Catholic schools’ ethos benefits Ireland’s pluralist society

Opinion: Genuine pluralism is not attained by ignoring the religious freedom of the majority

Young people are encouraged to develop the full range of their intellectual, physical, social, aesthetic, emotional and spiritual abilities and talents. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Young people are encouraged to develop the full range of their intellectual, physical, social, aesthetic, emotional and spiritual abilities and talents. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Mon, Jan 27, 2014, 19:47

Catholic Schools Week 2014 takes place this week across the island of Ireland. This annual celebration is an opportunity for Catholic parishes, parents, boards of management and governors, teachers and students to reflect on the values underpinning the long tradition of Catholic education in this country and worldwide.

The 2014 theme is Catholic Schools: Places of Faith and Learning.

During Catholic Schools Week we also commemorate the lives and contributions to educational theory and practice of saints such as Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines, the first congregation of women in the Catholic Church, and a pioneer of education for women.

We commemorate St Thomas Aquinas, acknowledged as among the most influential thinkers of medieval scholasticism, who combined the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason; and St John Bosco, renowned as an innovative educator, whose outreach to the vulnerable young of his day was marked by kindness, encouraging young people to paths of virtue and developing in them an appreciation of their own worth.

In presenting the message of the kingdom of God, Jesus adopted an invitational approach throughout his public life. The Catholic school, at all levels, aims to reflect a distinctive vision of life based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Its educational philosophy is inspired by that vision and corresponds to it. It strives to create a facilitative environment in which the student may grow in an appreciation of the presence of God, as Patrick Kavanagh puts it, “in the bits and pieces of everyday life”.

This nurturing environment is achieved through the programmes of religious education, prayer and worship the school offers. It is also conveyed by the lived witness of teachers, the vision and policies of boards of management/governors, its recognition of parents as primary educators and its co-operation with the parish community.

In such an environment the student’s learning is suffused by wonder at the transcendent mystery of God revealed in the complex beauty of the universe. The student also benefits from the achievements of scientists, the works of artists and writers, the insights of philosophers. Young people are encouraged to develop the full range of their intellectual, physical, social, aesthetic, emotional and spiritual abilities and talents in a balanced, integrated and generous way.

The Catholic school focuses especially on the holistic formation of the person because it recognises that each student “is a child of God”, who is destined to grow into an active citizen in the world. In this milieu the young person experiences the “fragrance of the Gospel”, as Pope Francis delightfully expresses it.

A Gospel-inspired concern for the needs of others calls for practical local and global outreach and partnerships. We see numerous examples of this generosity among the students, current and former, of our Catholic schools.


Service in the community
They illustrate the impulse to be of service in the community, the “love thy neighbour as thyself” exhortation of the Gospel that spills over into action from the wells of deep faith in the message of Jesus.

A significant amount of public discourse around faith-based education in recent times suggests that denominational schools are a block to the development of a genuinely pluralist society. The opposite applies. Catholic schools in Ireland today provide for diversity and cater for it in a variety of creative ways. Some have up to 44 different nationalities in their enrolment.

Diversity challenges but also enriches students and teachers. Our schools and parishes are playing a vital part in the integration of other nationalities into Irish society.

The multicultural character of Irish society today presents the Government with challenges in terms of adequate provision for those who do not subscribe to the Catholic ethos of the majority of primary schools. Catholic patrons acknowledge this and have expressed willingness, guided by parental choice, to divest Catholic schools.

Genuine pluralism is not attained by ignoring the right to religious freedom of the majority. In responding to the needs of our times, let us avoid the mistake of becoming victims to a national state of amnesia in relation to a tradition that has served us, and others, well.


Sr Elizabeth Maxwell is provincial leader of the Presentation Sisters Northern Province.

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