Archbishop Martin’s Address at CPSMA Conference 2012

23 Mar 2012

Archbishop Martin’s Address at CPSMA Conference 2012

Any reflection today on the school system in Ireland and on the place of Catholic Education has to take account of the cultural change that is taking place inIreland. The role of religion in Irish society has changed and will continue to change. How we understand that change is important in determining the type of society we wish to have inIrelandin the future. The questions involved are too important to be left to polemics and ideology alone.Irelandneeds mature debate to assess that change. A futureIrelandneeds people of different visions who can enter into mature dialogue and not just repeat preconceived positions.

The change in Irish society and the change in the life of the Church in Ireland are linked together. There is a growing secularisation in Irish society.  This is not entirely a bad thing, if we understand the complex phenomenon called secularisation correctly.  Very few of us would wish to return completely to the type of society many of us grew up in, where the Church dominated so much of Irish culture, and where the bishops and the clergy dominated the Church. Irish society and the Church inIrelandhave changed and it must be said that the change has in great part been good. Equally we need to remember that our past also contains elements which if we were to loose them it would only be to our detriment.

I hasten immediately to add that I am not saying that the contribution of the Church should be replaced by a secular one.  What I wish to affirm is the fact that in many ways our older culture was not always one which in the long term really strengthened the Church.  We may have thought that it did.  In many ways we felt that the strength of theIrishChurchwas in its numbers.  But those numbers at times hid a faith and a commitment that was not as strong as many had imagined.  They hid the fact that the faith was not being nourished sufficiently. They hid the fact that the faith was not being nourished in the best possible way to address the changing culture.   Change is characteristic of our society. There is no way we can turn back to a different understanding of society.  We have to find a pattern of life which enables us to cope with change.

When we as people of faith talk about the question of religion in a contemporary society the temptation is to go on the defensive. Some simply condemn the change. In other cases we appear as trying to justify our presence; we seem to be trying to defend a corner for ourselves within a secular society in which the secular dominates. We should rather start out from the point of view that religion has contributed to, continues to contribute to, and will continue to contribute to Irish society, as it contributes to any other society in the world.  It is not that religion must become the poor relation in a changed and more secularised society.  We should be stressing that a pluralist society, as any other society in history, benefits from the presence of religion.  We should not forget or deny what was wrong.   We have, however, to be more confident in ourselves about the contribution we make to our society through being men and women of faith and within and through our faith communities.

We can see this in the current debates about schools.  There are those who would seem to say that the pluralism of our society requires that the role of religion in education must be radically re- dimensioned and even reduced to the private sphere.  I believe that we have nothing to be ashamed of in fostering Catholic education and that Catholic education brings a specific and vital reflection to educational policy in general.  It is, of course, not that people should in any way be forced into attending Catholic schools or taking part religious practises in schools.    It is however a fact that the overall impact of Catholic education contributes to the good of society.  Pluralism is not identical with secularism.  Secularisation does not mean removing religion from society.  A mature secularist or even a mature atheist should be one who is open to deep dialogue with the culture of belief and of believers.  The choice – on both sides – is between dialogue and intolerance.

The question of belief and the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions in any society and at any time.  It is a question that any serious reflection on the meaning of life has to address: any society, just as any individual, has to embrace faith or to reject faith or perhaps in a way withhold judgement.  What cannot be done if a person is seriously asking the deeper questions about life is simply to ignore religion as if it were not there.   These deeper questions are not answered by believers who simply presume faith and almost attribute bad faith to those who do not believe, or by those on the more secular side who simply reject faith as a non-question, a question not to be asked.

We have to find a pattern of life which enables us to cope with change. The religious culture ofIrelandhas changed.  It is changing at a pace which many fail to comprehend. When the pace of change is so rapid many only come to appreciate the extent of the change when that change has already overtaken them. In many respects the Church inIrelandis still looking at today’s events through yesterday’s lenses.   Irelandis no longer exempt from the cultural changes which are taking place inEurope.

Recognising the changed cultural climate in Ireland does not mean simply accepting all dimensions of that change as inevitable.   It is not the case of the Church simply taking a bow and leaving society for good.   Perhaps Christianity may in the future become in a way a minority culture inIreland.  What is important is not about becoming a minority; what is important is that the Church becomes an active and creative minority and never an irrelevant one in a changed culture.

At times the loss of the sacred which accompanies secularisation encroaches also into the life of the Church and of our faith.  Some of the very foundations of our faith are challenged: the existence of a God who cares for us; the realisation that Jesus Christ is the one Saviour; a common understanding of what it is to be a human person and of the fundamental common ethical principles which should guide our coexistence.  Even the self-understanding of the faith of many believers has often unbeknownst been affected by – and maybe even distorted by – a secularised mind set.

In such a situation there is the danger that men and women of faith also develop a fear of witnessing to their faith in the structures of society, a fear of somehow offending others or of offending pluralism and thus in their own way they contribute to the privatisation of faith.  We run the risk of becoming puzzled and disorientated about our faith and its relevance to life.  If we fall into that trap, we run the risk of undermining the very roots of the Church.   We can begin to think that the Church should abdicate its proper role, and adopt an entirely new and unprecedented mode of existence. That is not the path.

Indeed, often we are tempted to soften the demands of our faith so that we can be welcomed by those who do not believe.  We try to make ourselves acceptable to society, not on our terms but on the terms of the society in which we live. We are tempted to lay aside the principles which characterise our faith thinking that this is the only way to make contact with others and make our teaching somehow “relevant”.

Saint Paul however stresses: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and the acceptable and the perfect will of God” (Rom 12:2).

This is also relevant to the question of the future of Catholic schools.  In the unique and unusual situation here inIrelandwe find that the vast majority of primary schools are Catholic schools.  Out of our history they emerged as Catholic schools for a Catholic population; now they are Catholic schools in a mixed population.  The change in culture brings with it the need for a change in the culture of Catholic schools. It is true that the Catholic school system was one that was marked in its overall openness to children of different cultural and religious backgrounds. A Catholic school can and should do this. But there are limits to its ability to integrate and still maintain its Catholic identity. If the Catholic identity of the school is not allowed to flourish, the Catholic school will slowly loose the ability to maintain its identity. Catholic schools are not schools with a Catholic veneer; they are inserted within the task of passing on what the teaching of Jesus Christ signifies and entails.

If, as I say, Catholic education as such provides a significant contribution to the good of society, then society should have no fear of Catholic education or treat Catholic education as somehow second class or outdated.

In the current debate on schools and in the absence until now of a coherent plan and of a coherent programme of diversified patronage, there is the temptation for Catholic schools simply to emphasise the openness of the school and almost to presume that if that is so then there is little need for any alternative system:  “Come to the Catholic school where everyone is welcome”.  I am not down playing the role of catholic schools.  I am saying that the longer the Catholic school system remains an almost monopoly situation in the provision of publicly-funded primary education, the stronger the pressures will be to advance the State school part of the balance, and to downplay not just the Catholic identity of our school, but even the possibility of maintaining truly Catholic schools.  A system of plurality of patronage must leave space for truly Catholic schools.

If we believe in the value of Catholic schools then we have to stand up for the raison d’etre of Catholic schools. Catholic schools are not and should never become religious ghetto-schools. They are not and should not be solely exclusivist schools. They should always pay special attention to the marginalised and those with educational difficulties.

If we believe in the value of Catholic schools then we have to stand up for the raison d’etre of Catholic schools.  We have to make explicit our conviction that even in a more secularised and pluralist society religion plays an important role in educational policy.  I only have anecdotal evidence, but in my contact with second level education, I am constantly being told by Principals of the great contribution that school Chaplains play in changing the overall atmosphere and therefore the educational effectiveness of a school.  There is an argument to show that their contribution to schools is certainly not marginal.  One can then reasonably ask if attempts to downplay the role of school chaplains really springs from a failure to recognise the role of religion in education.

Part of the problem of secularisation and rejection of faith is to be found in the way we fail to witness to our faith and how our way of living as believers distorts the perception that others have of the message of Jesus Christ.  At a time in which there is much discussion about the future of the Church inIreland, about the challenges it faces, about the horrendous scandals that have wounded it, we have to come back to what is of the essence of the Christian life.  Reform and renewal in the Church require changes in structures and strategies.  But these will only work when they are set within that fundamental call to mirror Christ, the one who came to reveal that God is love.   The challenge of new evangelization is always linked by the way that the Church lives out the Gospel.

A number of recent articles have said that I am too pessimistic about the situation of the Church.   I am not an advocate of unnecessary pessimism about the future of the Church.  Only last week I was speaking about the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and I reminded my listeners of one of my favourite homilies, that given by Pope John XXIII on that occasion on 11th October 1962.

Pope John’s first words to the Vatican Council at the beginning of his homily were Gaudet Mater Ecclesia:  Our Mother the Church rejoices.   Polarisation in the Church can and has led to a loss of the sense of joy which should be a mark of the community of believers.  Reformers and traditionalist alike can all too often be men and women with a mission, but also men and women with gloomy and stern faces. Polarisation leads to a lack of common purpose. The Church at all times has reason to rejoice.  Jesus loves his Church and will be with his Church.  The Church’s agenda is driven by Jesus and it is from his fidelity to the Church that we draw hope.

But let me come back to Pope John’s Homily.  He was not one to sponsor gloom and he pulled no punches in what he said:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history…  They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life…

We feel – Pope John said – we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster.

There have always at the same time been reasons of hope and reasons of concern in the Irish Church.  It will always be so.  We have to prove wrong the doomsayers both inside and outside the Church, both conservatives and traditionalists.  Gaudet Mater Ecclesia: gloom about the Church and its future – from whatever side – is most often a sign of a faith that is weak.

Gaudet, rejoice: but be realistic.  Our rejoicing about theIrishChurch must be kept within the limits of realism and realistic analysis. The Church needs more than the analysis of spin doctors and public relations gurus.  It is no use rejoicing at every fleeting sign of change or statistic.  The real roots of the religious crisis inIreland are deep and of a different character than many would wish to admit.  They are linked with a crisis of faith.

The challenge of faith in Ireland can only be addressed by radical efforts of new evangelization.  We will not be able to adapt to change if we remain just with the formation in faith that we received at school.  Fostering and nourishing our faith is a life long process.  The Church in Irelandhas launched a new programme Share the Good News which stresses the need to form people in their faith at every stage in their life’s path. That formation must address both the basic teaching of the Church and the ability of men and women to live their faith and to witness to their faith in the world in which they live.   We need a new ability to proclaim the fundamental good news in a language and in a framework that it appears as good news.

Faith is not just personal; it is expressed and developed in community.  That is one of the essential reasons for the choice of the theme for the Eucharistic Congress: Communion with Christ and with one another.   If we fail to understand what this communion means, then many calls for a sort of de-institutionalisation of the Church will go down the wrong road.    There are those who would wish anIrishChurch separate fromRome.  There are those who would speak rightly of a strengthening of the role of lay people in theIrishChurch, but really want a Church in which Office and Order would be radically emptied of their theological meaning.  There are others who want reform, but reform by going back to the past.  Renewal is required, but that renewal first of all requires conversion on the part of all and not just outward changes in structures.

Church authorities must learn to listen; but that listening is not to be equiperated simply with sounding-out public opinion.  It requires above all listening intently and in common to the word of God and proclaiming that word and living it.  God cannot be imprisoned in our self constructed God-slot.

I am immensely impressed by our young people.  They should not be discouraged in their search for meaning and hope for their lives.  Many of our young people have drifted way from the practice of their faith, yet they remain extraordinary idealistic and generous and committed people.  They have a sense of justice and a real commitment to place their talents and experience and their acquired knowledge at the service of building a better community and a better world.  They see from experience the damage that has been done when there is a rift between professional life or public life and fundamental ethical and caring values.

The question then arises: why is it that these young people only rarely link their generosity and idealism with the figure of Jesus or even less why do they decide that the Church does not seem to be a place were their idealism finds a home?  Our young people will have for the most part followed a Christian education and will generally have found that that education inspired and strengthened their idealism. But when they leave school this seems to become less evident. It is not that there is inevitable hostility towards the Church, but the Church leaves our young people in general indifferent and having little relevance to their lives.  Our catechetical programmes have a long path to journey to integrate faith and life in a manner to responds to the realities of today.

The Church faces change and lives in difficult times. But our Church has also set out with determination on the path of the most profound renewal.  There is no turning back.

In this context, the Eucharistic Congress we are preparing is a fundamental element of our journey. The Eucharistic Congress is not a seven day wonder.  It is not just an event that begins on 10th June and ends on 17th, when we can roll up the posters and return to the usual business.   We must make the Congress an event which becomes extended in time and in depth.   Gathering together around the Eucharist we rediscover the meaning of our communion with Jesus and with each other as the central core of the renewal of the Church in Ireland.

Initially the idea of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin met with widespread scepticism, both inside and outside the Church.  Many believed that we wanted to set the Church back into the past to avoid looking at the present. However, as the days and months have passed the true meaning of this convocation around the Eucharist has emerged. Interest is growing.  We can see from the national media that the Eucharistic Congress is clearly emerging as one of the important events inIrelandof 2012.  I would say that the cynicism which had greeted the announcement is little by little giving way to the perception of the importance of the event not only for the Church but also for the entire country.

The Congress Bell, which I had the pleasure of presenting to Pope Benedict last week, is in its own simple way a symbol of the Congress as a summons to prayer and to renewal.   In our towns and in our rural communities bells have traditionally rung out as a call to come away from the distraction of our everyday life to silence and prayer in order to reflect on the deeper questions about out lives.  That call was not just to the believing community, but a call which reached out to all who wished to hear.


There has been a high level of interest in the Eucharistic Congress from abroad.  Every single personality from abroad lay or clerical, who was invited to speak at the Congress, responded instantly and positively.  In many cases that response was a sign of solidarity with the Church inIreland.  We now have to decide how we wish to respond to that gesture of solidarity. We have to showcase for our guests what is best in Irish Catholicism. We have to rally our forces, not in any form of triumphalism but in a balanced display of what is best in theIrishChurchand in what the Church is achieving.  Without wishing to deny or put aside the darker sides of what happened within the Church of Jesus Christ in recent years in Ireland, I believe that we have much to showcase, not just to those who come from abroad, but above all to our own young people who had drifted away from the Church, perhaps because we have not been speaking to them in the correct language.  Our Catholic schools have much to be proud of and I hope that they will be a vital part of this process of establishing faith to a central place on the cultural map of theIrelandof the future.

Catholic schools have made an important contribution to creating awareness of what the Eucharistic Congress truly means and wishes to achieve. I hope that the manner in which we celebrate the Congress can also bring a renewed impetus into the way our future generations will live their faith in the years to come. I ask you to pray for the Eucharistic Congress and I hope to be able to greet many of you when you visit the RDS at some moment in the days between 10th and 17th June.