Every year we have this week when we take to time to ask the question, “Who and what are we trying to be as Catholic schools in Ireland in 2023?” It is an important question to ask – because many people are not sure whether Catholic schools have any role to play in modern Ireland. Schools were set up many years ago to respond to the circumstances of the time. Nowadays, lots of people are very happy with their Catholic school – but like it mainly because it is a good school rather merely than because it has a church connection.
This is an important time for us all to have conversations as to what changing role a Catholic school might play in Ireland today – and when our current pupils are deciding where to send their own children for their education.
To deal with that question, we might look at the saints we celebrate today. On January 26th the church around the world celebrates the feast of two young men – Timothy and Titus. They were enthusiastic young adults who were inspired by the teaching of Saint Paul and whom Paul entrusted with important leadership positions. And that underlines what the whole purpose of education is. Parishes do not put so much time and energy into our schools, just to enable people to compete better in a nasty rat race for power and success. Our local communities want to develop young leaders for the present and the future, people who will serve the Common Good and not just help themselves to whatever they can grab. Education in community is about building community builders – because communities build people. Education that is mainly about exam results is a poor education for a mature adult life.
Take, for example, this cathedral. It is a splendid building. But none of those who planned it in the middle of the 19th century expected to see its completion. Indeed, it took nearly 50 years for it to be built and another 36 years for it to be paid for. People of faith build in hope. Like the 72 disciples whom Jesus sent out in the Gospel, the builders knew that they would face many difficulties and many who doubted their ability to finish the task. But they worked on, driven by faith in a dream that did not disappoint.
Our schools are committed to being part of a community that builds up people. But in a very individualistic world, that model of education faces many cultural challenges. Young people are growing up in a culture that is marked by violence and division – and we see how many young people suffer stress and distress because a fragmented, self-centred culture offers little hope or meaning. The modern culture plays up the importance of looking good on the outside – but also tells us that the body is of no real value as it is just something to be played with and obeyed. Indeed, there are those who would want to prevent young people from hearing about the dignity of the human body and the belief that we can be good people and not just people who are good at things.
In Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy, he tells him to fan into a flame the gift that God gave him when he was ordained to work in Christ’s name. Our schools tell young people to expect great things from themselves and not just good grades or big salaries. The world around may say that all you need to do is just have fun. Your main job is just to be a consumer who keep the marketplace booming, whatever the cost to people or to the environment. But Jesus says that you can be great and do great things. Saints were people who believed in doing little things well – and making a difference. Saints will work to make a world where little people can blossom. They will do more good for people than will Elon Musk and Bill Gates put together.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to teach that the Kingdom of God is very near. Our schools want young people to believe that God’s grace is close at hand to help them on their journey to greatness. Our theme this year is Catholic schools – Walking Together in Faith and Love. I hope that, by walking together as a family of schools, we can become more aware of Christ’s vision of human dignity that we want young people to hear. That message is not meant to limit or restrict. It is meant to help young people flourish by learning to make good and generous choices in life – and to believe that forgiveness is readily available when they make mistakes. We need to walk together as there are those who would prefer if we just packed up our message and went away. This is a time, as Timothy and Titus discovered, to fan into a flame the gifts that God gives us, to be salt to the earth and not to hide our light.
Celebrate your identity with pride. Don’t be ashamed to talk of parish and community, of love and forgiveness, of wholeness and holiness. We are communities who walk together in faith and love. Never be ashamed of trying to do that.
Most Reverend Donal McKeown, is Bishop of the Diocese of Derry.
Homily 26th January 2023, Mass to launch Catholic Schools Week, Saint Eugene’s Cathedral.