Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the opening Mass for Catholic Schools Week 2018

25 Jan 2018

Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry

  • Parents are the first and best educators of their children … the family is where they see what it means to be a good human being and how to cope with the realities of life
  • The Catholic school aims to be a place where young people can feel a strong sense of belonging and identity
  • A Catholic school is not just teaching secular subjects and then little bits and pieces of Church teaching.  Our schools locate excellent teaching in the context of the experience of a world where we belong together

Homily: ‘Catholic Schools: Called to be a Family of Families’
Apparently at this time of the year, we are supposed to be in the middle not just of the flu but of the “SAD” season. It seems that the winter weather affects some people with “Seasonal Affective Disorder”.  There are the short days, and the thought of months to go until the summer.

But three days ago I saw the first crocuses sticking up their wee heads just outside the Cathedral – and I thought to myself, ‘there is a nice image of what we are trying to celebrate in Catholic Schools Week’.  The news and the weather might not be cheerful – but in the midst of all the gloom that some people feel, we are sticking up our little heads and saying that the tough conditions won’t keep us down.  Even in the winter months, we are an Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!

So when we come to celebrate who and what we are as a family of Catholic schools in this diocese, we don’t come to boast about what we have achieved or look down our noses at any other type of school or even at one another.  But we do come together to ask, like Jesus and Saint Paul, how can we bring the joy of the Gospel into all the sad corners of peoples’ lives – and how can we help our wonderful young people to be prepared to deal with the great opportunities and tough challenges that they face this year in 2018?

Later this year, in August, Ireland has been chosen to host the World Meeting of Families (WMOF).  Tens of thousands are expected to be in Dublin – and Pope Francis hopes to be there with us for a great celebration.  Since the theme of WMOF is ‘The Gospel of the Family, Joy for the World’ our theme for Catholic Schools Week is ‘Catholic Schools: Called to be a Family of Families’.

So what do we mean by that?

Firstly, our schools were set up to support families in their irreplaceable work. Your schools do not just take children from their families, fill their heads with information and then send them home. Parents are the first and best educators of their children. Young people learn so much from what they see from the role models in their lives.  That is why parents, grandparents and others relations are so important.  From them, young people might not learn French verbs or how to write computer programmes.  But the family is where they see what it means to be a good human being and how to cope with the realities of life.  Our schools are set up to build on what has been learnt at home – and introduce young people to the wider world. As in the case of Jesus, the family is the first school of faith and love.  A school can build on that but never replace it.

We know from the Gospel that Jesus was brought up in a context where many people might have thought that his family was a little on the different side.  And Joseph seems to have died when Jesus was relatively young.  In fact, the Gospels tell us that even his family were not sure what to make of him when he started preaching.  Each of our schools aims at being a place where pupils and parents are supported so that both young people and adults can grow into the people that God dreams they can become.  Our schools are at their best when schools support families, and when families are engaged with the school.  Parents, you are partners in education – and the more you can play that role, the more your child will flourish.

Secondly, we live in a world that encourages individualism.  The result is that, in our very affluent society, so many people suffer from loneliness.  The Catholic school aims to be a place where young people can feel a strong sense of belonging and identity.  This is not just a place for getting information but a community where young people can learn how to live and co-operate with other people.  In the Body of Christ, the Church, we are invited to cherish the talents and dignity of everybody else and of ourselves.  Our schools try to be places where the pupils are able to believe in their unique contribution to life – and where they can learn the skills to be active citizens, keen to serve the Common Good and not just to look after themselves.  Thus our Catholic schools all over the world have been producing people who want to be citizens of the world, wherever they may go.  A Catholic school is a family of families – never merely a place of “cut-throat” competition for exam grades.

A school that is a family of families does not just insist that there is only one form of family.  For all sorts of reasons, many pupils are not able to be at home with their mum and dad.  But the insistence on the word ‘family’ does tell us one thing that Jesus insisted on – with grace, we are capable of growing into mature adults, having long-term committed relationships, not afraid of generosity and self-sacrifice, whatever our circumstances.  God wants us to blossom and flourish.  We will not grow in wisdom by learning to be selfish and self-centred.  Being a family of families is a call to greatness.

Thirdly, the Bible talks family language about God.  We speak of the Father and Son.  Jesus says that anyone who listens to God’s word is His sister and brother and mother.  We are spoken of as children of God.  So the experience of the Catholic school is also meant to help young people experience what it means to be Church in all its variety.  A Catholic school is not just teaching secular subjects and then little bits and pieces of Catholic Church teaching.  All our schools want to locate excellent teaching in the context of the experience of a world where we belong together. We want them to be places where we can experience the rich variety of school subjects through the eyes of people who believe that human beings can do wonderful things, that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, that God loves the world and that we can build a beautiful world despite all its problems.

Within our family of Catholic schools, we do not need to apologise for believing that life is precious, that every child is beautiful, that belonging and community enrich individuals and the whole world, and that the family unit is an indispensable part of stable society.  We do not apologise for believing that people are capable of life-long, life-giving relationships.  The Bible teaches us Good News, not just about God but about who we are and what we can  to speak the Gospel message that people are capable of great things. Teachers, do not be ashamed of that.

I thank all our schools for the work that they do with such generosity and dedication.  The staff and governors/boards of management so often go far beyond the call of duty.  Our theme this year, ‘Catholic Schools: Called to be a Family of Families’, is meant to encourage you not just to see the national curriculum but to see young people who desire to experience belonging and hope.  The work of our schools is all the more needed today when we hear so much bad news and fake news. 

I pray that our schools will continue to be Good News and to speak with pride about that Good News.  And then, like the little yellow crocuses outside our Cathedral, we can speak of summer when others are just complaining about winter.


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. 
  • Catholic Schools Week is an all-Ireland annual celebration which invites Catholic schools to give expression in a special way to the ethos of Catholic education.  At 10.00am this morning, staff and student representatives from up to 140 schools throughout the Diocese of Derry attended Saint Eugene’s Cathedral to participate in the celebration of this Mass. 
  • Pope Francis chose Ireland to host the next World Meeting of Families and it will take place from 21–26 August in Dublin.  Families from all over the world will gather to celebrate their lives, to share their experiences from different parts of the world, to reflect on the different challenges they face and to grow together in faith.                                                   

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Katie Crosby 00353 (0) 86 862 3298