Should we expect Catholic schools to transmit faith?

Ask Brian: The place to nurture faith is within the community, not in schools

In using Catholic schools to process the baptised population through the formalities of practice, we have effectively destroyed faith as a lived reality. Photograph: iStock

The recent statement by Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell that evidence of Christian belief in Ireland today has for all intents and purposes vanished highlights the problem faced by those of us tasked with the management of Catholic schools. What are the implications for our core responsibility for transmission of faith?

Given the catch-all nature of the Irish Catholic school system, which I have been immersed in as a student and teacher since the 1960s, it has always been clear to me that expecting schooling on its own to transmit faith was always a futile expectation. Today, Archbishop Farrell’s observations that “the current model of the Church is unsustainable” has to be faced.

I, like him, having worked with young people all my life, affirm his observation that “when young people volunteer to look after the sick, or the elderly, or the poor, when accompanied, it may facilitate a dynamic where the lord starts to speak and move the heart of the young person. We need to start here rather than telling people to go to Mass.”

The place to nurture that is within the community, centred around the parish and not in the school system. I spent many summers in California living with family and saw how the local Catholic community and other denominations operated.


Sacramental preparation took place solely within the parish community. Parents were trained to effectively transmit the faith to various age groups of children as they grew and matured within the community.

The parish was a living vibrant community which cared for and supported its more vulnerable members materially and spiritually.


Archbishop Farrell’s comments should be the catalyst to begin to reimagine the role of faith formation in both our primary and second-level schools.

Huge numbers of teachers who are tasked with transmitting faith, although model citizens and excellent teachers, are not practising members of any religious community and are carrying out the duties assigned to them to the best of their ability.

But it is evident to the students and their parents that they are simply fulfilling a contractual obligation. In using the Catholic school system to process the entire baptised population through the formalities of practice, we have effectively destroyed faith as a lived reality.

As a country with a long tradition of empathy for our fellow man, we need to offer students in our school system a full understanding of the place of religious belief within society. We also need to embed ethical and moral values which challenge our young people to build a more inclusive and tolerant society. Our schools are the perfect places to carry out these tasks.

But we need to liberate those many teachers whose authenticity is undermined in the minds and hearts of their students when they have to pretend to carry out the task of faith formation they do not believe in.

Our schools, communities and parishes where faith is practised will all be healthier if we address this issue.