26 September 2008 | Bishop Dónal Murray address to the Ceist Conference, Tralee, 25 September 2008

26 Sep 2008

26 September 2008

Bishop Donal Murray address to the Principals and Deputy Principals at the 3rd Annual CEIST Education Conference in Tralee, Co Kerry

“The ceist underlying the whole enterprise of education is bigger than the mandate of the State. It concerns not just our citizenship or our economic contribution but our humanity” – Bishop Murray

Someone suggested that the Teaching Council which, I believe, occupies the offices beside Ceist, should call itself Freagra! I am sure that relations between the two bodies are more positive and less one-dimensional than that would suggest, but at least it would not be as bad as two houses I passed on an apparently peaceful road in Connecticut. One of them had a sign bearing the lovely name, “Tranquillity”, but the next door neighbour had erected a similar sign saying, “Aggravation”!

Still the concept of ceist is the right starting point for a reflection on the role of education. It is very appropriate that this new trust has decided to describe itself as a question (ceist) rather than as an answer.  The whole enterprise of education, indeed the whole of human life, is a question.  Pope John Paul says, “One may define the human being as the one who seeks the truth”(1). So all of us who are involved in education – pupils, parents, teachers, staff, management, the State, Trustees and Patrons – are in the business of seeking the truth.

In this context we are talking about education in schools, particularly at post-primary level.  That is not to diminish the other important areas that need to be considered in this changing world – primary education, third level and life long learning.  There are very urgent challenges in each of these areas, not least for the future of Catholic education.  But they are questions for another day, a day which should not be long delayed.  We need to think seriously about the future of Catholic third level education.  After all, the University is very largely a creation of the Church.  I would just say this, that the underlying challenge at each level of education is the same.

What is crucial at any level is to recognise the kind of question that underlies education.  We would be foolish to underestimate the currents in contemporary society which would tempt us to see the question in some such terms as, “How can we prepare young people to take their place in the economic life of the country and of the wider world?”; “How can we provide the skills and information that will enable them to become good citizens of the State?”; or even, “How can we try to ensure that they get the results they need for their chosen third level courses?”

All of these are important questions that no school can ignore. But they do not address the purpose of education at its root. In fact, the emphasis on such questions is a sign of one of the great dangers we face, namely that our understanding of the ceist, the question that drives the process of education, may become too narrow and too shallow:

“The fragmentation of education, the generic character of the values frequently invoked and which obtain ample and easy consensus at the price of a dangerous obscuring of their content, tend to make the school step back into a supposed neutrality, which enervates its educating potential and reflects negatively on the formation of the pupils”(2).

Although the focus of Pope Benedict’s address in Regensburg was on university education, the challenge of his words applies to education as a whole. It is the challenge of recognising that the question which education addresses is the question about the meaning of life in all its dimensions; it is about the discovery of the true, the beautiful, the good; it is about the vast horizon of meaning which can unite all our longing and all our questions.

“While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them.

We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizon…

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.  In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid.  Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions”(3).

The factors that fundamentally shape our lives have to do with our attitudes to basic questions of meaning: “What is the purpose of human life?” “What happens when we die?” “Is there anything worth living or dying for?”  These questions lie at the root of every exercise of human freedom(4). 

Any education which would ignore the underlying question of meaning would be doomed to shallowness.  How could one even consider setting out to prepare young people for life while considering such questions irrelevant(5)? Failure to recognise this challenge would mean missing the profundity of the ceist.  A real dialogue about the meaning of life, and about the understanding of education, has to be aware that the forces that shape our lives lie deeper than economic factors or good citizenship or any concept of success that could be measured in academic results. 

If education at all levels has to address these fundamental questions, that leads to a vital conclusion about the question, “Who educates?”  It is clear that the State as such cannot address these questions.  Nobody is elected to political office with a mandate to determine how questions about the meaning of life should be approached, still less how they should be answered.

And yet the State cannot simply ignore these issues.  The fact is that the attitudes which make it possible for society to function – honesty, loyalty, solidarity and so on – are tied up with people’s fundamental attitudes to life.  That is not, of course, to say that everyone has the same fundamental convictions, nor that everybody’s convictions are expressed in terms of belief in God or a relationship to God. The State has to recognise the importance of these attitudes to ultimate meaning and to recognise that they take a wide variety of forms and formulations.  At the same time the State has to recognise that it has no role in determining what people should believe.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has stressed that one of the things that impoverishes our societies is that we have focussed on two poles: the vulnerable and isolated individual and the universal which is seen particularly in terms of political and economic organisation(6).  This leads to a situation where large parts of our lives are lived in contexts in which we feel obliged to regard our deepest questions as irrelevant and where speaking about them too openly might be regarded as embarrassing or even discourteous.  It would be well worth having a discussion about how far this muffling of religious themes in public discourse is a source of alienation in society. As I have been suggesting, however, in the field of education it would be an approach that would lead not just to alienation but to a deep contradiction.  It would undermine the claim that education has to do with the development of the whole person of the pupil. 

Rabbi Sacks points out that there is an intermediate component in society and that it is here that we have to locate the source of our values and our meaning.  “We discover who we are and why” in families, churches, communities and other groupings that lie between the individual and the State.  Pope John Paul made precisely the same point:

Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity, these develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today.  It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more ‘personalised'(7)”

What that means is that the role of the State in education is correctly described in the Irish Constitution.  The primary and natural educator is the family. The State is committed not to providing free primary education itself but to providing for free primary education, supplementing and supporting private and corporate educational initiatives. “When the public good requires it”, the State may provide other educational facilities “with due regard, however to the rights of parents especially in the matter of religious and moral formation(8)”.  The function of the State, therefore, is not primarily to educate but to provide support to families and communities in carrying out that primary function which properly belongs to them. 

We are not here in some discussion about Churches “clinging to power”.  That would be to trivialise what is at stake. This is about recognising that the ceist underlying the whole enterprise of education is bigger than the mandate of the State. It concerns not just our citizenship or our economic contribution but our humanity. It is in “intermediary communities” that people grow as people.  It is there that we learn our own worth, our ability to relate to others, our moral values and concepts, our understanding of the meaning of our lives.  Among other things we learn to be good citizens because we learn to value human life, human dignity and human society.

There should be no embarrassment or apology for seeking to educate in a context in which the approach to life of the pupils and their families can be naturally and freely expressed, not as an extra, but as an integral dimension of the process of education. Otherwise education would be reduced to an encounter between pupils and culture in a way which fails to involve either the whole person of the pupil or the whole of the culture. In that case the question would be impoverished and emptied of its depth.

Intermediate communities whether religious or not should be free and should be encouraged to establish schools in which the children of those families and groups can explore the deepest questions of meaning without feeling that the most fundamental aspects of those questions must be left in the cloakroom with their overcoats.

It is, of course, possible as we have seen in Ireland through the Vocational Education sector, for the State to establish a school system which respects and, so far as is practical, makes positive provision for the beliefs and traditions of all its pupils.  We have also seen, in Catholic schools, especially in today’s more plural Ireland, that a religious school can give that kind of respect to a wide variety of different traditions.  The fact is that a religious school understands the importance of the questions of meaning and can respect and support the quest for truth in a way that could not be done in a school which would seek to suppress such questions.

It will be very important in the decades ahead that we do not make the mistake of seeking harmony in schools by keeping the fundamental questions off the agenda.  Pupils will need to understand the riches of their own traditions if they are to engage constructively with those of other traditions. 

But more is needed than instruction in what one might call the externals of the celebrations and customs and history and structures of various religious communities and especially of one’s own tradition. That could conceivably be done without ever opening up the questions that are raised for all human beings by death and evil, by hope, by our longings for peace and justice, by our recognition of beauty and goodness and of their fragility.  These are the very questions without which knowledge of religion remains superficial.

Ceist and similar trusts, and indeed the educational focus of the Church as a whole, are rightly concerned for the future of Catholic education.  There is, however, a wider question here, a question not just for schools that belong to particular religious traditions, but for all schools.  There is the need to recognise the emptiness of an approach which would attempt to educate young people without awakening them to the dimension of themselves in which those questions of meaning are to be found.

That is important not only for religious reasons, but because this is the dimension of human beings to which great art and poetry and music and the quest for truth and love speak most eloquently.  In all of these we find the creative tension between the frustration of our limitations on the one hand and the infinity of our aspirations on the other, between our failure and weakness and our ideals and hopes.  That is where we meet the tragedy and the glory of human life. That is where we meet the truth about ourselves and our world.  There, in the deepest places of our own humanity, we Christians believe that God comes to meet us(9).  He has spoken to us in his Word and shown us a response to our longings beyond what any eye has seen or ear heard.

Earlier this month in Paris, Pope Benedict returned to this issue.  He spoke of the roots of Western culture and located those roots especially in the monasteries and schools:

… It was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past.  Their motivation was much more basic.  Their goal was: quaerere Deum [to seek God]. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself.  They were searching for God. .. because they were Christians, this was not an expedition into a trackless wilderness, a search leading them into total darkness.  God himself had… marked out a path which was… his word,…(10)

This underlying ceist which is the heart of education is, as I have stressed, about the whole self of the pupil, and indeed of the parents, the teachers, those involved in management, those in trusteeship and patronage and those in any way involved with the work of schools.

But is more than that.  The question of meaning is a question that we address as families and communities – in settings which we enter with the whole of ourselves. It is a question that is not easily addressed in situations where we engage in limited functions or roles such as citizenship or work or as a customer or an official.  [That distinction is, of course, rather porous.  Sometimes people can behave in families and communities as if they did not fully belong; sometimes quite anonymous and institutional relationships can blossom into deep human contact.]  Nevertheless it is in settings where we can be fully present to ourselves and to others that we meet the fundamental ceist.

In a particular way it is true of Catholic education that it has to be the activity of a community.  For us the answer to our ceist is not a theory or a structure it is an encounter with a Person.  And it is, at the same time the life and tradition of a people to whom God has spoken and in which the Word made flesh lives:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth.(11)”

We are in a time of great change in education in Ireland.  In every major change there are regrets. But in every major change there are also opportunities.  What we saw as strengths – and there were enormous strengths in the history of Catholic education and in the work of so many dedicated religious sisters, brothers and so many priests, religious and diocesan – seemed to be something that would continue with little change into the indefinite future.  Now Ceist and other trusts will take up that tradition and, please God, bring strengths and insights for a new century.

I take the liberty of suggesting what one important and timely contribution may be. It will, I hope, be the giving of new life and vibrancy to the role of the Christian community in education. The tradition of faith that we want to open up to young people is the faith of the believing, worshipping community.

One result of the lower profile of religious discourse and of the faith dimension of life in the public arena is that believers are tempted to see faith as only one dimension of life among the many competing claims on their attention. In fact it is the encounter with the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the meaning of our lives and of all creation. If that understanding of the all-embracing importance of faith is lacking, the responsibilities of the faith community in education, in encouraging vocations, in reflecting and praying together, in carrying out with vigour and with openness to the new demands of the mission we have received from our Founder(12), can easily be regarded as ‘somebody else’s business’.

In the past, religious congregations took on work in education, in health care and in pastoral outreach to the poor, because there was no other way that these needs could be met.  But what they were doing was not simply the apostolate of their religious congregations – it was the duty and responsibility of the whole Church. The declining number of religious is a sad development and means great heartache for those who have given their lives to religious life and who see so few following in their footsteps. It has, however, one very positive dimension.  It is an unmistakeable call to every member of the Church to accept that the care of the sick and the poor and the education of a new generation is the responsibility of the whole community and of each member. If it was ever possible to say to oneself, “I can leave all of that to the sisters and the brothers”, it is certainly not possible today.  To do so would mean that these essential dimensions of the life of Christ’s followers would be left undone.

Ceist, with its involvement of people from many different walks of life in the Trusteeship of schools, continues and develops the involvement of people in management, and teaching and other roles in schools which once were predominantly filled by religious sisters and brothers and by priests. This is an eloquent sign of the new challenge.  It is a new beginning.  Even if vocations were as plentiful as they were in the past, it would now be essential to put the challenge to the whole Church.  ‘If you want to see the faith lived vibrantly, if you want to see the hope of Christ shedding light and calling new generations in Ireland to follow him into the new creation, do not think that this is somebody else’s job.  If you do, you are not just neutral; you are an obstacle to the Gospel!’

It is appropriate that I address this gathering as Bishop of Limerick.  It was in Limerick, nearly thirty years ago, that Pope John Paul issued this very call most clearly.  There is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ lay person, he told us.  Each baptised person has a part to play in bringing the Gospel to the world.  He listed some of the spheres where lay people are especially competent:  politics, the media, science, technology, commerce and education.  Repeatedly he stressed the urgency of his call: “Now is the time of testing for Ireland. This generation is once more a generation of decision”; “You, the present generation of Irish people, must decide; your choice must be clear and your decision firm”; “Ireland must choose”(13).

Ceist and the other trusts mark a major transition in the history of Irish education.  It is an occasion to salute the pioneering work of religious sisters, brothers and priests.  It is a history of generous and farseeing people who met needs that nobody else would or could meet.  Like any human enterprise the history contains darkness as well as light, failure as well as success. No one is more conscious of the pain and joy of that history than the religious congregations themselves.

But this is a time to appreciate what was achieved and in particular to celebrate the education that was given to generations of Irish young people.  The establishment of Ceist is another generous and farseeing act.  It is a recognition that all of that work was done for and in the whole community of the Church.  It invites a broader section of that community to be involved not only in teaching or in management but in the trusteeship of the schools.

My hope is that this broader composition of the trusts will be an effective sign to every member of the Church that education is a task for all of us. What is being shared in Catholic education is not just knowledge and values.  It is the faith and way of life of the followers of Jesus Christ.  When you think of it that way, it is obvious that it must be an activity of the community of faith, that it can only take place within that community and that its aim must be to foster committed and active membership of that community.  But that in turn means that it requires the active participation of the community as whole. Pope John Paul put it:

“Catechesis runs the risk of becoming barren if no community of faith and Christian life takes the catechumen in at a certain stage of his catechesis. That is why the ecclesial community at all levels has a twofold responsibility with regard to catechesis: it has the responsibility of providing for the training of its members, but it also has the responsibility of welcoming them into an environment where they can live as fully as possible what they have learned(14).

We are rightly anxious to protect and enrich the ethos of our Catholic schools.  Here we are at the heart of it. The ethos of a Catholic school to put it at its simplest, means that it is a living part of a Catholic community.  If we were really to take that seriously, some of the issues we face would look different.  We look for legal guarantees to protect the ethos and no doubt it is right that we should have such guarantees. But the ethos is not simply a matter of rules or laws; it is a matter of where the school sees itself as belonging.  It is not therefore a question of rights that the law can grant, but of a reality that the law should recognise – the position of families and communities in the education of young people.  The new trusts are guarantors of the interests and rights of the Catholic families and communities which the schools were established to serve.

The issues we face are, as I said, not about control but about the nature of education.  And they go beyond education in the strict sense to the nature of the society that is growing in the twenty-first century.

We are living in a culture which has increasing difficulty in dealing with difference and is tempted to deal with different cultures and religions by ignoring them as far as possible.  But a situation in which people are not comfortable in expressing their own convictions and are not anxious to understand the convictions of others is a recipe not for harmony but for division.

Some voices express the determination that Ireland must not remain locked in the past; others express a fear of losing our distinctive character and culture. That is the inevitable the tension of living within a plurality of cultures.

A society with such a plurality of cultures cannot be successfully built unless it is open to seeing the importance of the convictions about the meaning of life which motivate and inspire and enlighten people(15).  The education system of such a society cannot be based on treating those, often differing, convictions as irrelevant to the project of preparing young people for life.  It has to make provision for enabling the pupil to express him/herself as a whole person, religious beliefs and all. It has to make provision for learning that deep, differing convictions do not have to be, and should not be, divisive.  They are the outcome of many different individuals, families, and communities pursuing the same ceist. They are the fruit of the great and rich variety of the searching by which human beings follow the goal which, one might say, defines their humanity, as the ones “who seek the truth”.  It is not just in the school but in society as a whole that it is insufficient to say “You may believe what you like; it is of no importance to me”.  The person to whom those beliefs are important will not feel respected or valued by such an attitude. That is not tolerance but a refusal to take these issues with the seriousness that they deserve. A Catholic school is a most important way of responding to that challenge of taking convictions and beliefs seriously and understanding their role in the lives of people and of society.

I wish you well in your Conference and in your future work as all of you – Trustees, Boards and teachers, the pupils and parents – pursue the ceist which makes us who we are; we are human beings who seek the truth and who know that it is to be found not in a theory but in our encounter with the One who is the Way and the Truth and the Life.

+Donal Murray
Bishop of Limerick

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer (086 817 5674)
Notes to editors
  • Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick, is chair of the Department of Catholic Education and Formation of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference
  • CEIST is the new trustee body for the voluntary secondary schools of the Daughters of Charity, the Presentation Sisters, the Sisters of the Christian Retreat, the Sisters of Mercy and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.  Ms Anne Kelleher is the Chief Executive Officer of CEIST.
  • The theme of the conference is: “To see anew the CEIST value of respect”

Footnotes to text

  1. JOHN PAUL II, Fides et Ratio, 28.
  2. CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997), 10
  3. BENEDICT XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.
  4. Cf. AQUINAS, Summa Theologiae, I-II q.1, a.66c.; JOHN PAUL II, Veritatis Splendor, 7.
  5. Cf. SHEED, F., Society and Sanity, London 1953, p. 4.
  6. Cf. SACKS, J., The Persistence  of Faith, London 1991, p. 14,
  7. JOHN PAUL II, Centesimus Annus, 49.
  8. Bunreacht na hÉireann 42.4, and all of article 42.
  9. Cf. VATICAN II, Gaudium et Spes, 14
  10. Address at College des Bernardins, Paris 12 September 2008.
  11. BENEDICT XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1.
  12. Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Knock, 30 September 1979.
  13. JOHN PAUL II, Limerick, 1 October 1979,
  14. JOHN PAUL II, Catechesi Tradendae, 24.
  15. Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Deus Caritas Est 28a.