The future of Catholic education in Ireland

Today the Irish Independent, one of our national newspapers ran this headline: “Parents get vote to take schools out of control of the Church”

I have to say that I was saddened to read this.  Why? Firstly, this statement is one which is very misleading, provided by a media, which is supported by anti -church sentiment which has grown amongst those who have proffered from the system but now reject said system. I am proud to say that I went to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Mercy for 14 years, from when I was 4 years old to when I was eighteen. To be honest I have to say, my Catholic education has given me a strong foundation in my religious life. It gave me values which complimented the values which I received from home, a love for educating and learning, a respect for those who sought to teach me in many ways. All the preparation for First Holy Communion and Confirmation was done in a classroom setting. My teachers brought me to the parish on Fridays where we joined for the celebration of the Eucharist. A priest came to our school and prepared us for Confession, talked to us about parish events. We prayed grace, the Angelus, thanksgiving prayers in the classroom. We passed around the Trocaire Mission Box each Lent and Advent and collected money for the priests on the missions to provide food for starving children and aid projects. When we were small children, we prayed for our ‘sick grannies’, ‘hamsters that had died’, ‘daddies to get a job’. In a way we came to know our school friends on a deeper level through these innocent prayers which we made. There was normality about it all that came from being in a Catholic school.

The Department of Education stated that its reason for this new model is: ‘to reduce the control of the Catholic Church in primary education and offering parents greater choice to reflect the cultural and religious mix in Irish society generally.’ Putting control and Catholic Church together in the same sentence from an Irish perspective is like a red rag to a bull! Automatically the response is ‘get them out’, the dialogue is now marred with prejudices, presuppositions, accusations while long-term it is the children who are missing out. In the meanwhile the majority of the general public forget the wonderful work that so many priests and religious have done through the centuries in educating generations of children in Ireland.  It will only be a matter of time before these schools will be fractured because of a lack of ethos.  People will then realise how much the Church contributed to schools. What it might do however is to redirect to its proper place, the responsibility of parents to form their children in the faith. Will the parents take up this responsibility? More about this later!

When I was serving in our Liturgical Centre in Dublin, I entered into conversation with a lady who was getting a Mass card. In the course of the dialogue, she expressed her surprise that her 8 old year daughter didn’t even know the ‘Glory be’ and blamed this downfall on the school and that the teacher (in a Catholic school) was a non-practicing Catholic and didn’t teach the prayers. Based on a conversation which we had here at table at Deschatelets, apparently this is a common complaint. Kids are 8 and 9 years of age and can’t even make the sign of the cross. More so than being scandalizing, this is sad! In the case of the lady above, I gently reminded her that parents are the primary educators and the family is the domestic Church. It didn’t go down too well as I assume it is easier to blame ‘others’ or a ‘system’ when it comes to sacramentalizing children.  

This said, I look at the Italian system which I came to know during my time there and experienced first hand when I gave some help in the parish for catechesis. The children received their preparation for the sacraments within the parish context. Children were a little bit older, 11 or 12 when they received their First Holy Communion. However, they frequented the parish on a Saturday afternoon (not a school day!), accompanied by their parents and received sacramental instruction. The people giving it were qualified catechists in collaboration with the parish priest who was usually present for the afternoon as well. This was done for 3 years!  For some, the system worked and you could witness the sense and the involvement of parish community, outside of the context of Eucharistic celebration. This was the bread broken and shared as parents and catechists sought to use their gifts, talents and above all, their faith, to help these young people to be nourished by the Bread of Life and discover a living relationship with Him.

But going back to my earlier question: can you really see parents in Ireland committing to bringing their children almost every Saturday for catechesis for three years? I would love to be optimistic and say ‘yes’ but I doubt it. The same thing is repeated for Confirmation; recipients are usually 15 or 16 and attend the preparation in order to receive the Sacrament. As you can imagine, the numbers for receiving Confirmation are somewhat lower as by that stage, adolescent tantrums often win over the necessity to complete the Christian Initiation. The other point is, especially with regard to the younger children, it presumes a stable family nucleus which actually takes interest in the child’s faith formation.  Again, without being all doom and gloom here, percentages show that  disadvantaged children are deprived of something which usually was done in school, thus granting all, regardless of family or financial situation, the possibility to be formed for and receive the sacraments as do their peers. So another question: if children don’t get religious, not to mention sacramental, formation in school, are parents willing to provide it in the home?

It also has to be noted also that Islam is creeping into Ireland and many plead the card of ‘interculturation’ and ‘respect of religion’ so as to introduce these ‘non-Catholic’ schools. Ironically enough, it is not from the Islam community but from others who are afraid ‘others’ might be offended. I recall on the Joe Duffy show a few years ago when there was outcry when the crib figures which were traditionally found in the entrance of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, a hospital under the patronage of the Daughters of Charity, were removed. The reason given at the time was that it ‘could’ be offensive to Muslims working the hospital. Fair play to the numerous Muslims who actually rang in to Joe Duffy and shared how they were not offended and that they would like the Catholics to continue putting up the crib and celebrate the birth of Christ!

Remember what happened when religious started coming out of the hospitals! Standards began to drop, above of all, of cleanliness, medical ethics, staff respect. At the time of MSRA outbreak, how many times did you hear: “If the nuns were back in the hospitals...this wouldn’t be happening”. If this proposal goes through for the schools, I guess we are going to be hearing something similar of a rant in the not too distant future!