Address by Bishop Donal Mc Keown at launch of Northern Ireland Catholic Schools Week 2011
Address by Bishop Donal McKeown at launch of Northern Ireland
Catholic Schools Week 2011, Holy Cross College, Strabane
Catholic Schools – Rooted in Jesus Christ
Schools are very busy and pressurised places. There are so many deadlines to meet, so much material to cover, so many meetings to attend. But Catholic Schools Week is an important opportunity for all involved in Catholic education across Ireland to stop and ask, not just ‘What are we doing?’ or ‘How well are we doing it?’, but ‘Why are we doing it?’. We ask not just about the structures and the undoubted successes of Catholic schools but the motive for the vast amount of work that is put by staff, governors and parents to ensure that our 550 schools across NI are the best that they can be.
Thus our theme this year Catholic Schools – Rooted in Jesus Christ is a key one in reflecting on who we are and what we are trying to do. Catholic schools here set the standards of academic achievement for the whole educational sector. So many of our Catholic schools have a rich cultural programme, both Irish and international. But it takes more than exam results or Irish language and culture to make a school Catholic in Ireland. A Catholic school in this country is not simply recognised by how well it plays Gaelic football, camogie, hurling or the tin whistle. The distinguishing characteristic of the 200,000 Catholic schools worldwide and of the education that they offer to some 52 million students is that they are rooted in Jesus Christ and in his way of looking at the world and at people. What inspires so many wonderful teachers in every country is a conviction that we have an energising vision of life, one that we want to share. If that is not what we are proud to offer, then in Northern Ireland we are merely divisive and potentially sectarian. If we are not clearly rooted in the love of Jesus Christ, then we risk being like a cymbal clashing (1 Cor 13:1) or full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Macbeth Act 5, scene 5). Research shows that we do so well, not despite the fact of our religious conviction but because of the content and context that that belief system implies. Thus we constantly need to clarify our core vision so that we be the best that we can be.
I would suggest that the biggest challenge facing Catholic education in Northern Ireland 2011 is not transfer from primary to post-primary school, it is not just how we can be more effective and efficient. The biggest challenge in this decade is clarifying the identity of our Catholic schools in the context of a pluralist and reconciled society. Does a school system, explicitly rooted in Jesus Christ actually have a role in the 21st century? If so, what is that role? In that regard I would like to make a few points
Firstly, I have heard many commentators and even Catholic educationalists saying that we have to live with our so-called ‘segregated education’ system because it is a recognition that we have two communities here and that the choices of parents cannot be removed overnight and must be respected. That attitude implies that Catholic schools are merely a relic of a divided past and that they will eventually wither as we become a more mature society there. Sorry! Catholic schools are not a phenomenon that we will get over when we grow up! Access to faith-based education is a key characteristic of a modern, pluralist society. Catholic schools thrive in the most modern and advanced societies. They haven’t withered away when societies make economic progress. They tend to provide better value for the public money that they receive. Indeed, in countries like Lithuania, governments have actually encouraged some state schools to become Catholic because evidence has shown that they can bring in all sorts of human and other resources that the state schools can’t access. In Northern Ireland, the real sign of maturity will not be when everybody just goes to a secular state school, but when diversity of provision is seen as an enrichment for society and not as a threat to its stability. We are not going away!
Secondly, the very forward looking 2001 document Building Peace, Shaping the Future committed all Catholic schools to promote healing in our divided and hurting society. The writers were very aware of the dangers inherent in a system where pupils from a nationalist cultural background tended to attend Catholic schools and where Controlled schools were generally attended by those from a Unionist cultural background. The potential for division in Northern Ireland has been real and has been both exploited and accepted by many. A school system that is rooted in Jesus Christ has to be actively committed to overcoming the many barriers that arise between people on the basis of religion, social class, race and colour. One of my colleagues recently proposed that, after ten years, we need to revisit Building Peace, Shaping the Future and look again to see just how we balance our undoubted right to exist in a pluralist society with our Gospel obligations to promote reconciliation and healing. The constantly uncomfortable Jesus Christ, in whom we claim to be rooted, calls us to serve him and all people and not just ourselves. We are committed to being schools which integrate the community across denominational and social barriers. As we know from an increasing number of our schools which welcome pupils from all faiths and culture, we don’t have to cease being Catholic in order to do build a more shared future.
And I believe that this imperative pushes us to do at least two things.
One of those is something that we are doing already, namely to work increasingly closely with educational leaders in the Protestant churches. And I am not just saying that because we find ourselves in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The problem that all churches will face in the future is not one of religious difference but the reality of religious indifference. All our churches have an interest in ensuring that the ideology of secularism does not banish from education any openness to the Transcendent. In an age where children are under enormous pressure to adopt very insubstantial heroes from the saccharine world of light entertainment or the virtual world of war games, we have the common interest of promoting an openness to love, truth and beauty, to community and generosity, to being inspired by good and by God.
The other agenda that we have to promote as well is the right of many people who have no religious convictions to have access to a secular model of education. That, too, is a characteristic of a modern pluralist society and is really not available here – and if we call for rights for ourselves, we have to champion the rights of others. They, like us, are tax payers. As is stated in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, they, like us, “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”. Our rootedness in Christ means that we can confidently champion the rights of others as well as those of ourselves.
The third point that I would like to make is the following. We have heard from some political and civic leaders the conviction that – and I quote First Minister Peter Robinson – What I do object to is the State providing and funding church schools. That is a genuinely held view in many quarters. However, I believe that this statement reflects just one more subliminal element of our divided society here. Some different Christian traditions here actually have different ways of looking at the world that we are not even aware of. Thus, I believe that many of those who believe that school should be about education in secular subjects and that all religious input should be handled by churches in their own time, come from a genuinely held belief that is very strongly influenced by one interpretation of the great St Augustine. Taking their starting point from Augustine, they believe that the world is divided into two spheres, the secular and the spiritual. The former is concerned with the here and the latter with the hereafter. Some people believe that this means that there should be a clear divide between things of the world and things of God. The world is studied in school, God is learned about in church.
A Catholic tradition, however, emphasises that the goal of Jesus’ mission was to reconcile all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10), and not just to escape from the clutches of the fallen world. Thus the Catholic school does not exist just to brainwash pupils with Christian fables alongside ‘real education’ in normal subjects but to provide an integrated view of the world, of culture, of history. The Catholic school tries to take seriously the fact that Jesus took on our human nature – and thus to ensure that by word and deed, “a specific concept of the world, of people and of history is developed and conveyed”  Or to put it another way “One of the characteristics of a Catholic school is that it interpret and give order to human culture in the light of faith.”  An education about the Transcendent and the spiritual in human life cannot not be equally concerned with how history, geography, science, music, literature and sport are integrated into the human person’s search for meaning. From a Catholic perspective you cannot separate a secular world that we learn about in school and a religious world that we learn about in church. Young people are living in one world, not in two. We believe that an educational experience that offers this perspective has as much claim to a place in publicly funded education as a school which disingenuously pretends to be neutral on the question of the spiritual.
My fourth point follows on from this and is a counterbalance to it. Nearly three weeks ago, the Irish bishops published Share the Good News – the National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland. That document is clear that, in modern Ireland, religious formation cannot be sub-contracted by families to parishes to the school. While the school is entitled to communicate and to exemplify particular ways of being human, the parish and the family still have the responsibility for catechesis and explicit Christian formation. School, parish and family have complementary but different roles to play in developing an adult faith. We cannot place excessively high expectation on schools and teachers. In many of our schools, there are increasing numbers of young people who are not Catholic or only culturally Catholic. In the school they can experience the Catholic worldview and learn much about that rich world of the imagination which is part of the Catholic identity. But growth in faith and in membership of a faith community needs to be offered in the context of parishes and movements. A GCSE or an A-level in RE is no substitute for conscious formation in the faith, within the family and through the parish. We know already that any limitation of faith formation to what is done through school results in young people happily taking part in what, for many, is the holy equivalent of Disneyworld. Get dressed up, see a guy with funny gear on and have a party! Despite the wonderful work done by schools in Ireland religious practice is now a minority interest. For most young people, the choice is whether to opt into active involvement with religious bodies, not whether to opt out of them. Across modern Ireland, not having any real connection with church is the assumed default position. How we were schools in past is not the model for being a Catholic school in the new environment. Catholic Schools Week is an invitation to acknowledge what schools can do, and to accept what schools alone cannot do. That will entail a revolution in how we are school and parish in the 21st century.
The renewal will be a genuinely Christian one only if we ask ourselves, not just about structure but whether we are we rooted in Jesus Christ. Many people will say that they don’t go to church but that they don’t do harm to anybody, or even that they work for justice and community. But Pope Benedict made a very clear point in his 2005 document Deus Caritas Est. He wrote “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with…a person [Jesus Christ] which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction” If we are not rooted in Jesus, then we risk being rootless. People who stand for nothing, easily fall for anything.
Finally, if we are to achieve this, we will have to look at the messages and priorities that we emphasise and how much we are in solidarity with those in need, not just around the world but around the corner. We are one tree, rooted in Jesus Christ, not a series of different and unconnected trees in the same orchard. He is the one vine and we are all branches. Thus, when it comes to finding ways forward, there can be no detached Catholic school for those who live in detached houses, no semi-detached school for those in semis – and lesser provision for those who live in terraces. No school is rooted in Jesus Christ if it is concerned only with its only welfare, its own staff and clientele. The uncomfortable Jesus Christ asks us to see not just the successes of the past or the achievements of the present but his priorities for the future. Subsidiary without solidarity is neither Catholic nor Christian. Being rooted in Christ will place big demands on those who are doing very well at present so that opportunities can be shared and not hoarded, can be developed for all and not just preserved for some.
Our theme this year offers us a chance to see how explicitly each of our schools is rooted in Jesus Christ. It is not a bind, outdated in modern society. That is our strength and our inspiration. If we continue to turn to those roots in the context and content of our education, we will continue to thrive. If we do root ourselves in him, and seek new growth for new times, we can continue to be a blessing to individuals, families, communities and the wider society. If we do not have those roots, we have nothing to offer to anyone.
Last week, in the tragic events surrounding the death of Michaela McAreavey, we saw the best of what a faith community can do and be, especially in times of challenge and pain. There was immediate access to a wide range of resources to help cope with the awful pain. Our sector will be successful and continue to offer leadership to the wider community if they explicitly champion love, community, reconciliation and concern, especially for those less well off then ourselves. Next week I hope that we can learn from that and re-focus ourselves on being rooted in Jesus Christ.
I am therefore, very happy to encourage schools and parishes to reflect on the theme of Catholic Schools Week 2011. We are not merely relics of the past – but key players in the construction of a healthy and vibrant society where all our young people can flourish.
 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), Article 26 (3)
 Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 1977, para 8
 Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 1988, para 52
 Deus Caritas Est. Para 1
Rooted in Jesus Christ
The metaphor of being “rooted” in Jesus Christ is a powerful one. It can help young people to understand the importance of their lives being securely connected to the very source and inspiration of life. This “rootedness” can provide stability and security to young hearts and minds which can easily become disconnected and rootless in a world which offers so many distracting sources of comfort, pleasure and apparent fulfilment. To use the metaphor with which we are familiar from the Gospel, we know that often the soil of our young people’s lives – the environment in which these fragile young plants grow up – has not been well prepared, can be rocky, may be filled with weeds which will choke young shoots which instinctively want to grow straight and tall and to thrive towards full and healthy maturation.
We know also that being “rooted” will ensure that our human growth remains nurtured and healthy throughout our lives. The Jesus whom we come to know and love in our childhood is surely the same Jesus who guides us in our adult lives. What changes is our relationship with him because it is dynamic and it develops as we come to know him, to understand his teaching and to respond to him in our faith which matures throughout our lives. Such healthy growth relies on a continuing source of nourishment through prayer, through the liturgy and through the reading of sacred scripture.
A rooted life of faith is also a living personal faith, a faith which is fully alive to all that is happening in the world. Faith in Jesus Christ is not dead or fossilised, as some people would contend. It enables me to make sense of the wonders of our world and to be grateful for the beauty of God’s creation. It encourages me to develop my own talents and to see their fulfilment in being used for the benefit of others. Faith teaches me to appreciate the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and to respect the dignity of each person, whom I know to be made in God’s image and likeness. A living faith in Jesus enables me to respond to the ethical challenges of our world and guides my conscientious moral decision-making which is informed by the teachings of our Church.
Given this understanding, being “rooted” in Jesus Christ is, without doubt, vital to the development of our young people if they are to grow into well formed and mature people of faith, loving parents who can nurture their children in faith, mature and responsible citizens whose actions are grounded in Gospel values and whose lives of discipleship are enriched by the practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love.
So, your theme for Catholic Schools Week this year provides a powerful reminder of the responsibilities we all share – in our family homes, our parish communities and our schools – to help young people to understand the need for their lives to be rooted in Jesus Christ.
The Catholic School
Of course, I am here principally to speak about Catholic schools and their mission to provide Catholic education for all who wish to avail themselves of its benefits. My personal experience of Catholic education – as a student, a teacher, a parent and in my present role – is based entirely in Scotland. While my experience is particular to a fairly unique form of provision, as I shall explain a bit later, I know from my reading, from school visits and from conversations across the world, that those who work in Catholic education usually talk the same language about young people, about the aims of education and about the challenges we all face today, whatever our national contexts.
For many parents and children, of course, the key objective of schooling is to ensure that intellectual capacities are developed and excellent academic qualifications are obtained so that young people can gain access to higher education and to professional careers. An aspiration towards this kind of “excellence” is perfectly valid, of course, and is reflected in the agendas of most educational systems around the world. And so the Church expects every Catholic school to have the highest expectations for pupil achievement and a commitment to excellence in all aspects of its provision. But our understanding of “excellence” goes beyond academic attainment; we see excellence as a state of perfection in which, through developing fully all of our God-given talents, not only for our own benefit, but in the service of others, we can reach our eternal destiny and “abide in love” with God.
The Gospel imperative
In various documents over the years, the Church has articulated its expectation that the Catholic school should be guided in all it does by the Gospel which determines a philosophy of education which is “attentive to the needs of today’s youth and illuminated by the Gospel message” (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 1988).
The vision and philosophy of the Catholic school, as one of your own documents states, should be based on the truth revealed in Jesus about ourselves, our life together in community and our ultimate destiny in God.
Our belief in the Gospel message that God was incarnate in Jesus so that we may have “life to the full” determines the need for the Catholic school to address itself to the holistic formation of the whole person and all his or her talents and capacities: intellectual, physical, emotional, moral and spiritual:
The person of each individual human being, in his or her material and spiritual needs, is at the heart of Christ’s teaching: this is why the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school.
The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1998
Our belief in the innate dignity and worth of each individual, made in the image and likeness of God, shapes how Catholic schools promote respectful, caring and supportive relationships in communities which are welcoming and inclusive. It underpins school approaches towards pastoral care, behaviour policies, anti-bullying strategies, support for learning and relationships education.
Our obedience to the commandment to “love your neighbour” requires our schools to help children and young people to commit their energies to working for a more just and caring society, both in their local communities and further afield. The historical commitment of Catholic schools towards supporting the developing world has been hugely influential in contributing to the global citizenship agenda now being addressed by schools throughout the UK.
Catholic schools understand that our Catholic faith is not merely something to be “learned about” but something which should be “professed, celebrated, prayed and lived” across all areas of our lives – in the values we proclaim, in the relationships we nurture and in the commitments we promote. This is what is encompassed in the much-trumpeted “Catholic ethos” of our schools. It is only when the life of faith is the driving force behind every activity in the school that young people may discover the joy of entering in to Christ’s being for others. In this way, Catholic schools help young people “gradually learn to open themselves up to life as it is and to create in themselves a definite attitude to life as it should be.” (The Catholic School, 1977)
Such learning happens across the life of the Catholic school, across the range of experiences and outcomes which are offered, and through their inter-connectedness – the ways in which the whole curriculum is underpinned by a Christian understanding of human life, human relationships and human destiny. As the Holy Father recently said to Catholic school pupils in the UK, “All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship.”
In recent times, Pope Benedict XVI has often commented on the nature and identity of Catholic education in the modern world. He has characterised the Catholic school as “first and foremost . . . a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (speaking to Catholic Educators, Washington DC, 17 April 2008)
The challenge for the Catholic school is to structure such experiences of encounter with Jesus, not only in religious education programmes but in the focus on the social, moral, ethical and philosophical issues studied in science, social subjects and literary and media studies. Not only in the school’s liturgical celebrations and provision for spiritual development, but in the nurturing of caring and compassionate relationships within the school community and the cultivation of outward-looking service and servant leadership.
The Pope’s UK Visit
My references to the words of Pope Benedict XVI are not haphazard. I do often refer to his comments on education because I think that they are very instructive. But it is particularly appropriate that I do so now, given the proximity of his wonderful visit to Scotland and England in September. This was truly historic in very many ways – the first State visit of a Pope to Scotland, being met by the Queen in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, joyous scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, lengthy applause in Westminster Hall following his very significant address to British society, the Beatification Cardinal Newman. I could speak at length about the significance of each of these events. Indeed, I believe that many of his words deserve to be re-visited if their full significance is to be realised. But for now I wish to focus on some of the most significant things he said about education and faith – words he spoke to young people and to teachers – words which I hope will resonate with you.
I am delighted to say that he commended Scotland’s Catholic schools for their success in helping young people “not only along the path of spiritual and human growth, but also in entering the professions and public life”. Encouragingly, he described them “as a sign of great hope for the Church”. I hope that you can take comfort from those words, as we did.
He dismissed a purely utilitarian view of education, stressing that education is about “imparting wisdom” and that true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of God, something which was understood by those who provided education in the earliest monastic communities in our lands.
He expressed deep appreciation to teachers who devoted their lives to the “noble task” of teaching the young: “You form new generations not only in knowledge of the faith but in every aspect of what it means to live as mature and responsible citizens in today’s world.” These words reminded us that this responsibility – to form new generations, to shape lives, to nurture growth towards holiness – is indeed great. But it is a sacred duty, one commissioned by the Lord who honours us in his calling, in granting us this vocation of being called to teach.
As well as praising teachers, he encouraged them and other Catholic professionals and politicians to use their talents and experience in the service of the faith, to be examples of faith in public, and to engage with contemporary culture at every level and he urged them not to be afraid to promote faith in the public forum:
“Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility”.
This was, perhaps, the central theme of his message to wider society in the UK and beyond – that the religious voice needs to be heard in the public square. It can offer wisdom and experience which are rooted in the truth about humanity and can guide human actions to ensure that we are not blown about by the winds of relativism.
But the Holy Father’s central message to the Catholic community, I believe, and one which he repeated at various times throughout his visit, was encapsulated in his references to Cardinal John Henry Newman whose Beatification he had come to declare. Newman reminded us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, “we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations.”
The Holy Father acknowledged the personal sacrifice required of each of us if we are to accept the truth of Christ and commit our lives to him. But surely, he told us, if we are passionate about this truth, we must live our lives according to it. “The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard. . .”
As Catholics then, our lives, our daily actions must match our rhetoric of faith, for “Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness . . .”
Of course, he acknowledged that, where the sacrifice required of Christians in former centuries was martyrdom, today the price to be paid is more likely to be that we become the victims of ridicule, parody, suspicion or outright hostility.
Perhaps some of you who work in Catholic schools or support the provision of Catholic education have had such experiences. Perhaps you have been falsely accused of promoting an ideology which is exclusive and hostile to certain groups or individuals. Perhaps you have come under significant pressure to conform your views and your practices to some orthodoxy which claims to safeguard important freedoms – such as equality – but is really intent on limiting freedom by imposing uniformity.
Perhaps you have been the one who has had to stand up and speak out about some aspect of educational policy which ignores and even marginalises the beliefs of people of faith. In all such cases, the personal or professional cost might be high, but we have to be prepared to pay it. We must articulate our beliefs; we must remain true to our mission; we must work for the Kingdom of God. We do so when we allow the light of faith to shine in our hearts, sustained through prayer and the sacraments of the Church. And thus we become light for others, helping them to find their way in a world which can be dark and confusing. And when the light of Christ shines through our lives, Christ assures us, it will be seen by others who will praise our Father in heaven.
Pope Benedict XVI sees such commitment as being vital to the success of the Catholic school. A school’s “Catholic ethos”, he said, is not merely the consequence of its teaching being in conformity with Church doctrine. For a school to be Catholic, he made clear, “the life of faith needs to be the driving force behind every activity in the school, so that . . . young people may discover the joy of entering into Christ’s being for others.”
Before I complete my remarks about the Papal Visit, I must refer to those words which struck me as being among most significant of all. These were the words he used when speaking to children and young people. At the Mass in Glasgow, he urged young people to “learn of your own dignity as children of God” and he urged them to search for, know and love Jesus who would free them from “slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.
At the Big Assembly in St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, he eagerly took the opportunity to speak directly to those present and to those watching via the Internet: “There is something I very much want to say to you.” Speaking very lovingly to them, like any good head teacher, he expressed his hopes for their lives and urged them to follow God’s wish that they should grow in holiness:
“What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.”
He asked them not to settle for second best in their lives and warned that happiness is not to be found in money, career, success or relationships, but in God. He proceed to teach them about how they could become holy – by growing in friendship with Jesus. You know what it feels like, he said, when you meet someone with whom you want to become friends – you come to admire their particular qualities and you begin to behave like them. It’s like this when you become a friend of Jesus – you are attracted to the practice of virtue:
“You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.”
And finally, outside Westminster Cathedral in London, when he spoke to young people from across the Dioceses of England, Wales and Scotland, he was at his most disarming, I think, when he spoke from his heart: “Think of all the love that your heart was made to receive, and all the love it is meant to give. After all, we were made for love.” He explained that we were made to receive the love of families, friends, teachers and we were made to give love, to make it “the most enduring thing in our lives” – a choice we make each day. And the source of all that love – Jesus – can be found in the silence of our hearts. When he urged them to set aside time for moments of silent prayer each day, I was struck by the thought that some of our schools could, perhaps, do more to help young people to acquire the discipline of “real prayer”. At the various Masses and liturgical celebrations during the visit, it was remarkable how these large congregations were stilled for long periods of silent prayer and reflection.
Catholic Education Week in Scotland
Given all that I have said about the Pope’s visit, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that the theme we have chosen for this year’s Catholic Education Week in Scotland is inspired by the words of the Holy Father: “Grow in holiness; become saints of the 21st century”. The materials which we have produced to support schools, parishes and families in their time of reflection and celebration are intended to support exploration of what these words can mean for the lives of our children and young people.
This is one strand of our strategy to sustain something of a legacy from the Pope’s visit. We are keen not only to record memories of the various events but to plan for how the Pope’s various messages can continue to be explored by young people at different stages in education. I believe that the Holy Father has provided us with various tasks, challenges and targets – an action plan, if you like – which will enable us to build on our efforts to develop schools which will provide Catholic education for the 21st century.
Catholic Schools in Scotland
You will know that, in Scotland, Catholic schools have historically experienced some hostility from some quarters. We have been accused of sustaining separation and division among children and even of encouraging sectarianism. All such allegations are entirely unsupported by any evidence; indeed they are made despite clear evidence to the contrary. For the record of Catholic schools is excellent. Statistics demonstrate how they add significant value to the educational provision in Scotland, how they have built social capital. Historically we have worked against the odds, with the most deprived communities, to overcome barriers to learning and enhance opportunities for social mobility. We have met the challenges of raising attainment and promoting wider achievement. Research and reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors have consistently demonstrated the quality of our pastoral care, the satisfaction rates of our customers – pupils and parents.
While the Catholic community makes up about 15% of Scotland’s population, Catholic schools educate about 20% of the school population. Our schools are all non-selective and comprehensive in their intake. Many non-Catholic parents choose Catholic schools because they admire our work and wish their children to benefit from what we offer. At a time when the traditional governing structures of state education are coming under pressure, it is becomingly increasingly obvious that Catholic schools are confident in the coherent vision which they embody, in the distinctive philosophy and values which they articulate and in their sense of community which shines out for all to see. The Catholic Church in Scotland has sustained faith schools, in partnership with Government, when other denominations have allowed their schools to wither. That fact, itself, is a source of complaint from some quarters who accuse us of enjoying an unfair privilege. And yet, I meet many Christians and people of other faiths who say to me: “Catholic schools are a force for good; you must sustain them.”
Unusually, Catholics schools in Scotland are fully managed and governed, not by the Church, but by local education authorities. Since 1918 when we agreed to transfer our schools over to the State, the Church has retained statutory rights over teaching appointments and the religious education. Beyond these two areas, we have to try to exert influence on national and local education policy, through discussion with politicians and officials. This process is time-consuming and is subject to the vagaries of political fashion and expediency.
We have also made a considerable effort to define our vision for the distinctive education provision we offer, supporting teachers through in-service training and resources which build their confidence in understanding and expressing what we are about. So, building on the Charter for Catholic Schools which defines the 10 key characteristics of the Catholic school, we have recently developed the resource Shining the Light of Christ in the Catholic school which is a tool to support schools in the systematic evaluation of their faith mission.
Yet, while never being complacent, we are confident that no Scottish political party with serious designs on high office would try to abolish Catholic schools. Before the current Scottish Government was elected, the Greens publicly declared their opposition to Catholic schools. After the election (in which they lost 5 of their 7 parliamentary seats) they formed a loose coalition with the Scottish National Party so that a Government could be formed. But we were given an absolute assurance that the new Government would be fully supportive of Catholic schools. I have to acknowledge that they have been faithful to that promise.
This was most famously demonstrated in 1998 when we invited First Minster Alex Salmond to deliver the Cardinal Winning Education Lecture to mark the start of Catholic Education Week that year. The First Minster’s unambiguous message of support for Catholic schools – in “celebration of their work” – reverberated across Scotland and across parts of Europe also. He made clear that Scotland owed its identity and survival as a nation to the Catholic Church. He spoke at length of his admiration for the contribution made by Catholic schools to the welfare of Scottish society, highlighting how they endow our children with:
• a strong moral foundation
• a positive and distinctive identity
• a keen sense of personal responsibility and the common good
• a strong commitment to charity
• and a belief in the basic principle that each of us can and should make a positive contribution to our world.
He also celebrated how Catholic schools “retain a central role in shaping a modern, compassionate and just nation”.
The First Minister drew his lecture to a close by saying:
I am proud to support Catholic education in Scotland. . . . The point is not merely that Catholic schools get good results. They do, of course, and that is vital. What also matters is that children in Catholic schools gain a wider sense of responsibility and identity – and a desire to help improve the community in which they live.
Today I am proud to join with you in celebrating the particular contribution of Catholic schools to our society. I use the word ‘celebrate’ quite deliberately. For far too long the attitude of some has been at best, grudging acceptance of Catholic education, and at worst, outright hostility.
My contention . . . is that it is time to celebrate diversity and distinctiveness. And to openly welcome the contribution that faith based education can make to Scottish education.
I hope and pray that, in your coming Catholic Schools Week, and in years to come, a similar generous spirit of celebration will prevail.