Address by Bishop John McAreavey on Catholic schools in Northern Ireland

09 Dec 2010

9 December 2010

Address by Bishop John McAreavey on Catholic schools in Northern Ireland

The following paper has been tabled for discussion at the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) by Bishop John McAreavey, Bishop of Dromore, for the CCMS bi-monthly meeting this afternoon Thursday, 9 December.


Catholic parents have a choice of schools to which they can send their children: Catholic schools, State schools, Gaelscoileanna (Irish Medium schools) or Integrated schools. The great majority send their children to Catholic schools. Some parents send their children to a Catholic Primary school and then to a post-primary school in another sector. Whatever school they choose for their children, the duty of parents is the same: to be the first teachers of their children in matters of faith. This duty in conscience to lead their children to faith in Jesus Christ involves a commitment to a way of life that is reflected in their decision at the Baptism of their children to hand on their faith to them.

The decision of Catholic parents to send their children to a Catholic school can be seen in various ways. Most parents who send their children to a Catholic school do so because the nature and style of the school closely reflects their own faith, values and culture. At the heart of Catholic education lie the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Catholic schools strive to put the spiritual and moral development of children at the heart of the curriculum, not simply as an added extra; they do this in a way that integrates these important dimensions of education with other elements of learning, such as numeracy, literacy and science. Education works best when school reinforces the values of home and community. This is true of Catholic schools and indeed of all schools.

The distinct identity of Catholic schools is sometimes interpreted as a desire to stand apart from our society or even as a refusal to belong to or contribute to it; in a divided society a separate network of schools could be seen as reinforcing or tolerating division. I want to emphasise here that what defines Catholic education is not its separateness, but the core values that guide the teaching, learning and pastoral care that take place in Catholic schools.

Having an education system based on Catholic faith and values does not for one moment imply a negative judgement of the commitment, skill and values of educators in other sectors. In all education sectors, each of which makes a unique contribution to the good of our society, there are teachers and school leaders whose commitment and professionalism are of the highest order. In his recent memoir, I’ll tell me ma Brian Keenan recalls his time as a pupil in Orangefield Boys’ Secondary Intermediate School, Belfast; he remembers the principal, John Malone, with great warmth and admiration:

[He] was ethically and morally a deeply Christian man who was committed to the mission he had set himself. I have made much of John Malone, because without him tenaciously pushing and developing his inclusive vision many kids like myself would have disappeared through the cracks, as they say’. [1]

Division on religious or cultural grounds is, tragically, an integral part of our heritage in N Ireland. Whether we see N Ireland from an Irish or British context (or both), it is clear that if we are to thrive as a society, all our people need to work together for the common good and to build a shared society. Every citizen, every community, every voluntary body, every organisation, every Church has to make its contribution to a genuinely diverse and reconciled society. What is at issue is how. Diversity ought not pose a threat to a peaceful society. In my view, it is a lack of respect for legitimate diversity, aspiration and identities, as well as a lack of justice and fairness, which undermine peace.

It is not enough for any of us to say, ‘we did not cause division, suspicion or grievance’; rather we have to ask, ‘how can we contribute to a more mature and reconciled society?’[2] We have to find a balance between our right to our own faith and identity (and the things that nurture them) and the civic and Christian obligation to foster good relations with our neighbours and to work with them to build a mature and reconciled society. It is not enough for Catholic schools to be good for Catholic parents or to serve the needs of the Catholic community; they must also contribute to the good of our whole society.

Catholic schools in the new Northern Ireland

It was precisely this concern that led the Catholic Bishops in N Ireland to set up a working party in 2000 to reflect on the challenges facing Catholic schools in the new political context provided by the Belfast Agreement. The outcome of that reflection was published as Building Peace; shaping the future [BPSF].[3] It begins as follows:

In a time of challenges and opportunities for the entire Northern Ireland Education Service, this paper considers how Catholic schools presently contribute, and how they can still further assist peace and reconciliation.[4]

BPSF draws on a paper issued by the Department of Education, Towards a culture of tolerance, which had proclaimed that the aims of education were to nurture four key values: ‘respect for moral values’, ‘respect for diversity’, ‘concern for other people’ and ‘positive and outward-looking attitudes’.[5] BPSF argued that ‘Catholic schools wish to make their own specific contribution to educating young people in a rounded and liberating way. It noted the perception that Catholic schools ‘have been considered by some to be an obstacle rather than a help to what we call ‘the peace process’:

We emphatically reject this contention as superficial, misleading and unjust. On the contrary, we see our schools as being ideally placed to assist our society to move beyond its deeply ingrained divisions into a new coherence and openness to the world at large.[6]

What was the basis of this confidence? The first basis was the Catholic vision of reconciliation

Catholics believe explicitly in a God who reconciles, and actively and endlessly draws people to himself, and in so doing draws people to each other and into a loving community of faith… To cultivate this quality of faith is to give young people a sense of their own identity as children of a kind and forgiving God… This process begins at the level of the individual. Those who learn to be most convinced of their own identity and worth are best able to establish mutually enriching relationships with others. The same is true also of communities. By taking pride initially in their own school community, Catholic schools foster a healthy social awareness that will naturally want to reach out to the wider community.[7]

The second basis is the commitment in Catholic attitudes to social action and the promotion of the common good of society. A mature Catholic faith obliges us to help those in need who belong to our own community. It also obliges us to reach out to the wider society of which we are a part.

BPSF affirms that schools have a role to play in three areas: ‘reconciling and cherishing diverse identities’, ‘creating a climate of openness’ and ‘encouraging young people to play a full part in a just and equitable society’.[8]

Reconciling and cherishing diverse identities

Under the heading of ‘reconciling and cherishing diverse identities’ BPSF states:

There is a need for strategic leadership which ensures that the expectations and social responsibilities of Catholic schools are clear, that Religious Education programmes contain explicit education on other religions and social traditions and that, in consultation with fellow Christians, further common Religious Education units are developed. A biennial conference to identify and analyse key issues and to present an audit of progress is recommended.[9]

BPSF asked that each Catholic school ‘evaluate the effectiveness of all their EMU [Education for Mutual Understanding] programmes’ and suggested that ‘the EMU co-ordinator should present a progress report at one meeting of the Board of Governors each year’.[10]

Creating a climate of openness

Under this heading BPSF states that Catholic schools are open to pupils of other denominations whose parents accept the Mission Statement and Aims of the school. Where this has already happened, it is seen as ‘an enrichment of the education experience offered by the school and as a practical expression to the commitment to inclusivity’.[11] BPSF accepts that this can be done without in any way compromising the ethos and aims of such schools.

BPSF calls on parish communities to engage actively in cross community outreach programmes:

The aim of these programmes would be to create links of friendship across social and religious divides. They would include, for example, involving representatives from other schools and traditions in school assemblies.[12]

Encouraging young people to play a full part in a just and equitable society

Under the heading of Encouraging young people to play a full part in a just and equitable society, BPSF is quite realistic regarding the challenges facing N Ireland:

Various experiences have inhibited many Catholics from developing an emotional patriotism toward the Northern Ireland political unit. Against such background and accounting for legitimate aspirations to a united Ireland, the promotion of a general acceptance of new agreed Northern Ireland institutions will not be easy. We have to break down traditional divisions and show that they are only limiting horizons.

We believe that Catholic schools can succeed in the task even though for some schools it will be particularly challenging.[13]

Progress in breaking down traditional political-cultural divisions between communities in N Ireland will vary from place to place. What is possible in one place may not be possible in another. However I would encourage schools to continue to build relationships at local level and to be creative in devising initiatives that would bring teachers and pupils from different sectors together in an atmosphere of celebration and friendship. I am mindful of the old saying, ‘if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem’. I would want Catholic schools in Dromore diocese to see themselves as part of the solution to the problems in our wider Northern Ireland society. In building relationships and contacts cooperation from all sides is needed.

I think it is time for those with leadership responsibilities in the Catholic education sector to take a fresh look at Building Peace, Shaping the Future, with a view to assessing where things stand now in our society and to consider how to give new impetus to an inspiration that the Bishops set out ten years ago.

One feature of cooperation that has developed in recent years in N Ireland is the Area Learning Community (ALC). ALCs, now in their fourth year of operation, were set up to enable schools from each sector to work together for the benefit of all pupils in a particular area.  In theory every pupil in a particular ALC has access to any subject available in any of the schools in that area.  From a practical point of view this may be difficult because of the physical distance between schools and indeed potential timetable clashes. Dr Francis Brown, former chair of the Newry & Mourne ALC, made the following comments:

One of the real benefits of the ALC is the opportunity for all the Principals across all sectors to meet on a regular basis.  This is very beneficial in terms of breaking down barriers that existed and gave the opportunity to share the good practice in all schools. Principals began to understand that little bit better how and why schools take different approaches, why there is a distinctive ethos.  For example, there are 16 schools in the Newry & Mourne ALC.  There is also a representative from the local Further Education College and EOTAS[14] also attend.

ALCs provide a framework for on-going cooperation for all the post-primary schools across N Ireland


For many decades Catholic parishioners, as well as many dedicated religious, made sacrifices, financial and otherwise, to build a strong network of schools. Our priests continue to offer their time and energy to the pastoral care of pupils and staff in our schools, supported by a new generation of lay men and women. Across the province, many committed men and women serve on Boards of Governors, contributing to the management, direction and leadership of our schools. These and many others contribute to the mission of our schools and feel a sense of pride in them.

In a divided society each community has to strive to understand what the other cherishes and fears. In building a reconciled society we all have a contribution to make. No educational sector, for example, has a monopoly on the commitment to reconciliation. I would like this to be acknowledged. Nevertheless we all need to look to our own attitudes and behaviours. There us a hunger for neighbourliness and cooperation in many people in N Ireland; Catholic schools are well placed to respond to this desire and aspiration.


[1]           Vintage Books, 2010, pages 224-5.

[2]           In the foreword to The Rough Field, John Montague cites George Sefaris: ‘The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna. The Turks say it was the Greeks. Who will discover the truth?/ The wrong has been committed. The important thing is who will redeem it’.

[3]           Published in Armagh, November 2001.

[4]           Page 1.

[5]           Page 2.

[6]           Page 5.

[7]           Pages 5-6.

[8]           Page 7.

[9]           Ibid.

[10]          Page 8.

[11]          Ibid.

[12]          Page 9.

[13]          Page 10.

[14]          Education Other Than At School

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