18th October 2004
It is always a pleasure to return to Saint Patrick’s College. I was ordained a priest in this Church in 1969. It is one of the institutions of which I am honoured to be Patron. Since becoming Archbishop, I have been here on various occasions at meetings. Saint Patrick’s has rightly become a place where educationalists, from every sector, are happy to meet. It is a centre where creative research on educational matters is at home. Long may it flourish and develop.
I have often repeated how, when living away from Ireland for many years, people asked me what was the secret of the success of the Irish “economic miracle”, I always responded that in a very particular way the economic miracle was due to the quality of Irish education.
There may have been many defects in that system over the years, and there still are. But there was one constant plus, the quality of our teachers. Despite inadequacies in buildings, in class size, in curriculum, teachers, from the smallest school in the country to the largest, did remarkably well in identifying and bringing out the talent of our young people and gave them that unique sense of personal worth and creativity which is the key to entering into the benefits of today’s knowledge-based society, at home or around the world.
From my own experience visiting parishes around the Archdiocese of Dublin, I can see without any hesitation that our teachers are among the most outstanding groups within our communities. The less advantaged the parish or the area, the more dedicated and creative the teachers are. Teachers, more than any other group in the community, can tell you all about the specific social challenges which children meet. They are aware of family problems. They are aware of the lack of facilities needed to help the most disadvantaged to enter into the benefits of education. They are aware of the multidimensional problems which contribute to children dropping out from education.
You can see the expression of sheer joy on teachers’ faces when a class or individual pupils achieve something, especially when the girl or boy in question has started from disadvantage. You can feel their frustration when they talk about talent that cannot be fully developed or recognised.
Ireland’s economic miracle owes much to the quality of our education. But there are too many signs that education, especially primary education, has not received back an investment which is in proportion to what it has offered. There is evidence that primary school education needs massive investment to bring it up to general European standards. There is need for massive investment in the teachers training colleges.
One of the characteristics of a theological miracle is that it must be definitive; it must last forever; there is no going back. This is not the case with an economic miracle; economic progress must be sustained by the same factors which most enhanced it initially. To allow our primary educational system to deteriorate, to allow large sectors of the population not to be able to see their human potential realised would rob future economic development of one of its sure foundations. Education can contribute decisively to the economic miracle. But it would be unfair to think that the educational system should be left to function on miracles.
But we ask for greater investment in education not just because it enhances economic development. We need it because our children have a right to be able to develop the unique talent and capacity that they have. Every child has a right to opportunity. Every child should be helped realise that opportunity. Every effort must be taken to ensure that from their very first days at school children can get a fascination for learning, a fascination to be able to be themselves, so that they can attain a level of self esteem which helps them overcome whatever disadvantage they came from.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Luke. Saint Luke’s gospel is the gospel which more than any other stresses that the good news is destined in a special way for the poor. Luke places this affirmation at the very beginning of Jesus ministry, on the occasion in which he visited the town in which he had been brought up. Jesus takes the scroll of the scriptures in the Synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the text of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The spirit of the lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
to the blind new sight
to set the downtrodden free,
and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour”.
Luke places Jesus’ message and mission in its entirety into the context of a special relationship with the poor and the excluded, with those who are not free in themselves. Constantly Jesus frees people from unclean spirits. Put in another way, this means that he freed the spirit of people from those things which held them prisoner and thus restored them to that freedom which is the hallmark of the person created by God.
Today poverty and exclusion render so many young people less free to be fully themselves. There are many factors which contribute to poverty and exclusion. There is one fundamental key to helping people move out of poverty and marginalization, that is, freeing them, enabling them to experience liberty, enabling them to realise the God-given capacity that each of them possesses. That is the fundamental task of the educator
Religious education has a special place in this task. Religious education should lead to an opening of children’s minds to help them along the first steps of reflection on the meaning of their own lives and values. It should stimulate that openness to the transcendent which encourages the young person to go beyond him or herself. It invites young people to experience the love of God which insists on love of one’s neighbour.
Religious education should be understood as an exciting project which is truly in harmony with a modern pluralist society. Pluralist does not mean secularist. The school, in a pluralist society that cherishes diversity, cannot be imagined as a neutral space where all beliefs and values are left at the door. Religious culture has its rightful place in a pluralist society.
Religious values, which point beyond the consensus values of the day, can be the best antidote to a culture of consumerism and superficiality. They help the young person move beyond individualism and speak about solidarity and gratuitous love in a market-dominated culture in which everything has its price and you get just what you pay for.
My hope is that you wil take up the challenge of keeping alive in our times the great tradition of Irish educators who understood their work not as just passing on information but as one of journeying together with young people, opening their minds to the deeper questions of life and together finding answers that enrich in the message of the Gospel.
A second characteristic of Saint Luke’s gospel is that it is the universal gospel. It stresses that Jesus Christ is for all people, and that in Jesus there should be no discrimination among peoples. So often the heroes of Luke’s stories about Jesus are not good traditional believers, but outsiders, foreigners, like the Good Samaritan or the one grateful leper who was also a Samaritan. Jesus recognised greatness and goodness in those who were often considered on the margins of society.
The specific tradition of the Catholic school can and should be one open to and respectful of other religious traditions. The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin are increasingly sensitive to the fact of difference of ethnic and national background in the school community. A truly Catholic ethos has shown that it can be welcoming of others and provide a framework within which the school can be a focal point of community for all, without losing its proper identity. The Church, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, is by its nature a sign of the unity of human kind.
Many of our schools, especially in Dublin city, are multi-ethnic. Parents who have come recently to our shores place their confidence in our schools that their children will be welcomed and will grow happily in their new environment. All our schools must assert in their day to day practice that the new Irish are true Irish. Our young people from different traditions bring a new wealth to our country and our culture. They remind us that economic wealth is not the only wealth our nations needs. We must enhance the self esteem of these children, encourage them to find a new and strong identity and give them the instruments to be builders of a new success story of Ireland today.
Education is about people. It is about making people the type of people, who by the quality of the lives they live, can witness to the fact that they are created in the image and likeness of God. This is the challenge you will face in being the educators of the future generations of Irish, in a different Ireland, but in an Ireland where opportunity should be the order of the day, following the example of the Jesus of Saint Luke whose care it was to address especially those who were most unequal in the struggle for their full human dignity.