Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
Church of the Holy Redeemer, Bray, September 2009
The readings of our Mass this evening at the beginning of a new school year remind us of the “protective presence” of God in our lives and in our society. The first reading expresses something of the care that God has for each one of us, as is said, even before we were formed in the womb. In the opening homily of his Pontificate Pope Benedict expressed this idea saying that “Each of is the fruit of a thought of God”. Education is about creating the protective climate in which the “thought of God” that is in each of the young people entrusted to our common care can be brought to fullness and grows to maturity.
The second reading again speaks of looking after something precious, in this case the teaching of the faith and love that is brought by Jesus Christ. That teaching is liberating. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not a God of repression but one who like the Jesus of today’s Gospel brings calm and vision and hope in troubled times. This story was given emphasis by the Evangelists to remind a troubled early Christian community that even though it might appear that Jesus was asleep and disinterested, Jesus is never far from us if we have faith and that is he who rebukes, that is, “turns the tables” on the harshness and turbulence which can affect us as individual and as a community.
These are difficult and changing times for schools and education in Ireland. Yet they are really challenging times. We are facing a ground-breaking rethink regarding the ethos-mix of schooling in Ireland and we have to ensure that we get it right, through carefully listening to the various stakeholders and fully respecting the various traditions present in society.
This has to be done in an economic climate that only some months ago we would not have imagined. There is no way in which we can avoid facing the harsh consequences of the economic turndown, in education as in any other sector of society, and we do not know for how long. We are saddened that this has to take place while we realise that our expenditure on education is below that which would be desirable. In this real situation we all know that we have to live within our means with no sector of public life excluded. At the same time we have to recognise that education is different. Education is not just part of the problem of our expenditure but education is an irreplaceable part of the answer.
It is people with their creativity and talent who are and will be the backbone of economic recovery. We have to be especially cautious in ensuring that the talent of those young people who find themselves today economically disadvantaged is not held hostage to purely economic decisions in such a way as to create long term damage for them. Our common future needs their talents and their creativity. We owe our children the best even in leaner times. They need the “protective presence” of that care which springs from recognition of their God-given value.
These are difficult and changing times regarding schools and education and any one who thinks that the solutions are simple has misread the situation.
I can fully understand the anxiety and frustration of teachers who are so committed to providing the highest possible level of education for all the children of our times. That is why they became teachers. Whereas the economic difficulties will not go away we must also be to ensure that cutbacks inevitable in times of economic downturn do not become a shortcut to long-term spending cuts, even when the economic climate takes the upward turn that all hope to see.
Educational policy cannot be based either on ideology or pure pragmatism. As often happens there is a sort of tension between various desires and aspirations. It is reasonable on economic grounds to examine the possibilities of rationalisation of the number, size and location of schools. On the other hand, it is hard to underestimate the educational value of a school which, though small, is strongly embedded and owned by its community. It is not always easy to find the appropriate price tag with which to assess the real value of a particular school at a particular moment.
There are demographic changes and a new shape of religious demography. Yet this does not mean that there is a automatically widespread demand for a totally secular form of education.
Educational planning must involve a creative balance between pragmatism and idealism. The fear of economic cutbacks can lead people towards certain egoism and to opt for the safer path and conclude that any passion for idealism can be left to better days. Yet it was always the idealism and the genius of teachers and communities which made for the success of the great schools of the past. When I speak of the great schools I am thinking not of the famous schools, but of many very small schools which produced generations of young people who inherited a passion for learning and exploration from teachers who had very little resources at their disposal other than their own passion for learning. Ireland can be righty proud of its teachers.
Our educational system in Ireland has always had a deep rooted religious dimension. Freedom of religion in the educational field was a hard fought for right. Ireland is now more secularised but its religious heritage is still very much alive, even for those who are unhappy with it.
In the face of a different cultural climate religious education must also change. One might say that in today’s Ireland so much of our society lives as though God does not exist. One of the problems is that we have at times inherited and preached a false God. I remember at various stages of my religious formation when we were presented with what seemed a harsh judgmental God. We were taught of about how God showed his power in miracles, almost as if to show off his power, whereas the miracles of Jesus are all about caring, liberating, freeing people from burdens. We need to recover the true sense of a God who is love; a God who reveals his power not in tele-miracles, but in caring for each and every one of us.
Jesus never healed crowds; he placed his hand on and encounterd each one individually. That special care for each individual must be a mark of Catholic education. Catholic education is not just about imparting a bulk of knowledge; it is not about the vague ethos of a mission statement. Catholic Education is about preparing people for life. It is about the bond between faith and life, between faith and culture. Our catechetical programme needs to be reassessed in this light. Religious education, for the Christian, should perhaps turn more closely to the Word of God and teach as Jesus did in his teaching, doing so within the community of the Church which should mirror that “protective presence” of God’s love in the life of each child.
Speaking at the end of the Mass for teachers, Dr. Martin, expressed his concern about recent remarks attributed to an Irish comedian which the Archbishop described as “offensive to the Jewish community and offensive to all who feel revulsion concerning the Holocaust, one of the most horrific events in human history.
“Having known persons who were holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi extermination camps” the Archbishop added, “I can only decry the comments as insensitive and hurtful to the suffering of the victims and to a memory which is sacred. Comedy does not bring with it unlimited licence. Comedy can easily become the forerunner of intolerance. Indeed comedy can be subtly dressed up to be cruel and to show disregard. Trivialization of the Holocaust can be as hurtful as denial”.
Concluding, the Archbishop noted that “The changing make up of modern Irish society requires all of us to be particularly sensitive to any expression of racism or intolerance”.