Homily of Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Bishop of Kilmore for the conclusion of Catholic Schools Week 2011, in the Cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim, Cavan
I went to primary school in Tullyvin a long time ago. A hundred yards before you reached the school there was a road sign that said, scoil, school, and above the words was a flaming torch. It was like an ice-cream cone with red ice cream topping it. The torch, the light, was the symbol of learning. Education was about dispelling the darkness of ignorance and replacing it with the light of knowledge and understanding.
Today marks the conclusion of Catholic Schools Week, and it is very appropriate that the Gospel of the Mass should be about the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It’s the Gospel that’s nearly always used at the blessing of a school or a school extension. If education is about bringing light where there was darkness, then that is true especially of what Catholic schools are about. Christ is the light of the world and Catholic schools take their inspiration from Christ, from his teaching and his life.
The theme for the week is: Catholic schools – rooted in Christ. This highlights what is distinctive about Catholic schools, namely that they take Christ as their inspiration. Christ’s life and Christ’s teaching is where they get their vision and their energy. Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full, and that is what a Catholic school wants for each and every one of its pupils – that they may have life and have it to the full; that they may develop all their talents and grow in knowledge and skill, in love and in service.
There is a small, but very vocal minority, who would want Catholic schools and faith schools generally to disappear. The Irish Human Rights Commission has produced a discussion paper recently which claims that because most of the schools in the country are Catholic, then atheists are being discriminated against because the only school convenient to them is a Catholic one. This was highlighted by the case of a man in Dromahaire who got a lot of media attention last week because he took his son out of the local Catholic school. He didn’t want his son to learn any religion so his son was excused from the religion classes. But his complaint was that his son was picking up the prayers that the other children were saying even outside the religion class.
For him and for the Irish Human Rights Commission freedom of religion means freedom from religion. They believe that if one person in the school doesn’t want religion then there should be no religion in the school. The right of that one person not to have religion is more important than the rights of the other 99 to have it. It is a strange understanding of human rights but it’s the one favoured by most people in the media world.
The charge is also made that if an atheist has a child at a Catholic school he is not safe anywhere in the school from religious influence. Even if he is not in the religion class, he is still not safe because the faith is meant to permeate the whole life of the school. Well, the faith is meant to touch the whole life of the school. But as we all know that doesn’t mean that children are taught Catholic faith when they are learning Irish or maths or P.E. What is does mean is that Christian values and virtues are promoted everywhere in the school: respect for each other, kindness, patience, charity, self-control, forgiveness. But these are not just Christian values. They are human values that everyone can share and which enable all children to grow and be healthy, wholesome and mature people.
We have a very precious heritage in our Catholic schools. We probably don’t need as many schools as we have, but that doesn’t mean that we should contemplate handing them over en masse. We are blessed with a body of extraordinarily professional and dedicated teachers. I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to them and thanking them particularly for their work in handing on the faith in our schools and for their role in preparing children for the sacraments. I want to take this opportunity also of thanking our board of management members. They work on an entirely voluntary basis. They attend meetings, troubleshoot problems, go to training courses and do not get a penny in remuneration or expenses. They are an example of citizenship at its best and of lay involvement in the Church at its best.
Can I leave you with a quotation from the great Jewish Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, reflecting on the present situation in the Western world:
“The West today is fighting some difficult military battles. But there is also…a cultural and spiritual battle to be fought: not to impose our values on others, but to teach them to our children.
Do we still have a clear sense of who we are as a nation? Do we have shared values? Do our lives have spiritual depth and moral beauty? Do we see ourselves as guardians of a tradition that we hand on with pride to our children? The future of the West may turn on our answers to those questions. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend an identity you need schools.”