Today we launch Catholic Schools Week 2016. In many ways, Catholic Schools Week represents an opportunity for Catholic schools to showcase, to bring into the light and to publicise the good work they do in transmitting the faith and in highlighting the contribution they make to society and to the common good.
The theme chosen this year, ‘Catholic Schools: Challenged to Proclaim God’s Mercy’, reflects the theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis inaugurated last December. The motto for the Jubilee Year, “Merciful like the Father” is an invitation, Pope Francis said, “to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure”. In many ways, that concept of mercy is what humanises our education system and brings the person of Christ to Catholic Education.
Mercy and Charity are sisters! In many of our Catholic schools, students engage in charitable works for those less fortunate. That is a practical expression of seeing the face of God in another. The school that we are in this morning, Mount Mercy, like other Catholic schools, is actively involved with the Hope Foundation, Trócaire, Saint Vincent de Paul, SHARE, the Cork Simon Community and other charities such as Marymount, Pieta House, Childline and Aid Cancer Treatment. In relation to the HOPE Foundation, twelve girls from Mount Mercy travel to Kolkota with a staff member each year. In so doing, they reflect the mercy and compassion of Christ for those who are poor, alone and suffering. Those endeavours are as valuable and as formative as any subject on the curriculum.
SHARE was founded by a Presentation Brother, Brother Jerome Kelly, many years ago and has spread from the Presentation Brothers College to most of the schools in the city, including Mount Mercy. The fund-raising for homes for the elderly, the visits to those living alone and the other supports are practical expressions of God’s mercy and a reminder that what we measure out is what we shall receive. I think all of our Catholic post-primary schools throughout the country are involved in those charitable endeavours. Like the quality of Mercy in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, it benefits the recipient and it benefits the giver but it also benefits society and it advances God’s Kingdom.
There are, though, other challenges to mercy that we need to focus on. I would like to mention one in particular to our students today. Mercy overlooks and forgives! Much has been made of the effects of social media on the lives of our pupils. Perhaps if we overlooked, forgave and did not comment on others weaknesses, faults, failings and mistakes, many pupils lives would be happier and safer. Therein lies a challenge for our pupils of Catholic schools in proclaiming God’s mercy!
That must not in any way take from our rejoicing in the works of mercy that our students are currently engaged in. Congratulations and Thank You.
There are also implications arising from Mercy for school Management and Pastoral Care teams. Mercy is an attitude, a disposition, a way of relating to others. It is about giving dignity, giving respect, forgiving, treating others as God treats us. Catholic schools must live up to that expectation in how they treat others, how they deal with disadvantage and how they relate to society. The ideology governing such schools must not be perception, league tables or results but mercy, a profound respect for the individual who is made in the image and likeness of God. Mercy is about the individual, not the institution, the policy, the rule, the standard or, even, the common good!
In recent times again, the issue of league tables has come to the fore again. The danger with that approach to educational success is that we would value the educationally gifted and shun those not so. Can society say that we must value all students equally, as they should and must, and at the same time become fascinated with league tables that treat schools with students who are not as academically gifted unfavourably?
A Catholic school, and by extension, a Catholic education, is fundamentally not about ideas, or courses or even subjects or syllabi but, rather, it is about people. People are not clones, are not stereotypical and so, it follows, that people and students – especially students some might say – are not ideal, not perfect, and, dare I say it, sometimes not even holy. Students come from different backgrounds, with different personalities and have different experiences but, like everyone else, are made in God’s image.
Bearing all that in mind, a Catholic school must be about people as they are in the here and now! It must be about all people, to borrow the analogy in the parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s about the son or daughter who stayed and the son or daughter who strayed.
A Catholic school must treat all its’ students equally, must value all the different talents and abilities of its’ students equally and, if it were to be biased at all, would be biased in favour of the weak. Therein lies the danger of league tables. As Saint Paul put it in one of his letters, ‘There are a variety of gifts but always the one giver’. That, in a sense, is the guiding inspiration of Catholic schools: A variety of gifts, a variety of students and a variety of talents but all made in the image of the one God who loves us and gave His son for us. Seeing the face of God in the face each other prompts us to act as we would want Christ to act with us – merciful!
Seeing the face of God in others brings me to the current and topical issue of the Catholic school and inclusion. Inclusion is not just about religious denomination. Inclusion must also take nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic background and ability into consideration. When these five criteria are taken into consideration, I would challenge anyone to tell me that Catholic Schools are not as inclusive as any other type of school. They must be to be true to their ethos! Indeed, a recent ESRI publication on School Sector Variation in Ireland bears adequate and independent testimony to this.
Mount Mercy School was founded by the Sisters of Mercy from Saint Maries of the Isle in the City. A primary school exists at that convent still. Today, there are 265 pupils on the roll book of Saint Maries of the Isle NS from 38 countries and are from ten different faith backgrounds as well as atheist. In fact, 40 are Muslim, 11 are Hindu and four are Buddhist!
The school has three special Autism Spectrum Disorder Classes which are attended by 18 pupils. It has a further 39 children availing of Resource Hours. It has 11 SNA’s and 25 teachers including 3 EAL teachers. The Department conducted a WSE there before Christmas and sent a questionnaire to all parents. 100% were happy with the school. Who can say that this Catholic school is not inclusive? That vision of Mercy permeates the classrooms, the corridors, the staff room and the yard of that school.
A Catholic school is a school that can say of itself that quotation from John 10:10 ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’. That is the contribution of Catholic schools to this community and to Irish Society. How many talents have been nurtured, how may doors have been opened and, in so doing, how many were able to live life to the full? In addition to that, many of our Catholic schools were founded by religious congregations and orders and they were founded in fulfillment of the corporal works of mercy, to instruct and, in so doing, to feed, cloth, open doors and to train and enable a new generation for a new world and provide new opportunity. How many of our leaders in today’s Ireland were educated in Catholic Schools before the advent of Free Education by religious who saw such work as a work of mercy? That is the contribution made by, and the consequence of, a Catholic education.
To conclude, one could do worse than to quote Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Mercy Sisters who are strongly linked to this place. ‘The function of a school is to fit its students for life without unfitting them for eternal life.’ In today’s world, that is no mean achievement. May that good work continue to be done in Catholic schools throughout the country and may we all continue to walk together confident of God’s mercy and showing mercy to each other.
Notes for editors:
- Father Tom Deenihan is General Secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA). The CPSMA is a recognised school management association and represents all the boards of management of the over 2,900 Catholic primary schools in the Republic of Ireland.
- This homily was preached at Mass today in the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Dennehy’s Cross, Cork as part of the national launch of Catholic Schools Week 2016. Bishop John Buckley, Bishop of Cork and Ross was principal celebrant of the Mass which was concelebrated by Bishop Brendan Kelly, Chair of the Council for Education of the Irish Episcopal Conference, the Very Reverend Canon Bartholomew O’Mahony PP, and by other visiting priests, representative of Catholic Education.
- This was the first time that a school in Cork has hosted the national launch of Catholic Schools Week which will take place from Sunday 31 January to Saturday 6 February 2016.
- Resources for Catholic Schools Week can be downloaded from catholicbishops.ie.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444