thanks” and a time to open to God’s mercy.


The Gospel we’ve just heard is a wonderful reminder that when things seem difficult and nearly impossible, it’s then God can do what we might never expect. Peter comes to Jesus, calls him Master, tells him he has been fishing all night and caught nothing. He knows there’s no point in doing any more. But on Jesus’ word he puts out into deep water, casts out the net and, to his amazement, makes a miraculous catch. He comes back to Jesus, now calling him “Lord”, recognising that he is a sinful man but the Lord Jesus is God, the One whose word and power can do so much more than we can ever expect. From then on Peter will work with the Lord and do more than he could ever have imagined.

The story of the Christian Brothers in Limerick could give us, I’m sure, plenty of examples of that Gospel come to life in the past two hundred years of their history, starting with the life of the remarkable Edmund Rice. Even the very beginning of the Limerick connection to the Christian Brothers story is an example of the faith and sheer striking out into the deep that we see in today’s Gospel. In 1816 the then bishop of Limerick, Dr. Charles Tuohy invited a brand new group that had gathered around Edmund Ignatius Rice’s inspiring influence to come to Limerick. The “monks” as they were collectively referred to had made instruction of the poor their special care. When the three brothers (Aloysius Kelly, Francis Grace and Austin Dunphy, the superior) arrived on June 26th, 1816, they found a Limerick where there was acute need. At that time out of a population of 45.000, approximately 17,000 over the age of five were illiterate. There was extreme poverty. Outbreaks of disease of one kind or another were not infrequent. There was indeed plenty for the monks to do. It was great to be invited but there was one snag - nothing had been arranged for them here! They really must have had faith to put out into the deep! And they got down to it with passion and zeal. And the Limerick people responded. Soon James Ryan and Francis Mahone, two businessmen of the city gave them huge help. The Christian Brothers went begging from door to door every Saturday to help finances and people gave what little they could. Just imagine - within six months some 648 students were enrolled! The miraculous history of the Christian Brother Schools here in Limerick city and county had begun.

Pope Francis has remarked that education is a “key, key, key mission” of the Church. The Christian Brothers schools have contributed enormously to education in this city and county. They have played and still do play a very significant role in our city. It is right that we express gratitude before God and to the Brothers, teachers and staff for their zeal through the years.

At school we acquire a lot of knowledge about things, about people, about how to read and write, about how to do sums… All that is important. But Pope Francis has put it well when he commented that in school we learn three languages that a mature person should know how to express: the language of the mind, the language of the heart and the language of the hands. Harmoniously though, that is, to think what you feel and what you do; to feel deeply what you think and what you do; and to do well what you think and what you feel. Three languages, together in harmony!

We know that as well as helping the boys do well in exams, there were many other aspects of education that the Christian Brothers Schools attended to. It’s probably impossible to calculate how many hurling and football games have been played on the sports fields of the CBS schools. Then too we know of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and whatever are the modern equivalents! Sport, music, drama, skills of various forms, have all been part of the history of the Christian Brother schools. Many today will remember the Sexton Street school as a launch pad for their chosen career with special recognition for those who have received JP McManus Awards. It is great to know that over the years not a few also went on to accept a vocation to the priesthood and the religious life. It is wonderful that so many of them have joined us here today.

The root of the school life, however, was always Edmund Ignatius Rice’s desire that the students would grow in the Christian faith. He was greatly influenced by the vision of the early Christians that we read about in the second reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. The first Christians were united in heart and mind, they held all things in common and were faithful to the teachings of the Apostles. It is indeed a great work of mercy to strive to transmit to young people the Christian vision of life so much needed today when young people are faced with deep questions around the meaning of life, the challenges of mental health and the need to find a moral compass as we move forward.

In celebrating the Christian Brothers Schools, in this Year of Mercy we acknowledge with eyes of mercy that not all was perfect. There are dark aspects to be found within the Christian Brothers schools’ collective memory. The limits of certain methods and systems (we remember what the 1916 leader Padraig Pearse said in his work, The Murder Machine regarding negative aspects of the educational system a hundred years ago”!) and the failings and sinfulness of individual characters need to be humbly admitted and confessed. And yet, as Limerick author and former Christian Brothers’ boy, Criostoir O’Flynn reminds us in his memoir, we can also recognise “the self-sacrificing lives” of so many brothers, lay teachers and staff of the Christian Brother Schools.

And the good influence of the Brothers went well beyond their own school. The famous 19th century figure, Br. J.P. Welsh was of great assistance to the Redemptorist Fathers when they first came to Limerick from Belgium in 1853. He accommodated them in the Sexton Street monastery and taught them the English language (I’ve jokingly suggested to the Redemptorists with us today that it explains why they speak such good English!) Brother Welsh secured the grounds of the present church of the Redemptorists and also acted as clerk of works during its construction. Then too Sister D'Hovet found Brother Welsh most helpful in establishing a branch of her institute, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, here, and in 1854, he procured for them the land for their school at Laurel Hill.

Though today there are very few brothers left in Limerick, the good work of the Christian Brothers lives on in many hearts and minds. There are many young, vibrant brothers now giving their life for the Lord in Asia and Africa. Edmund Ignatius’ Rice’s inspiring charismatic influence continues to do good around the world.

The Christian Brother Schools continue to do good here in Limerick, now brought forward with zeal and passion by competent lay men and women to whom we are grateful for keeping alive the inspiration of one of Ireland’s most remarkable men. We have all become part of Edmund Ignatius Rice’s story. And so today too, in our celebration, let’s acknowledge that we continue Edmund Ignatius’ biography.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that as we look back over two hundred years, Edmund Rice would want us to re-live today’s Gospel. On the one hand, along with St. Peter, let ourselves be completely overcome by the miraculous catch that Edmund Rice and countless Christian Brothers have made over the years. But then too, re-live the episode of today’s readings, falling at the knees of Jesus, in gratitude and humility, saying, ‘I am a sinful man’, ‘we are sinful’. And then, hearing again the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?’, with Edmund Rice and continuing his mission, answer, ‘Here I am, send me.’ ‘Here we are, Lord, send us’ as your messengers in today’s world. The need is still acute.