Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at Edmund Rice Brothers 200th Anniversary,
Saint Agatha’s Church, North William Street, Dublin
We come to remember an extraordinary figure in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland and in the history of education in Ireland: Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Presentation Brothers and of the Christian Brothers. Today we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the coming of the brothers to the Archdiocese of Dublin.
Edmund Rice was a friend of the poor. He was a friend of the poor in the most real sense. He was not inspired by a mystique of poverty or an ideology of the relief of poverty. Edmund Rice was a practical man. He saw that the inherited poverty of so many young children in the Ireland of his time had at least one clearly identifiable cause: the lack of access to education. Edmund Rice saw that need and he was determined to respond to that need.
For Edmund Rice even the most difficult and truculent child was a child of God with real potential which could be identified and unleashed so that that child could become fully the unique human being that God wanted him to be.
Two hundred years ago the charism of Rice came to Dublin at the invitation of Archbishop Daniel Murray, though I would not exclude some prompting on the part of Edmund Rice. Archbishop Murray was an exceptional figure. He is chronicled in history as an exceptionally holy man who had a great talent to work with and encourage religious, but also to fight with religious. He called to Dublin from abroad religious congregations which up until then would have been unable to minister in Ireland. At the same time he encouraged new foundations of orders of men and women in Ireland and he sought to give new life and vitality to those congregations which had been present here, but in small numbers, throughout the persecution.
In Archbishop Murray’s time religious congregations and the names of their Churches and schools and hospitals became household names. Even today in a changed Dublin it would be hard to find a taxi man who did not know where Mount Argus is! Speak today of “The Mater” and everyone knows what you are talking about. Speak of O’Connell’s and Synge Street or Pres Bray and people understand the code. And beyond the name, there was affection; there was devotion; there was spiritual care and formation. This diocese owes an enormous debt to religious, not just for the services which they have rendered in so many dimensions of Church life, but for what religious life and consecration has meant.
It was Archbishop Daniel Murray who invited Edmund Rice to introduce his brothers to Dublin. No one can deny that the work of the Presentation and Christian Brothers became one of the most significant contributions to the transformation of the abject and distressing poverty of this city at that time towards a reality within which access to education became within two generations the order of the day. To a great extent, through the work of the brothers, education became a right and a true possibility not just of the children of those who had had access to education, but to the children of even the poorest families. Within one generation the sons and daughters of the poor received through Catholic education a personal enrichment which enabled them to enhance their own personal lives, their family life and the life of society. Education coupled with a vision of honesty, hard work and solidarity changed the lives of generations and paved the path of the future development of Ireland.
Rice was from birth a comparatively wealthy man, but the circumstances of his life changed and with the death of his wife, the Spirit opened for him a new phase in his life dedicated to education. Edmund Rice undermined the roots of the harsh the poverty of his time through an unexpected instrument: through his own option for poverty. He and his followers opted for a style of austere evangelical poverty so that others would to be enriched in their lives and experience. Christian Brothers School made an incredible contribution to education and to Irish society which, through the committed poverty of the brothers, came at minimal cost to the society that benefitted from it.
It would not be honest of me not to mention that I have also listened to stories of children whose experience in schools and institutions run by the brothers saddened me. But it would be even less honest of me not to remember the many stories that I have heard which were precisely the opposite. There are so many men in Ireland today if asked what was the most significant factor that influenced their education, would not answer that we had a great school building or that we had a great curriculum but would say it was “Brother A”, someone who they feel was simply there with every fibre of his being to ensure that young people got on in life and realised their talents and went into the world contented and with success.
I dare to say that there were many occasions over these two centuries when as young men were out celebrating their first real break in life, the moment they had made it, that somewhere in the quiet of a monastery a brother went to night prayer on that same night with the quiet smile and a prayer of satisfaction that another pupil had made it and that same brother was up the following morning quietly inspiring another generation in the same selfless way.
In one of the saddest letters I read about an unhappy boy in an industrial school who was scathing in his criticism of his experience, he added the words: “except for Brother Francis”. I have no idea who Brother Francis was and whether he is still alive. He may have become a superior or he may never have, but he represents for me Edmund Rice, a unique point of light and an anchor of care for a troubled boy. Brother Francis – and you and I know there are hundreds of them – represents a charism which is still alive and flourishing and even more necessary in a world which today can be extraordinarily hard and harsh for vulnerable young people.
Edmund Rice was an innovator. Perhaps my predecessors in their good intentions distracted the brothers by inviting them to run more and more schools and become part of the institutionalised educational system. Yes, this was necessary. But there was also a sense in which this may have rendered less fertile another part of the charism of Edmund Rice which is today thankfully re-emerging for example in the life centres and in other projects. Today the brothers have found ways to reformulate Rice’s charism of reaching out to the most disadvantaged, in the belief that there is unique talent in every young man that can be realized and that no one should ever be abandoned on the sidelines of education and human enrichment. Education goes beyond school walls.
Edmund Rice today is not just buildings or jubilee celebrations or distinguished past pupils but is the hundreds of Brother Francises who without any ostentation quietly and kindly stand out in witnessing to – and if necessary in standing-up for – what Edmund Rice wished his brothers to be for the young people they were called to serve.
The Gospel of Saint Mark that we have heard read stressed very clearly that Jesus did not come to fit into a religious establishment. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus was a friend of sinners. In today’s Gospel he sits down with sinners and shares fellowship with them. On Sunday last we saw the first revelation of Jesus as an adult, in his public life. He appears in the desert where John the Baptist was preaching and baptising and we encountered how God the Father burst into our history just for one moment to indicate the true identity of Jesus. That revelation of who Jesus is took place not in an ornate temple but as Jesus stood humbly in a line of sinners turning to John for a Baptism of repentance.
The power of God has never been revealed in or through arrogance but through humility. The strength of Edmund Rice came from his evangelical poverty following in the path of Jesus who became poor for our sakes. The charism of the disciples of Edmund Rice – the Presentation Brothers and the Christian Brothers and those who work alongside them – is a charism which has been lived out in a manner which has brought enormous benefit to countless individuals and to Irish society and beyond. Those who faithfully have lived that charism and live it out today can be truly proud of what they have achieved and we all have a duty to recognise that contribution as we do here today.
Curiously those who have followed that charism are not the sort of men who seek out pride and praise. Their source of inspiration is their closeness to Jesus Christ, reflecting his selflessness, bringing that gift and witness of generosity and gratuity which our greedy society needs.
We live in changing times for education in Ireland. Irish society is changing. The religious mix of Irish society is changing. We face the challenge in our educational system of witnessing to both diversity and inclusion. This requires new reflection. It requires recognition of change and an ability on the part of the Church to relinquish some aspects of our past presence in the field of education and to more clearly identify the role the Church is called to play in the future.
Change can inspire fear. I for one believe that, if we make the right decisions, Catholic education – alongside other forms of patronage – has a vital and a bright future. That future cannot be just one of a touched-up ethos but one of regeneration and renewal which draws from the unique characteristics which belong to the tradition of Edmund Rice. It is a vision not focussed on control or self interest but on care for the most disadvantaged, on a sense of rejoicing in the talent of others, on that special care for the individual who is troubled and hesitant, on that spirit of unselfish rejoicing in the success of the pupil.
Change can inspire hope. Change can inspire fear. One way or another change will happen. We need the courage and determination of people like Edmund Rice to ensure that the way Irish society changes in the years to come will be one where honesty and hard work, dedication and selflessness, dominate over greed, self-interest and the quick fix. ENDS
Media contact: Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications 087 8143462