MASS FOR THE OPENING OF THE SCHOOL YEAR 2011
This annual Mass is an occasion for us all to reflect on our responsibilities as educators to these entrusted to our care. We reflect on the fundamental focus of education: that of enabling young people to identify and realise their God-given talents and potential and to place those individual talents at the service of a common vision for the future.
Teachers are important but children and the next generation are in a way more important. It is they who will shape the future of our society. Each child is different. The teacher does not decide what talents a child has; the teacher tries to help children to identify their own talents and help them to develop those talents. The teacher not only imparts knowledge and information; the teacher challenges the child to think, to ask questions, to try to understand.
Children are not passive objects of our teaching. In my youth, conformism and memorising were more central in educational practice than today. Someone like me who – looking back today – was probably not just curious, but impertinently curious, was not necessarily considered a model pupil. Not that memorization was a bad thing. And I must be honest and say that my teachers accepted – perhaps at times reluctantly – that I was the way that I was. Education is about fostering the real talents and ability of the child, not the talents we might like to see in them.
Education is not just about fostering the ability of young people to be creative and to be fulfilled for themselves. It is about enabling people to bring their contribution to society. Young people want to be able after an education to find jobs, but you and I know that many young people today have had to take jobs that are below their real capacity and this leads at times to frustration and perhaps to the country losing real talent through emigration.
We know well that one of the principal reasons why Ireland did so well in times not long past was because of its people who – even from disadvantaged backgrounds – were able, through our educational system, to develop their talents and to bring their creative skills to the world in which they lived and to shape the future of Ireland. Investment in education is vital and has to remain a high priority for our future.
There is much discussion in Ireland today on educational policy and educational planning and educational provision. Perhaps it would have been better had that discussion and refection taken place when there was more money in the economy than today to turn ideas into reality. We are not at the best moment in our economy to do exactly what we would like. But this does not mean that we do not reflect; that we do not even dream about where we should be going in the future. When we give up dreaming our vision becomes stultified and we can easily just throw the towel in and be satisfied with what is second best.
Where is education going today in a more pluralist and perhaps secular Ireland? What is the role of Catholic education? Does Catholic education offer something that is unique? How should Catholic education be shaping itself to be a protagonist in its own right – alongside other visions of education – in shaping Irish education in the future?
There are some who would wish to right off Catholic education altogether in the Ireland of the future. That will not be the case. Yet in the current intellectual and cultural situation in Ireland Catholic education cannot rest on the laurels of its past or on its current proportion alongside others in school provision. A substantial redesign of provision and patronage is inevitable and in many aspects even desirable in Irish education.
When I say that, some feel that I want “to give Catholic education away”. In today’s and tomorrow’s Ireland Catholic education will have to fight its own corner within a pluralist environment by the delivery of education that it recognised by parents and educators as something that it would be wrong to ignore. Parents have the fundamental right, duty and responsibility to choose the type of education that they wish their children to receive. But it is not enough today just to enounce that right. It is not enough just to claim – and rightly claim – full entitlement to exercise that responsibility. Catholic education today and tomorrow must prove itself in its ability to respond to the rights of parents and to really provide the best in educational excellence and its must learn to do so by stressing precisely its role as Catholic education.
Looking back at the long tradition of Catholic education in Ireland, one of its great contributions was that it reached out in a special way to the poor and the disadvantaged. This must also be a mark of Catholic education in the future, both within school and also within the wider context of supporting those who are educationally disadvantaged. Repositioning itself within a pluralist framework of educational provision, may involve not just divesting schools, it may also mean that the Catholic education sector might attribute higher priority to addressing the needs of the disadvantaged outside a school framework. That same concern for the disadvantaged will mean that no catholic school should be unreservedly elitist.
Catholic education must strive for excellence across the board: excellence in teaching, excellence in respect for children, excellence in the recognition of teachers and other educators. Catholic education must be faith-filled and faith-directed. This does not mean imposing something on young people. Catholic education must rather be like the boat mentioned in our Gospel reading. It must know how to reach out to young people in a world and in a mindset “where there were so many comings and goings that they had no time even to eat” to seek “a lonely place by yourselves”, and help them seek moments in which to address the questions of who I am and why am I here, to seek the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The Catholic school must in the midst of all its curriculum and projects and activities be like the boat in the Gospel: a space offered to our young to be themselves and to find themselves, in an through Jesus who is both shepherd and teacher. In this context I would like to express a special word of appreciation for the work of school chaplains.
Young people live in the hectic of our times. Young people also reflect on where their life is going; at times their outward security only hides an anxiety and a search for values which is deeper. Saint Paul, in our first reading, thanked God for teachers and preachers who witness to the strength that Jesus brings us in our lives. We give thanks to God for the work of Catholic educators and we pray that they will be filled in their lives with the gifts of the spirit.