Address by Cardinal Seán Brady at Conference on Catholic Schools in Kilkenny

07 May 2010

7 May 2010

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Address by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at Conference on Catholic Schools in Kilkenny

The Catholic School – Reflecting an Experience

“Renewing our stewardship of Catholic schools has to involve renewing our commitment to respecting and promoting the right of children in our schools to be led and formed in authentic worship of God in the Catholic tradition. This is not some optional extra. Children and their parents have a right to expect a Catholic school to provide children with a formation in prayer and worship.” – Cardinal Brady



I am particularly delighted to open this Conference on Catholic Schools in the week in which the Church celebrates the memory of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice.  I am honoured to do so here in Kilkenny, his native county, and in Ossory, his native diocese.  Blessed Edmund, as we all know, was a man of enormous energy and vision. He had the ability to see and respond to the most pressing needs of his day. A successful businessman, he understood the importance of profit and entrepreneurial skill. A man of deep faith, he realised that profit and skill are not ends in themselves. He understood that the fiscal economy only has value when it is at the service of the human economy. He realised that personal skill finds its greatest fulfilment in collaboration with others, for the good of all. And so, as you know, he invested his hard-earned wealth in setting others free – free from deprivation, free to become all that God called them to be. He did this by giving young people one of the most valuable and humanising gifts of all – an education rooted in the message of Jesus Christ.

As we open this Conference on Catholic schools today I think it is worth recalling the vision and commitment of this extraordinary Kilkenny man. It is worth remembering that tremendous time in Irish history when God raised up a host of outstanding Irish women and men who gave their lives and their wealth to founding Catholic schools in this country. I am thinking of course of outstanding women like Catherine McAuley, Nano Nagle and Mary Aikenhead as well as Edmund Rice.


We have every reason to celebrate our Catholic schools. We have every reason to be confident in the future of Catholic education and its importance for our society. We have every reason to believe that God is faithful.  God still offers his charism of teaching and inspiring others to hosts of very talented Irish lay women and men who teach in our schools today. The cultural setting has changed and has changed enormously.  The blackboards may have been replaced by whiteboards and some books by computers and ‘i-pads’, but the fundamental mission remains the same. We are artisans of a new reality, architects of new possibilities for our pupils and for our world. We are builders of the Kingdom of God, of a world rooted in justice and love. We are bearers of hope – of eternal hope – a hope which saves.  For only hope can save us from the emptiness, the superficiality and the temptation to despair which seems to be increasingly gripping our society, including young people, more aggressively in recent years. We are heralds of the Word of life, people who proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ has come so that we may have life and have it to the full.


In all of this every Catholic educator is a steward of Christ’s mission to the world. We, together, lay faithful, priests, bishops and religious are stewards of a great treasure given to us by Jesus Christ on trust. In spite of the fragility of the earthenware vessels which hold this treasure – and we all experience that fragility at times – we are called to share that treasure with the whole of creation, with the rest of the world.


In recent times the setting up of various Trusts is a feature of the educational scene.  But for teachers of the faith, I think the notion of stewardship is particularly important. A steward is someone who has been given responsibility to protect and nurture something on behalf of someone else. When we speak of stewardship of Catholic education we are talking about a mission we have received.  We have received a sacred trust from Jesus Christ.  The Risen Christ called his followers to ‘go out and teach all nations’. We are also talking about a sacred trust which has been given to us by the community of Christ’s believers, the Church, to continue Christ’s mission of justice, mercy and love in the world.

We are also talking about stewardship of a sacred trust given to us by parents.  I refer to those who wish to have their children educated in a school community defined and inspired by Catholic faith and values on a daily basis. Parents, whatever their denominational background, have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions.

This right is recognised in international instruments of human rights, including the European Convention on Human Rights. Catholic schools have a duty to respond to that right conscientiously. Trustees, Boards of Management, Principals, teachers and supporting staff, we all have a duty to ensure the Catholic ethos and identity is a key feature of the life and mission of our schools. This is an identity which is specifically characterised by respect, love and justice for all. It is an ethos based on the vision of a peaceful world and a selfless concern for others modelled on Jesus in the Gospels.

We are also talking about a whole estate of schools.  The right to establish them was only won after a hard struggle.  The finances were raised from a poor but generous faithful.  The Trustees have been given control of the administration of those schools in trust, with a legal obligation to deploy them for the purposes specified.


One right I believe we should particularly cherish as people of faith is the right of a child to know and to love God. Children also have a right – to know God’s love for them. They have a right to receive the truth and life which God offers them in the Sacred Scriptures, in the sacraments and in prayer. If we really believe that Jesus Christ reveals the whole truth about the human person, then children have a right to receive that truth. If we really believe that the message of Jesus Christ is the key to a better world and the source of our eternal hope, then children have a right to be part of a school community in which Jesus and his message are lived, respected and promoted. Children also have a right to worship God as part of their daily activity. They have a right to be trained and formed in the worship and prayer of the faith community to which they belong.


Every education, worth its salt, must, at least, ask the fundamental questions about the meaning of life.  Jesus came that all may have life, and have it to the full.  Surely this includes shining a torch on what life is all about.  What is its purpose?  Why are we here?  Is it simply to seek pleasure at all costs or to find our happiness in giving glory to God? – our first beginning and our last end.  In fact, that discovery could transform not alone the individual human life of the pupil; it could, in fact, through them, transform the wider society which they hope to build.


Renewing our stewardship of Catholic schools has to involve renewing our commitment to respecting and promoting the right of children in our schools to be led and formed in authentic worship of God in the Catholic tradition. This is not some optional extra. Children and their parents have a right to expect a Catholic school to provide children with a formation in prayer and worship. That is why I make a special appeal to you as leaders of your school community – pupils, teachers, parents, principals, members of Board of Management who lead – I ask you to reflect seriously and with commitment on this essential part of our shared duty of stewardship. A Catholic school without worship and prayer is a contradiction in terms. It is also a school which is failing in its fundamental obligation to parents and children.

My hope is that the same attention will always be given to excellence in worship as is given to excellence in academic or sporting performances.  There are also wonderful and very laudable efforts made to teach music, elocution and drama and I wish that pupils would be encouraged to place their musical talents and their speaking talents and their acting talents at the service of their local community and in their parishes at weekly worship.  There is no higher service to be given.


The link with society, with the local parish, the local community and the wider world has been a constant hallmark of Catholic schools. We must work to strengthen and enhance these links at every possible opportunity.  It is vital that our schools also forge links with local organisations which are in the business of helping the less well off, the stranger and the needy.

Solidarity with the poor always appeals to young Irish people.  I have visited many schools where there are magnificent initiatives towards Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.  I know that many teachers and pupils have gone there.  People have fasted to raise funds. They have come up with creative and ingenious ways of raising money and involving people in support and giving that only teachers and young people can.  It is important that we recognise and celebrate this essential dimension of the Catholic school. The John Paul II Awards system, for example, which was introduced in the diocese of Derry, and is now in the diocese of Dromore and Armagh, rewards young people who carry out, into their parishes and local communities, the practice of what they learn from the Catholic ethos of their school.  This programme has caught the imagination of hundreds of pupils in these schools and in these dioceses.  I think it is a very imaginative and praiseworthy way of involving people, bridging school and parish, to the mutual advantage of both.

Catholic schools will continue to play a vital role in civic life if they continue to exemplify, in an outstanding way, how to be better citizens by being better Christians. That is, Christians who are prepared to engage fully in building a more cohesive, responsible and caring society and who are willing to commit themselves to work for the common good.


Developing a mutually supportive relationship between parents, the home and the school is also a critical dimension of the Catholic School. Parents are the first educators of their children and the Church recognises that the primary right and responsibility for the education of children rests with them. There is a real danger however, that parents will somehow feel excluded or left merely on the periphery of their child’s education, especially as schools become so comprehensive in the range of curricular and extra curricular opportunities they provide for children.

There is equally a danger that parents might abdicate important areas of responsibility for their child’s education and formation to the school which properly belong to them, including their critical role in spiritual and moral formation. It is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘leaving these things to the experts’ in the school when in fact Catholic education in particular respects and is built upon a partnership between the home, the school and the community of faith. It is important that both parents and the school develop effective ways of supporting each other in this shared and vital task.


Some people ask me why I am so anxious to ensure that we keep our Catholic schools. Would it not be easier to have a Church – a community of faith – without them? Well, let me make it clear that I do not believe we should have Catholic schools simply for the sake of having them.  As I have said before, and as other Bishops have been at pains to point out, the belief that Catholic Church wants to manage as many schools as it can, irrespective of parental demands, is unfounded.

The Church is willing to be a constructive and enthusiastic partner in the debate about future educational provision. The Church recognises that changes in the religious demography of our society make it necessary to look at relinquishing ownership of some Catholic schools.  Therefore it will be necessary to look at new models of shared provision in some cases and in other cases to consider how existing Catholic schools can accommodate diversity more effectively.

What is needed is a constructive dialogue based on a realistic assessment of needs and resources. The historic development of ownership of schools and the right of parents to have their choices for the education of their child respected as much as possible must also be considered. If it is a dialogue based on mutual respect and a genuine concern for the rights of parents and children, then there is scope for a wide range of new and creative possibilities. If it is a dialogue which respects the right of Catholic parents to have Catholic schools on the same basis as other groups of parents then I am confident the Catholic Trustees will continue to be a constructive and flexible participant in the dialogue.

Often this is also true in regard to the wider issues affecting our society as it is about education.

It would be enormously helpful if we could all move beyond the superficial caricatures and prejudices which have contributed to something of a false stand-off between faith, politics and culture in Ireland in recent years. There is too much at stake. At this critical moment in our nation’s history, we would benefit from a new, more mature and mutually respectful collaboration between all who can help build a more cohesive, just and sustainable recovery both of our fiscal and of our social economy. Catholic schools have a vital part to play in this recovery. They are a critical part of a society in search of a new realism and balance between the excesses of the Celtic tiger on the one hand and a historic memory of poverty on the other.


In many other parts of the western world, the dialogue between faith, culture and politics has recently taken on a new and more constructive dynamic. The lines of legitimate autonomy and distinction between them are becoming clearer while the possibility of mutual engagement in support of a sustainable economic framework and greater human solidarity is more widely accepted.

I fear that Ireland will lag behind in this important move towards a more constructive engagement with Churches and faith communities. There is reluctance on the part of many in Ireland to talk about faith, to work or meet openly with Churches or to support the legitimate social, legal and ethical concerns of communities of faith. It is as if the fear of criticism from those who would wish to see all religion relegated to the private sphere overrides the legitimate democratic interests of people of faith. There is no significant and ongoing dialogue between the Churches and the main political parties about issues of common concern or interest. This probably reflects as much a lack of urgency and organisation on the part of Churches and faith communities as its does a lack of willingness of political parties to engage. Either way, it is a great pity. We could benefit so much from communicating with each other face to face in a structured dialogue.  I cannot help but note the more active and constructive approach of the main political parties in Northern Ireland to dialogue and partnership with Churches and faith groups.

The Catholic school is a good example of living and lively intersection of faith, culture and the social and moral issues of the day. Catholic schools are not – as some in certain quarters would like to portray – places of staid conformity and arid religiosity. They are vibrant communities of ideas and ideals permeated by the hope and possibility of the Gospel message for the world.


  • Cardinal Brady delivered this address at a conference on Catholic Schools entitled Catholic Schools: Envisioning a Future which will be held in St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Loughboy, Co Kilkenny on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 May.
  • Speakers at the conference over the two days will include:

Friday 7 May 2010
Chair: Bishop Seamus Freeman, Bishop of Ossory
– Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (keynote address)
– Mr John Curtis, Principal, St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny
– Ms Ann Daly, Parent
– Ms Michelle Cullinane, Student from Loreto College, Kilkenny

Speakers will address the theme The Catholic School: Reflecting an experience.

Saturday 8 May 2010
– Mgr James Cassin, Executive Secretary to the Bishops’ Education Commission

– Fr Michael Drumm, executive Chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership
– Ms Cora O’Farrell, Department of Religious Studies & Religious Education, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra
– Ms Maria Spring, Chairperson of the Catholic Primary School Managers Association Speakers will address the theme The Catholic School: Envisioning a Future.

  • The conference has been organised by the Diocese of Ossory Adult Faith Development Group.
  • Photographs from the conference are available on request from the Catholic Communications Office

Further information:
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer, 087 310 4444