Address by Fr Michael Drumm at Conference on Catholic Schools in Kilkenny

08 May 2010


8 May 2010

‘Catholic Schools – looking to the future’

Address by Fr Michael Drumm, Chairperson of Catholic Schools Partnership, at a conference held in St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Kilkenny on “Catholic Schools: Envisioning a Future”

Schools are among the most important realities in our lives. 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.

It is then very important to reflect on how schools are run in the Republic of Ireland. Bishops do not run schools. Each primary and post-primary school is run by a principal who must manage the teaching and non-teaching staff; who must follow the instructions of the Department of Education and Skills and operate in accord with the various provisions of the Education Act; who must implement the teaching of the curriculum as determined by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment; and who must uphold and give expression to the ethos or characteristic spirit of the school. The principal is then the CEO of the school and must be a teacher of a certain experience. He/she reports to a board of management which oversees the running of the school. The board of management is responsible to the patron to ensure that the school is managed in accord with its ethos or characteristic spirit. The patron is a person or body who established the school or the legitimate successor of such person or body. In the Republic of Ireland such patrons include the Vocational Education Committees, the Church of Ireland, Educate Together, An Foras Patrunachta, the Moslem Community and Catholic Bishops. A person or a body can only become a patron of a school when recognised as such by the Minister for Education and Skills. That is how all schools are run. There is no individual who controls the school; rather there is a complex interaction between principal teacher, board of management and patron. Such a structure provides the checks and balances which are so necessary in a social reality like a school.

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. There are about 3,500 Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland. We have more schools per head of population than any other country in the world. Of these schools about 1,500 have less than one hundred pupils and some 650 have less than fifty pupils. 100 have less than twenty pupils. The remarkable thing is that they are managed so well and at such little cost. In fact, based on our current local structures of patrons and boards, the management of these Catholic primary schools costs the state effectively nothing. This is quite remarkable in a country where all political leaders admit that the public service must become less expensive to operate and more responsive to people’s needs.

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.

So what about the future of these schools? In a time of serious change it is always good to go back to our origins. This is also true of our schools. The reason for doing so is not to find the answers to our contemporary questions and problems but rather so that we might encounter again some of the energy that gave rise to the reality in the first place. There are, of course, multiple origins. Each school has its own history; the schools of religious congregations trace their identity to the charism of the founder / foundress; other schools were established by dioceses or individual lay people. In this presentation I intend to refer not to the local history of any individual school or religious congregation but to the more distant origins in the ministry of Christ himself. All of these schools were an effort to reinterpret the message of Christ in a particular time and place. Given that Christ was both an extraordinary leader as well as an outstanding teacher, I propose to revisit our Christian origins to discover something of the real meaning of education in a Christian context. In doing so we will not find answers to our current crises and questions but we might discover something much deeper – we might encounter again the energy which unleashed this Christian vision of the world.

The good news, the gospel, is that Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world. He is not just another person who lived a good and kindly life, he is the saviour. Jesus’ ministry revolved around bringing healing and hope into a broken world. There is a danger of reducing our Christian faith to little more than a message that we should be good and kind to our neighbour. Of course we should, but we hardly needed a messiah to tell us that. Most of us could work out for ourselves how we should treat others. That is not the nub of our problem and it is not the heart of the good news.

A key element of the Christian message is that life is not the way it was intended to be. It is broken in all sorts of ways. Your life and mine, our families, and, yes, our schools and all our relationships are fraught with human limitations. If we were to place any of our lives under a microscope we would discover that none of us fully measures up, that we fail to live out that which we profess to believe. That is the bad news.

The Christian message is different. It is based on the belief that God is somehow present in the midst of life’s difficulties. We cannot solve all of life’s problems. We must try our best but we are not messiahs. You and I cannot save the world. This, strangely, is the good news. This is a liberating message. Because once we acknowledge that we cannot do everything then we are freed to begin to do something. Like Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the reign of God in our midst.

Almost two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth spoke of the reign of God as healing for the sick, hearing for the deaf, new sight for the blind, freedom for prisoners, good news for the poor. Before we can really appreciate the meaning of healing, hearing, new sight, freedom and good news we need to become aware of the realities of sickness, deafness, blindness, captivity and poverty. When we look honestly at ourselves and those around us we discover that we are the sick, the deaf, the blind, the captive, the poor and not just in a metaphorical sense but in the physical, psychological and spiritual realities of our lives. Only when we immerse ourselves in these human experiences can we discover who Jesus really was, for his ministry was all about lifting burdens. Whether the burdens were created by selfishness or laziness or a scrupulously strict religious sensibility or blind obedience or political corruption or grinding poverty or sickness or lack of self-esteem or pride or prejudice, the result was the same: people were in need of healing. The meaning of the miracle stories in the gospels is not that Jesus was some sort of esoteric magician who could solve all of life’s most inscrutable problems, but rather that he was one who brought healing and hope into the most abject human situations.

The call of Christian discipleship demands that we always seek to lift the burden. Whether this means helping people to stand up and walk on their own, or exorcising their fear of the unknown, or exploding their minds through education, or feeding them when they are too weak to feed themselves, or opening their eyes to the reality of life, or challenging them to let go of hurts and prejudice, or liberating those who are unjustly oppressed, or introducing them to ever greater horizons of transcendence and beauty, or unsealing their ears to hear the divine echo in their hearts, or unleashing their hope for the future, or sowing the seeds of eternal life, the healing ministry of Jesus is continued as ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ (Luke 7:22). To teach as Christ taught means inviting people to live without the crutch or the grudge or the closed mind. Catholic education invites people to become Christ-like in their lives so that the reign of God might continue to dawn in our world.

Jesus was a teacher, not in the sense of a school teacher that we have in modern times but rather a Jewish rabbi. This means that he was probably taught in the synagogue of Nazareth and became himself a teacher of the Jewish law and traditions. Notice that all of his teaching takes place through the words that he speaks and the encounters that are at the centre of his ministry. To teach as Christ taught is surely to speak words of honesty, words of forgiveness, words of compassion and it is to encounter people wherever they are at and invite, cajole, liberate them to move on. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well, little Zacchaeus in Jericho, Matthew the tax collector in Capernaum, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Mary from the town of Magdala at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning – all people totally preoccupied with their own worries and concerns but who are challenged to move on through their encounter with Jesus. The original meaning of the Latin verb to educate is “to lead out”. The teaching of Jesus is truly education – leading people out of ignorance, out of hostility, out of self-centredness, out of certainty, out of fear, into somewhere new. Such education is an endless task in all of our lives.

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.

It is undoubtedly true to say that Catholic education is more than schooling. It is a lifelong process of human growth and development. It begins in the home, continues in the school and matures through involvement with the Christian community in the parish. These three dimensions of home, school and parish must work together if Catholic education is to truly attain its goal of forming mature human persons in the image and likeness of Christ. But schools remain critically important. All schools hold much in common in terms of structures, curriculum and the centrality of the state examination system. Every school attempts to serve society in a meaningful way. Yet, today, all schools find themselves in difficult circumstances due to enormous social, cultural and economic changes. In an age dominated by media and information technology, significant new pressures are brought to bear on adolescents, on family structures, on religious practice, on employment mobility and, not least, on behaviour in the school classroom.

In this new cultural context every Catholic school needs to redefine its identity so that it is not just reacting to the latest trend or fashion but that it can truly articulate its self-understanding. There are helpful resources available but the pressures remain enormous not least as advanced western societies place more and more onus on schools to deal with matters traditionally handled by the extended family and village communities as well as a plethora of new issues. Every government department and interest group wants space on the school curriculum to push their (often laudable) agendas. But every system comes to breaking point. Schools, through their management and governance structures, must begin to say ‘no’. There is a danger that the state and the family will abdicate all their responsibility onto schools. No more than individual believers cannot save the world, so too we must protect our schools from a ‘messiah complex’ where they are expected to deal with all of society’s ills. Catholic schools should have limited, achievable goals that include a clear grounding in Catholic beliefs and values.

One of the most notable characteristics of Catholic education has been a respect for faith and reason. This helps to explain why such schools are so popular throughout the world. Faith and reason can live and thrive in the same person; while one cannot be reduced to the other they both can play a dynamic role in forming and educating a mature person. The Church continues to be involved in education because there are parents who wish to have their children educated in a context which respects both faith and reason. We hope that those educated in such a context will be able to make a dynamic contribution to church and society, to faith and culture.

Christian faith is always lived in particular cultures. The dialogue between faith and culture takes place in the heart and mind of the individual believer, in families, in parish communities and, not least, in schools and colleges. Catholic schools and colleges stand as a reminder that faith is not some private irrational commitment embraced by individuals but a rational exercise of human conscience seeking to live life in response to belief in God. There will always be a certain tension between religious faith and culture; some people reduce culture to religious faith and so withdraw into a fundamentalist ghetto where everything outside is seen as a threat; others empty culture of all religious reference so that religious belief amounts to nothing more than personal whim and traditional superstition. A true dialogue between faith and culture would allow one to inform the other and would call individuals, families, communities, and yes our schools and colleges, to an ever greater commitment to human maturity.

Jesus revealed much about the reign of God through the parables that he told. 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 Christian discipleship 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.


Note to Editors:

  • This address was delivered on Saturday 8 May 2010 as part of a conference on Catholic Schools organised by the Diocese of Ossory.

Further information:
Brenda Drumm 087 310 4444