28 January 2010
Address by Fr Michael Drumm, Executive Chairperson, at the launch of Catholic Schools Partnership
Schools are important places. We spend a lot of time in them. This includes a significant proportion of that most formative period in life between 4-5 years of age and 17-18 years of age. When schools are working at or near their best they are truly a remarkable human achievement. Young children have a safe place to pray and play and learn; adolescents grow into a deeper intellectual, emotional and moral world; teachers use their personal and professional abilities to challenge and mould new generations; parents and other adults give of their time and money to support the educational enterprise. The hope is that by 17-18 years of age a young adult who is free, rational and capable of mature relationships will be able to cross the threshold into higher education or the world of work.
Catholic schools in Ireland make an enormous contribution to our society and are models of inclusivity and care for all the students who attend them. This dynamic role will continue into the future and will be enhanced by the structure we are launching today.
There are about 3,500 Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland. Listening to some commentators one would think that there is some major flaw, almost a moral difficulty, in the management and patronage structures of these schools. Is it not the case that such criticisms tell us much more about the agendas of these commentators than they do about the reality of our schools? These schools are caring and inclusive communities. They have adapted to demographic change with significant net migration into Ireland and have led the way in integrating the ‘new Irish’ into local communities.
A most notable dimension of our schools has been their capacity to foster a spirit of voluntary effort on the part of teachers and parents. Look at the commitment and work of members of boards of management. They give of their time and expertise in service of the common good. They spend endless hours dealing with personnel issues, employment law, finance and buildings. There are over 20,000 volunteers acting on these boards. They receive no pay, no subsistence and no travel expenses. Where is the evidence in any walk of Irish life demonstrating a capacity to motivate such a level of volunteerism? The only other example on such a scale is the GAA and it is notably rooted in the same parish structure as the church. Our schooling system has facilitated a structure of participatory democracy unheard of in most areas of Irish life. Where is the equivalent in health, in policing, in local government?
Catholic schools are civic institutions providing an important service to the State. There is no contradiction between this civic commitment and the religious ethos of the school for the same person can be a good citizen and a sincere religious believer. Many of the outstanding citizens in the history of our State, not least in the area of education, have made their civic contribution precisely because of deep religious motivation.
Today we launch an umbrella group to support the various partners in Catholic schools. The key word is ‘partnership’. This new partnership will respect the very real diversity already present among Catholic schools in Ireland. It will function on the basis of subsidiarity, a much misunderstood principle. As an organizing principle it suggests that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. Thankfully, our schools are embedded in local communities and have a strong sense of identity. The role of the Catholic Schools Partnership is not to create a large centralised structure but to provide a framework wherein some issues can be handled at a more central level while respecting the autonomy and diversity of our schools.
At the heart of the new partnership is a council with thirty-three members drawn from across the spectrum of Catholic schools. There are three bishops, seven lay women, eight lay men, six religious sisters, two religious brothers and seven priests. One of the main aims is to provide a unified voice for Catholic education in the public forum and with educational bodies and the Government. The council has begun its work and has already identified five areas that need attention.
- Planning for a broader range of provision at primary level based on the principle of parental choice.
- Support for new Catholic voluntary secondary schools based on the principle of parental choice. Also at second level there is need to address the unequal financing of Catholic voluntary schools vis-à-vis other schools.
- Unsustainability of some small schools.
- Identifying a key range of supports for those involved in Catholic schools. Time and attention need to be devoted to the development of the spirituality of lay leaders in our schools.
- The need for an internal dialogue within the church on the role of schools in the mission and life of the Christian community.
A lot of media attention has centred on the first of these issues. It is widely accepted that there needs to be some change at primary level. There are too many Catholic schools for the number of Catholics in our State and there are some people, Catholics and others, who would prefer more diversity of provision. I welcome the fact that serious contributors to this debate are highlighting the importance of parental choice. If we can establish a method of verifying parental choice then I think we can plan carefully with other interested parties so that additional forms of patronage can serve the diverse needs of the community.
I would like to conclude by reflecting on two hugely influential teachers in the history of Christianity – Jesus himself and Thomas Aquinas. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, a true educator who called us out of the limited worlds which we so often inhabit to new frontiers of knowledge, imagination, forgiveness and love. Teachers in Catholic schools could usefully take Jesus as their model and inspiration. Teaching is still the most noble of professions but it is a most demanding task not least because of changing patterns of classroom behaviour. Teachers are an easy target for cheap criticism but anyone concerned with the future of our society should take care when it comes to undermining such an important profession. Most teachers in our Catholic schools have served society and the church well.
Jesus, the great teacher, told many parables. Amongst the most important are those that speak of a sower sowing seed. Some seeds fell in thorns and were choked. Some fell in a drain and were drowned. Some fell in shallow earth and perished. And some fell in rich soil and yielded thirty, sixty, even a hundred fold. People often read these parables in a moralistic way – making judgments about the quality of people. But the true meaning of these parables is that the Word of God will not be frustrated by anything human – that though many seeds will not bear fruit the true seed of the Word of God will bear a rich harvest in unexpected ways in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities, in our society, and yes, in our schools. The task of the Christian teacher is not to bemoan all that is wrong with us and our lives but to have the eyes to see that even in the midst of a sad and difficult world the seed of God’s Word is bearing fruit in ways that we could never have imagined.
Today, 28th January, the church celebrates the life of St Thomas Aquinas. He stands out as one of the great educators in the history of Christianity. He argued that faith and reason can live and thrive in the same person; that while one cannot be reduced to the other they both can play a dynamic role in forming and educating a mature person. Catholic schools have continued this rich tradition. Respect for faith and reason has characterised Catholic schools and helps to explain why such schools are so popular throughout the world.
St Thomas also had a major influence on the relationship of faith and culture. In the thirteenth century he brought the long lost thought of Aristotle into dynamic dialogue with Christian tradition. Others thought that this was not possible but Thomas insisted that the Christian mind must not close itself off in a ghetto but must be present in the public square. He is a great example of how Christians can relate to the culture in which they find themselves. He teaches us that we must endlessly reinterpret the gospel and preach it for our times.
As the work of the Catholic Schools Partnership commences we could not have better foundations that those provided by St Thomas Aquinas – a respect for faith and reason and a commitment to dialogue between faith and culture.
Notes to editors:
- Fr Michael Drumm is Executive Chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership. The Catholic Schools Partnership was established in September 2009 and is intended to support all of the partners in Catholic education at first and second level. This includes patrons/trustees, management bodies including boards of management and teachers in Catholic schools. The office is based in St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Co Kildare.
- This is the text of the address given by Fr Michael Drumm, on Thursday 28 January in the Emmaus Centre, Swords, Co Duiblin, at the launch of the Catholic Schools Partnership.
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 310 4444