Reconfiguring school patronage can work if Church and State co-operate for the common good

Catholic bishops have stated their agreement to work with the State to respond to the need for school choice

Catholic patrons recognise the need to work with the State to respond to increasing pluralism in Ireland. Photograph: iStock

Our journey as a society in Ireland is now one of increasing pluralism, of ethnic and national backgrounds and of religious and philosophical beliefs. The patrons of Catholic schools recognise the challenges and opportunities in that increased pluralism, understanding that Catholic schools are uniquely placed to respond, belonging as they do to a global Catholic community, present in many cultures, speaking in hundreds of languages, joined together in communion as part of the living body of Christ.

Part of this increased pluralism is a growing wish by some parents for a greater choice of school type at primary, wishing to have their children educated in multi or non-denominational schools. The Catholic patrons, the bishops, have stated clearly their agreement to work with the State to respond to this need for school choice, and have engaged in a pilot project to explore reconfiguration of patronage in several communities in Ireland.

This is not an easy process, as while reconfiguration of patronage has national support, once it comes to implementing it on the ground in communities, it can run into opposition, as often the majority of parents in individual schools, including some parents who are not Catholic, are satisfied with their children’s schools as they are.

However, the pilot process was intended to provide opportunity to learn and then to create for other communities a viable critical path to secure reconfiguration in a sensitive, efficient and effective manner. The process of reconfiguration will be a success if Church and State can work together, in sympathy with the needs of communities.


There is an opportunity for visionary leadership in both Church and State to realise that a recasting of the relationship between both, respectful of their respective roles, can work to secure the common good of all. There is no wish to return to past forms of relationships, but rather to forge something new.

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Similar to the issue of reconfiguration of patronage, rather than working in some form of opposition, there is an opportunity for the State and its agencies to work with the Catholic education sphere to address the challenges of our time.

Of immediate relevance is the recent initiative by Pope Francis, who has launched the Global Compact on Education. The Compact intentionally resonates with the work of Unesco and is an invitation not only to Catholic educators, but to all involved in education, to form an alliance to answer the ecological challenges of our age. This challenge not only relates to the natural world, but to the crisis in human ecology. Such an alliance is intended by the Pope to generate peace, justice and hospitality among all peoples of the human family, as well as dialogue and encounter between religions and other communities of conviction.

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The Compact has seven elements: to place the human person at the centre of educational programmes; to listen to the voices of the young; to advance girls in education; to empower the family as the first and essential place of education; to welcome all, having an openness to the most vulnerable and marginalised; to find new ways of understanding economy and politics, placing them at the service of human person and the whole human family; and to safeguard our common home.

As I heard during a recent conference of Catholic educators from across the globe, the Compact has been embraced with enthusiasm by Catholic educators in Asia, Africa and South America. Many European Catholic educators see the Compact as an opportunity to reform and enhance our pedagogy. Our Catholic Education Partnership, the newly established umbrella body for Catholic education in Ireland, will be taking the lead in calling for such an alliance, based on the Compact, in Ireland.

What makes a school Catholic is how it acts every day, the quality of Christ-like action in the school community. This is a high standard to meet.

The theme of Catholic Schools Week 2023 is “walking together in faith and love”. The theme is inspired by the synodal process the universal Church is now engaged in, which literally means “journeying together”. During this week, which is celebrated annually across the island, prepared resources will facilitate students to embrace daily themes, starting with their relationship with themselves and God, with their school community, their families, the world community, and ending with hope for the future.

What makes a Catholic school is not just religious imagery and statues, religious education or preparation for the sacraments. The Global Compact captures its essence; the sense of relationship with ourselves, with others (especially our families, our communities and the whole of humanity), and with the whole of creation. For the person of religious faith such relationships are integral to a living relationship with God. The Compact frames education in a commitment to the greater global common good of all humanity and the care for our common home. For the Catholic school this is grounded within in a relationship with Jesus, informed by the Gospels and the teachings of the Church.

What makes a school Catholic is how it acts every day, the quality of Christ-like action in the school community. This is a high standard to meet.

A few years ago, I was advising the school principal of a special school who had spent the previous few days, over a weekend, dealing with a very tragic situation involving one of her pupils. Following an inadequate response from other agencies, she and her colleagues went to quite extraordinary lengths to help the child, caring for them over a weekend. I expressed the view that she should not have had to do this. The principal replied, “What else could we do? We are a Catholic school.”

Alan Hynes is chief executive of the Catholic Education Partnership (

Alan Hynes, chief executive of the Catholic Education Partnership