Education policy must have a priority option for the poor – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

27 Sep 2016

Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin at Schools Mass 2016 in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, 27th September 2016

“Once again we gather at the beginning of the school year to invoke the protection of God on one of the most important enterprises within any society: the education of our children. We gather as representatives of a broad family of educators and policy makers. We gather as teachers, school principals, representatives of the Department of Education and Skills, teachers’ organizations, educational trusts and the educational services of the Archdiocese of Dublin.

This year our Mass falls on the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul, a friend of the poor, whose name has, around the world, become synonymous with care for the poor. Educational policy must always have within it a priority option for the poor, for those whose educational opportunity is limited in any way. Indeed the most appropriate characterization of poverty is not a definition in purely monetary terms of income. Poverty is the inability to realise God-given potential and fighting poverty is not just about handouts, but about enabling. Enabling will not be attained by generalised, rigid, mathematical allocation of funds; by its nature enabling requires flexibility and recognition of difference of needs.

At our Mass we remember especially the many in our society who suffer from educational disadvantage or have special needs. The disadvantaged must always be given pride of place in policy making and allocation of funds. We have to address more effectively the needs of the members of the Travelling Community where all the indications are that they persistently remain among the most disadvantaged educationally.

Investment in the human capacity of the disadvantaged is a non-renounceable contribution to building a society which wishes to cherish equality for its young people. Failure to invest in fostering the educational opportunity of the disadvantaged from an early age is economical nonsense, which will end up in requiring greater investment when indeed it may be too late and less effective. Quality education is a fundamental right of all and a requirement of our respect for the dignity of the weakest in society.

I address these remarks in a special way to the Catholic education community. Most of the religious orders which have education as their mission sprung up from courageous and far-seeing founders and foundresses who were inspired to address the needs of the poor. Every Catholic educational institution – especially the most prestigious – must have as one of its clear focusses finding ways to assist the disadvantaged. Exclusivism should never be the dominant tone of any Catholic school.

Catholic schools have played and continue to play a vital role in the educational context of this country and will continue to do so in the future. They will do so in the future in a different overall cultural climate which respects the rights of all parents to choose a school which represents their values. The demand for Catholic schools is strong. The demand for other forms of patronage is growing. The process of diversification is still too slow.

In the discussion on how we address this challenge, however, we have to avoid any simplistic crossing of lines. There are those who would wish to play down the role of Catholic schools because of the evolving cultural variety that now exists in Ireland. Yet the indications are that the majority of immigrants in Ireland are intensely interested in schools with a religious ethos.

On the other hand there are those who rightly note the pioneering role that Catholic schools have played in the integration of immigrants, but who as a result give the impression that Catholic patronage should retain an over dominant role and fail to recognise the right of parents who wish to have access to schools with a multi-denominational or on denominational ethos.

There are others who feel that a plurality of patronage is intrinsically divisive and that there should be only one school system equally accessible to all. Experience shows, however, that like it or not parents will do anything to send their child to a school they regard as a good school. I often ask how many parents today drive past their nearest school because they do not wish their children to attend schools with educational disadvantage. Educational equality will come when the quality of education is widespread.

The challenge for Catholic education is to ensure that Catholic schools are really Catholic. This does not mean that Catholic schools should become closed Catholic ghettos. It does mean that religious education in the Catholic school takes on a new profile.

Religious education is not indoctrination. There is a beautiful phrase in the Gospel of our Mass where Phillip tells Nathaniel that he has found Jesus. Nathaniel is somewhat scandalised when he is told that this Jesus is from Nazareth and asks: “can anything good come form that place?” Philip’s response is a simple one “Come and see”. Faith cannot be imposed. Faith education is about an openness to come and see, to seek, to learn. Pope Benedict has said that “the task of Christians today is to witness to God in a world which finds it hard to find him”.

Faith education in Ireland has to move forward from an abstract dogmatic catechesis into one within which we are invited by Jesus “to come and see” within the realities of our time. Ireland also needs to overcome the intolerance of religion which can be found at times in an intransigent secularism which still feels that nothing can come “from that place”, from faith in Jesus Christ.

We live in an era of change. It is no time for believers to sit and bemoan or to be side-lined into the irrelevant. Believers must regain confidence and courage to face new things in new ways. It is time for tolerance and respect for diversities. It is time for a Church to be present in society in such a way as to help people find that God revealed in Jesus Christ, not as an imposition but as an invitation to fullness of life.

The debate on patronage can be polarised and can ideologically polarise society. A pluralist society has every day to learn what being pluralist means and how we communicate while maintaining the language of our dear felt values. In the educational sphere pluralism means also ensuring that ideologies are laid to the side for the moment while a sense of common purpose emerges to respond to the urgent needs of the poorest and most disadvantaged. May Saint Vincent de Paul inspire us in this task!

Further Information: Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications, Archdiocese of Dublin, 01 8360723.

Photos available from John Mc Elroy Photos 087 2416985