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Homilies - Bishop Brendan Leahy

Speaking Notes - Catholics Schools Week - 21 January 2015 - Woodlands Hotel, Adare

Catholics Schools Week

Woodlands Hotel, Adare

January 21, 2015

Speaking Notes


Catholics Schools Week offers us each year an opportunity to acknowledge, celebrate and become more aware of the unique contribution of Catholic schools.  Our Catholic Schools in Limerick (108 primary schools and 27 second level schools) are part of a network of 210.000 catholic schools worldwide serving young people in a vast variety of contexts in our world.

The theme suggested this year is “Called to Serve” and prompts us to reflect on the service that Catholics schools give to children, parents, families and communities as well as the wider world. A feature of the week will be “Grandparents’ Day” when children will be invited to think about how much grandparents bring joy into their lives and indeed how much they are great teachers in how to serve God as they pass on their faith to their grandchildren. In a year that Pope Francis has declared a special year of reflection on consecrated life, we also want to remember especially the past and present contribution of religious sisters, brothers and priests to Catholic schools. For all of us, this week is a time to ask ourselves how we can offer support to the service that our Catholic schools provide in so many different ways. 

Catholic Schools Partnership has produced wonderful material for use in schools and I warmly recommend it. The material is also available on line at catholicschools.ie

The Limerick Synod

For us in Limerick there is a specific and important context for our celebration this year of Catholic Schools Week. We are preparing for a Diocesan Synod, the first since the 1930s. This year ahead of us is an important occasion to journey together in reflection and sharing on the vast range of elements that make up the life of our diocese. Clearly, we need to include in our consultation the significance of the many catholic schools that we have in the Diocese. It is certainly my hope that we will find creative ways of engaging students and teachers, school staff, parents, and Boards of Management in this very important process of reflection as we lead up to the Synod.

Our Catholic schools have provided much service to countless numbers in Ireland and, of course, here in Limerick. And yet historical baggage has left people perhaps a little reticent about the value of Catholic Schools. In a lot of popular narrative, whether it be in film or in literature, the images of Catholic schools prior to the Second Vatican Council are certainly not flattering. For instance, as we can see in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, schools were marked by strong discipline:

The door opened quietly and closed. A quick whisper ran through the class: the prefect of studies. There was an instant of dead silence and then the loud crack of a pandybat on the last desk. Stephen’s heart leapt up in fear. ‘Any boys want flogging here, Father Arnall?’ cried the prefect of studies. ‘Any lazy idle loafers that want flogging in this class?’

Catholics schools are also often presented in literature as places of rote learning and specifically where students were indoctrinated in the mind of the Church. Writers such as Frank McCourt will describe how independent questioning was discouraged with the questions and answers of the Catechism of Catholic Doctrine a distinctive feature in Catholic schools.

It is true that strict discipline and rote learning were characteristics of schooling in general in the past. Sometimes contemporary commentators with memories of their own schooling equate catholic schools with a rather narrow vision, closure to otherness, indoctrination and a certain intolerance.

In acknowledging the limitations and failures of the past, let’s be careful not to have a baby and bathwater situation. There is much that was and is great about catholic schools in Limerick.  It’s enough to think of the vast number of teachers and students involved in education in these schools. School principals, teacher and school staff, as well as parents councils and boards of management/governing boards have contributed well over and beyond the call of duty. It is striking to note how much volunteer effort there is linked to Catholic schools. Currently there are 864 members of our Primary School Boards of Management. The good will and generosity are really inspiring. We need to acknowledge gratefully the variety of subjects offered, the range of extra-curricular activites, the promotion of culture and sport, etc. that goes on in Catholic schools. These schools are helping shape the young people of today into the adults and, indeed, leaders of tomorrow through social and civic instruction.

As we move towards the Limerick Synod, however, I think it is helpful for us all if we can stand back for a moment and look again at the bigger picture offered to us at the Second Vatican Council whose conclusion fifty years we are also celebrating this year.

To help us I’d like to show a DVD that was produced recently by the Congregation for Catholic Education and entitled, “Educating Amid the Challenges”. It helps us glimpse the bigger project in which we are involved. It broadens our horizon.


The Second Vatican Council was an event of the Spirit, a time of listening to what the Spirit was saying to the Church as it went about rediscovering its place and mission in the new era of history. It still is the compass for us in Limerick as we begin again together in mission and in a process of Synod. In re-proposing the value of Christian education in the new context of the world, it is significant that Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) focused on the service catholic schools give in terms of providing an atmosphere of liberty and love, the development of personality and dialogue with the world. In n. 8 we read:

The Church’s role is especially evident in Catholic schools. These are no less zealous than other schools in the promotion of culture and in the human formation of young people. It is, however, the special function of the Catholic school to develop in the school community an atmosphere animated by a spirit of liberty and charity based on the Gospel. It enables young people, while developing their own personality, to grow at the same time in that new life which has been given them in baptism… Accordingly, since the Catholic school can be of such service in developing the mission of the People of God and in promoting dialogue between the Church and the community at large to the advantage of  both, it is still of vital importance. (Flannery, 1998, pp. 732-3)

As the document clarifies Catholic Schools, along with other schools will certainly want to acquire the best competencies and skills available in terms of teaching and learning. Efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of objectives of prescribed Curricula are important. But the Council reminds us that what should distinguish Catholic schools is not primarily the attainment of visible teaching and learning outcomes but rather the creation of an environment marked by the Gospel as the primary mission statement. This is the environement that facilitates the full fluorishing of the person to the measure of Jesus Christ.

Little wonder the Council also points out that Catholic schools are “to become increasingly effective, especially in caring for the poor, for those who are without the help and affection of family and those who do not have the faith” (n. 9). I am pleased to note that currently the Diocese is very much engaged in the development of a new education campus at Galvone. The campus will see the colocation of two schools with a child and family centre, working in partnership, sharing facilities and resources. The campus will provide an opportunity for the delivery of and the greater integration of services and programmes to complement and support the schools as they serve the needs of children and families within their community.

A Catholic school is not merely a sociological category. Its inspiring spark is theological. The guiding horizon is the Kingdom of God that was so central in the words and deeds of Jesus, the one called Teacher 46 times in the Gospels. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was coming among us when we gather in his name, that is, in the love that is mutual, the love that he taught us and showed us how to live.

It is a Kingdom of healing and wholeness, freedom and justice. It is marked by deep experiences of communion with God and with one another, with service of one another as the core dynamic of life. The Spirit is bringing about that Kingdom of God in ways both known and unknown to us, both within and outside the visible confines of the Church. It is the Church’s role to serve the Kingdom. The Church is the instrument of bringing it about on earth. All the baptised are called to recognise, promote and progress the Kingdom of God in humankind. Catholic schools are a key expression of the Church’s role in serving the Kingdom of God, helping people tune into the work of the Holy Spirit.[1]

As part of our Synod journey here in Limerick, it will be important for us to review how our Catholic Schools are serving Jesus’ mission focussed on the promotion of the Kingdom of God.

Religious Culture in our Schools

This evening I would like to suggest that there is one aspect in particular that needs attention on the part of all of us. And that is the quality of the religious culture of the school. I appreciate this is a complex issue with many dimensions to it but it is central to our understanding of the service Catholic schools is called to offer.

In the past it would have been relatively easy to describe the religious culture of a school. The sacred was encountered through the sacraments, rituals and devotions that transmitted the sense of transcendence. The school’s own religious culture was an expression of the wider social catechumenate that contextualised the School’s activities. In other words, everyday life at home, with one’s friends, in the social customs and mores, reflected a religious sense that one imbibed almost by osmosis. That has changed. Catholic schools today are located within a vast variety of cultural traditions, family arrangements, moral views and convictions.

We need to explore what’s going on in that change. It’s not all bad. We have to be careful not to give in to a superficial description of decline in religious practice simply in terms of waywardness, bad will or rejection of Church authority. In reality, we are in the process of a major social and cultural transformation. One era of Christian history has concluded and a new one is opening up. We could say that the forms of “saying” and “giving” God in past centuries no longer speak or have the same effect today. The Holy Spirit never stands still! We live today in new horizons of inter cultural dialogue and encounter. Our ways of knowing and communicating have altered. But in and through that the Holy Spirit is at work prompting us to discover further depths of the Gospel and the living out of the Gospel in our communities of faith, be they family, parish, association or movement.

 As Pope Francis put it last year,

Jesus began to preach the Good News in the “Galilee of the Gentiles”, a crossroads for people of different races, cultures and religions. In some ways this context is similar to today’s world. The profound changes that have led to the ever spreading multicultural societies requires those who work in schools and universities to become involved in the educational programmes of exchange and dialogue, with a bold and innovative fidelity able to bring together the Catholic identity to meet the different “souls” existing in a multicultural society.[2]

The particular service to which Catholic schools are called today is to promote more profoundly and more strategically the vitality of the religious ethos in their school both in relation to the quality of formal religious education programmes and the religious education provided by the whole culture and life of the school.  We need, all of us, to reflect on how best to ensure the effectiveness of the religious culture of our Catholic Schools for our times. And we can’t leave it only to the schools to do that.

It is important for all of us to be mindful of certain qualities that characterise young people today. For instance, the search for self-fulfilment is very much to the fore. It is a fulfilment to be attained already within this world and not to be postponed to the next world. And with this the theme of freedom. Young people do not simply accept a message or teaching that comes from outside – be it from an institution or person. What characterises young people’s attitude today – and this impacts on the transmission of a religious culture in schools – is that whatever comes to me from outside me needs to enter into relationship with what is within me. It must be born from me, chosen and made my own by me.

A second quality has to do with the relationship with otherness and with others. There is a much greater sense today among young people that it is only with others that we can be fulfilled. And others mean – other religions, others with different convictions to mine, other moral systems. The “Golden Rule” is taking on a new significance here – respect others in their otherness. “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you” and “do to others what you would want done to you”. Relationships are important. In a recent Vatican document we read:

Schools have a great responsibility…, called as they are to develop intercultural dialogue in their pedagogical vision. This is a difficult goal, not easy to achieve, and yet it is necessary. Education, by its nature, requires both openness to other cultures, without the loss of one’s own identity, and an acceptance of the other person, to avoid the risk of a limited culture, closed in on itself. Therefore, through their experience of school and study, young people must acquire theoretical and practical tools for amassing greater knowledge both of others and of themselves, as well as greater knowledge of the values both of their own culture and of other cultures.[3]

Young people are open to spiritual values. But they seek them in places and in ways that are not the places and ways our traditional proposals think they should be! As a friend put it to me recently, their spiritual sensors are still on but perhaps they are finding it difficult to find the signal. It’s our task to be with them in locating that signal and choosing the Catholic network!

God made himself encounterable in Jesus Christ who came so that all may be one. He offered his message by way of service, laying down his life for us, inviting us to enter into his logic of love, relationship, mercy and community. We need to be able to share our experience of God in Jesus Christ not simply as information about Catholicism but as event, as a new life in community, as an option that makes a difference.

A Test Case - Confirmation Age?

While we can be grateful for so much support for Catholic schools in Ireland and the fact that so many still declare themselves Catholic, we have also to acknowledge that faith can perhaps imperceptibly but nevertheless really be enveloped by a crust of indifference. The result can be that the institutional transmission of faith occurs through practices that in themselves are wonderful but in reality risk immunising young people from the faith. We can have wonderful sacramental ceremonies but the child finds little resonance between that and what is going on in his/her everyday life at home. Instead of coming to know Catholic faith as a new, challenging and meaningful horizon that can be opted into, it is often appears like a pre-fabricated cultural package of Irish heritage we are born into and to be discarded nonchalantly later in life as part of our throwaway culture.

It is important in Ireland that we re-awaken students to the fact that being a Catholic is an option. Catholic schools are important and religious education in these schools is vital in this re-awakening. We need all of us together to explore this more. And we can’t leave it only to the teachers to do so.

By way of helping us reflect on how we might envision the future, I would like to suggest one practical avenue for consideration and that is whether we should change the age at which young people make their confirmation? Currently, they do so at 12 years of age and in the context of school. I have been really impressed by the level of ceremonies, the care to detail, the level of preparation. And here I want to express enormous gratitude to teachers for their commitment. And yet, we have to ask the question: Is twelve years of age too young? Are the boys and girls really aware of what’s going on? Is Confirmation too detached from the experience of a living Christian community of faith? Does our current practice offer the best model of interaction between child, parish, school and family? Are children opting or floating into Confirmation?

 I appreciate that theologically the sacrament of Confirmation should come before First Communion. Some dioceses abroad have confirmation even before eight years of age. There are good theological reasons for doing that too. But that is not my point this evening. I have a sense that we should build on a good pastoral opportunity that exists in Ireland. It is still a positive thing that parents and family members will make the effort to be present for the Confirmation Day. People will take a day of their holiday leave to be present. It is impressive that Confirmation is a big family event.  Might we not avail of the fact that Confirmation is still viewed as an important ritual and invite 16 year olds to celebrate the sacrament? For many students, that would mean committing themselves to a parish-based programme during Transition Year, possibly linked to a project in school. Not all students would opt into it. But some/many? would and at least it would come as an option with also a more living “adult” contact with the parish.

Removing Confirmation from the primarcy school would not mean less religious education. The Religious Education programme would still be very important, central in a Catholic School. Sixth class could still include a module on the Holy Spirit. There could still be a final blessing ceremony in parishes linked to “graduation” cermonies to mark the child’s completion of primary school and that could be a large family event. But is Confirmation not a sacrament worth celebrating in its own right and at another time? I think exploration during the Synod of a question like our administration of the sacrament of Confirmation might help us to focus on minds on a lot of questions around being a Catholic as intentional discipleship of Jesus Christ, membership of a living community, commitment to mission both in terms of evangelization and civic engagement based on faith.


In his classic study, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life Émile Durkheim concluded by saying:

We have established the fact that the fundamental categories of thought….are of religious origin… Nearly all of the great social institutions have been born in religion…. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.

Durkheim saw that religion generates categories of thought that serve society and contributes to constructs of an ideal world. At a time when worldwide religions are under the mircoscope, it is good to acknowledge how Catholic Schools are an expression of a generating and constructive service to society. We are called to serve with kindness, with joy, with truth, with justice.

The new times we are living in are a call to each and everyone of us to rediscover the Gospel as a life-transforming code of service. We can make our own Pope Francis’ words to teachers last year, words that apply not just to teachers but to all of us:

To educate is an act of love, it is to give life. And love is demanding, it calls for the best resources, for a reawakening of the passion to begin this path patiently with young people. The educator in Catholic schools must be, first and foremost, competent and qualified but, at the same time, someone who is rich in humanity and capable of being with young people in a style of pedagogy that helps promote their human and spiritual growth. Youth are in need of quality teaching along with values that are not only articulated but witnessed to. Consistency is an indispensable factor in the education of young people! Consistency! We cannot grow and we cannot educate without consistency: consistency and witness!

Above all, we are called to serve by being consistent in our witness to love, the mutual love that comes from God and that gives light to our world. In concluding my remarks this evening, therefore, I would like to read a prayer that I found in the resource book for post-primary teachers. It is taken from Servant Leadership for the Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis. It is called a “prayer for Teachers” but we could apply it to any of us.

Prayer for Teachers

If I could explain everything perfectly to my students, but did not love each one of them, I might as well be talking to an empty room.

If I could find all the answers to educational problems and did not love, my efforts would be futile.

If I could buy every kind of educational aid and sacrificed to do so, but did not have love for my students, it would be a complete waste.

Love is patient when it is necessary to repeat a concept over and over to a student who is having difficulty.

Love is kind when an irate parent accuses and berates other teachers or me.

Love is not jealous when the other teacher has an entire class of well-behaved and extremely intelligent students, while mine seem not so great.

Love is not proud or boastful when my students improve greatly and really want to come to my class.

Love is willing to yield my schedule and plans to fit in with the needs of others.

Love does not scream at my class when they misbehave, but seeks to help them understand the importance of self-discipline.

Love does not broadcast all of my students’ problems and misdeeds to those in the staffroom.

Love keeps trying, even when it seems a student will never understand the difference between an adverb and an adjective.

Teaching methods, bulletin boards, textbooks, yes, even computers, will eventually be discarded, but love is everlasting.

These three things I have learned through teaching: endurance, patience and love. And the greatest of these is love.





[1] As a recent document of Catholic Schools Partnership puts it, 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.


[2] Address to Congregation for Catholic Education, 13 February 2014.

[3] Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools Living in Harmony for a  Civilization of Love, Introduction.