Year of Faith 2012 - 2013

Pope Benedict XVI has set aside a special year for Catholics throughout the world to rediscover and share with others the precious gift of faith. 

for more information look here

Year of Faith Website

The Catholic School in the context of current Church teaching
[Catholic Education – The Vision, September - October 2006]

Where we have come from ……

Forty years have passed since the close of Vatican Council.. Some would say we have been wandering in the wilderness ever since, like Moses and the newly emancipated Chosen People. Others would say that what we were promised at that time was never delivered. Either way, to understand where Catholics stand today, the point of departure has to be the Second Vatican Council.


Vatican II happened in the wake of World War II, during the years it took to count its cost and to reveal and assess the full extent of the damage in social, human, moral and psychological terms. It was clear that the world would never be the same again.

It is accepted now that the truth of Hitler ' s Germany , concentration camps, fire bombings, and the horrors of Hiroshima / Nagasaki put paid to the great optimism that had characterised the “springtime of modern times” in the 19 th century. Humanity “Come of Age” had turned out to be little more than a precocious brain with access to immense destructive power but with infantile emotions and judgement. This made it dangerous and unpredictable.

Most of the European Christian bodies experienced a massive sense of failure. Post- war reflection in the ology began to concern itself with a Theology of Hope, a Theology of Suffering, Political Theology: topics that had never before been dealt with independently in mainstream Christian theology.

John 23rd who convened Vat.2 had been a popular but conservative Vatican diplomat, and was very conscious that the political arena in which the Catholic Church operated was a fragmented thing: the powerful symbols of the day being the expressions Cold War, Berlin Wall, Iron Curtain, Bamboo Curtain and the socio-economic labels for the world coined at the time: First World, Second World and Third World. For some of us the se are memories: for others history!

Church councils were traditionally assembled to settle a serious disorder within the Church Community, but here the re was no obvious division, heretical or schismatic, in the Catholic Church of the fifties. The great divide was between the world of Catholicism and the world of the twentieth century. Since Trent [in 1545-63] and Vatican I [in 1869-70], Rome had ruled its community with a very firm hand, and this was particularly true of our Irish church. By the 1940's and 50's it was highly -structured from the top down and regulated by an extraordinarily prescriptive observance.

For historical reasons - colonial experience, penal laws, Act Of Union and the highly Romanised post -Famine reconstruction of Catholic life and worship - we gradually and indeed understandably a reactionary Church that fell readily under conservative and patriarchal leadership.

We ' ve been a long time coming to the kind of assurance and self-belief that our long and honourable Christian tradition should encourage in us.

John 23 rd ' s pre-papal experience as a diplomat living beyond Rome in a wider social and political setting inspired him to hold a Council to update the Catholic Church and make it more relevant to the needs of the twentieth century. He had already been fanned by some of the breezes that were ga the ring force to become the great winds of change that were to blow in the sixties.

He was, however, absolutely certain that, as in the days of Jeremiah, there was a transforming word of God for these times and for these situations.

Temperamentally John 23rd was an optimist.

It is fair to say that while everyone was excited by the promise of Vatican 2, no one ever expected it to transform, as it did, all of our Catholic experience. Many would see the convening of the Council as the opening of an ecclesial Pandora ' s box: it unleashed an endless succession of problems, difficulties and uncertainties and the se have been with us ever since.

Maybe because of the undercurrent of chauvinism in the old legend where it is again a woman who is blamed for unleashing evil into the world, I have a different view of Pandora's Box. I tend to concentrate on the underlying sense of giftedness that Pandora ' s name suggests. For many of my generation Vatican 2 was indeed a great grace and gift to our lives of faith.

But what was/is the abiding legacy of the 2nd Vatican Council?

- 4 constitutions, 9 decrees and 3 declarations amounting to about a hundred thousand words, but the re were a few things written at the second Vatican Council that proved to have had a permanent impact, and a capacity for change for anyone who took the m seriously. Their full potential for our transformation has not yet been exploited. I mention five that I consider absolutely key.

An awakening among lay Catholics to the rich heritage of Scripture.

The universal call to holiness.

The universal mission of all Christians, stemming from each one' s baptism.

The declaration on religious freedom and the restating of conscience as supreme in moral and religious issues.

The was also the discovery and appreciation of historical development, from which the Church as a human institution cannot be exempt: and a new awareness of the centrality of culture in understanding how human institutions work.

1. The Primacy of Scripture

When Vatican II insisted that we make Scripture the basis of all our Catholic thinking, and our spirituality, in one fell swoop it set off a the ological tsunami which engulfed and washed away the biggest barrier that divided us from fellow Christians of the Protestant tradition. It dealt a body blow to some of the certainties that went with our institutional Catholic identity, and at the same time gave us an insight into the fundamental principle of the Protestant consciousness. It also called us to attend to the prophetic voice within ourselves.

2. The universal call to Holiness

The universal call to holiness suggested that sanctity in the Church was present not just in an inner group of specialist insiders: the ordained and vowed members or in the great gallery of explicitly named saints; it wasn' t about something called grace doled out sparingly at particular times but was the abiding kinship we have, as the human creation, with God. As the Alive-O series tells our children, we are of God: we are special. The divine word is made flesh in humanity. We are indeed the Holy Grail, bearers of the abiding divine bloodline. That is Christian gospel in a nutshell. This is the essence of holiness.

It is only a baby step from there to the realization that the things of God are the business of us all and that our human preoccupations and concerns are the business of God.

3. The universal call to Mission

The universal call to mission meant that the great commission of the Risen Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations was not the preserve of the select few, but was the duty and privilege of all the baptised. I think here of a phrase from one of our best known, not to say best loved saints, Francis of Assisi, who advised us

“ to preach the Gospel wherever we go: if necessary use words. ”

All of us are sent about our Father ' s business, but what we should be bringing is Gospel: good news …… not another layer of imposed burdens, that threaten freedom and put a brake on natural style and charism.

4. The Declaration on Religious Freedom

Most radical of all the statements of Vatican II perhaps was the Declaration on Religious Freedom that stated that the re were ways to and from God outside the explicitly Christian and Catholic way.

This forced a serious rethink of some of our assumptions about Church and salvation.

5. History and Culture.

Development in our understanding in these areas is something that lies at the back of what made Vatican II and its aftermath possible, though it refers to them obliquely ra the r than directly. The Constitution on The Church in the Modern World points the way. We may not ignore the nature of historical and cultural development. For example, problems that are thrown up in history can be, and sometimes were, answered in a reactionary way, and result in a line of thinking and acting that may falsify and obscure eternal truth.

Catholic Schools

The Catholic community has a long tradition of running and financing schools. I think that it is a matter of historical record that this tradition flourished in situations where Catholics had least access to political power. The obvious example is the USA

We have a similar situation here but on a more modest scale.

Not everyone approves of the Catholic School . In recent times there have been critics who seriously question the level of resources that have been invested by the Catholic Church in Catholic schools and they challenge the assumption that the attendance at a Catholic School ensures practice of the faith in later life.

The fall in church attendance by a great number of our children and the ir parents today would seem to bear this out, but it is important to see this issue in context. It takes place in a milieu that no longer understands or respects religious faith, despite the fact that in certain circles the re has never been more public talk about it, and where the re is a pervading cynicism about church and churchgoing.

These are part of the wider historical and cultural transformation that has characterised our era. Whatever the reason we can be sure that fall-off in practice is not the fault of the schools.

No amount of exposure to a Catholic school, with committed Catholic teachers and even nominally Catholic school fellows, can outweigh the influence of homes that are increasingly secular, and an increasingly godless environment. The fact that this secularity and godlessness is implied in lifestyle and outlook ra the r than voiced in explicit terms does not make it less effective.

Whether we like it or not, we must mention here that in recent times there has been in this country, north and south, the uncovering of the history of physical and sexual child abuse in Catholic circles, and this has added a massive layer of distrust and suspicion to the other cultural and historical problems we are experiencing, and we need to accept that this loss of confidence is justifiable. A great deal of this evil occurred in situations when the Catholic Church was at its most powerful and influential, and this circumstance renders forgiveness by the community more difficult.

Things do not look very good for us at the moment.

But just as a second look in Pandora' s box released the gift of hope, we may remember here that the concluding call of Vatican II was also a call to hope: not to a mindless, simplistic optimism, but for a decision to renew and rethink our heritage of belief and practice at the very moment when despair and doubt are a real possibility.

Not all of our Catholic past was glorious, but not all of it was bad either. There are many things that we can build on. Here in Northern Ireland we need look no farther than the past 35 years of what were called “ the Troubles” . If the teachers and schools had not, through sheer commitment and dedication provided a place of security, stability and predictability for our children - God knows how much worse life would have been for everyone in the province. This fact has not been proclaimed often enough. It is beyond dispute that teachers have a great tradition of responding gallantly to the needs of the moment with helpful and creative initiatives.

But the Catholic school was set up at a particular time and to serve a particular perception and model of a Catholic Church, and this in its turn came from a particular way of speaking and thinking of God and God' s world.

Today, as a consequence of social, political and cultural developments that are beyond the control of any of us, we have no choice but to revise not just our way of thinking of God and God ' s world, but also our way of imaging our Church. It goes without saying that this has far-reaching implications for the way we are to think about the Catholic school.

The Past thinking which shaped the Catholic School .

Our Catholic Schools took shape at a particular time in church history, when theology and cosmology were more straightforward.

We worshipped a monarchical God , whose mode of relating to us and to the world was as external manipulator .

Our worldview was mechanistic, moving out from the prime mover and uncaused cause, with an endless series of effects, under the eye of the great designer God.

We saw ourselves as an exclusive Church, privileged and specially chosen, a community with clearly defined rules of entry and membership.

We were expansionist where strong, with an immense outreach in personnel and finance to what we called the foreign missions:

We were ghettoised where threatened. We worshipped God in a foreign, dead language which, despite undoubted beauty and graciousness, most of ourselves didn' t understand, but it was something that reinforced our exclusiveness and gave us a sense of timelessness and uniformity .[There are still pockets of great nostalgia for those times and those ways.]

In this - slightly oversimplified - view, the Catholic School' s role was clear: children were sent to the safe school to be introduced to this God and learn the rules of membership of the group, and how to guarantee the ir salvation and its survival:

Catechism - a highly dense summary form of how God, the world and church were understood was committed to memory with varying degrees of blood, sweat and tears.

Basic prayers and devotions were taught.

There was regular attendance at Mass , and its liturgical rubrics and ritual explained and repeated.

The Ten commandments etc. were delivered as a comprehensive moral code which covered almost any human dilemma that might arise.

At clearly understood intervals the Sacraments were introduced and prepared for.

Children left school with sufficient catholic data to keep them strong and perfect Christians - and that meant Catholics - for the rest of their lives.

And we need to remember too that that many children of those times left school at fourteen to join the adult world at work, frequently as emigrants, migrants and immigrants.

For many people the Catholic school in Ireland worked wonderfully for a long time, but it has taken years for us to understand why it worked.

The primary reason was that, at the heyday of the Catholic school a genuinely Catholic community and world existed in Ireland . There was almost total uniformity within the home, and in the local community. The doctrine , catechism, prayers, worship and moral code were known and shared by a majority in Catholic neighbourhoods and all this instruction was supported and supplemented by a living faith and a vibrant popular spirituality.

The second reason that Catholic schools worked so well was that side by side with comprehensive religious instruction went excellent teaching in the other subjects of the curriculum. The presence of a very well-educated, confident and accomplished Catholic lay population is a tribute to the competence of the Catholic school system in delivering the academic curriculum, and why we have had Catholic educated professional lay people playing a vital role in the public arena for several generations.

The third reason was that until relatively recent times there did not exist a strong, parallel and competing youth culture : something that evolved throughout the West

by greatly extended school years,

better economic conditions and

more disposable income among young people.

This happened later in Ireland than in other places but it did happen, it is a fact, and more than any other it has changed the character of all schools in our day. Catholic schools cannot hope to be exempt.

It is clear to us today that the Catholic school as it was conceived and structured was effective in looking after the needs of Catholic children who were destined for a Catholic environment. But now we have to recognise and accept that we cannot guarantee our young people an exclusively Catholic environment. We are now a multicultural, multiracial and multi-faith society, and we have the kind of social, economic and professional mobility that allows our sons and daughters to live and work almost anywhere in the world. Society has changed beyond all recognition, expectations of school have changed and it follows that our perception of Church must also change.

We will not continue as Christ ' s church if we habitually see ourselves as separate from the world. Such a view deprives us of the dynamism of mission, which since new testament times has been an essential element in Christian Formation. [Mark 16:14-16] By evangelising others, we evangelise ourselves. This is as good a place as any to acknowledge that it was the teachers of Ireland who have always been the primary evangelisers of the children of Ireland . Almost alone among our Catholic community they have the tradition and the expertise.

The call of baptism today is a call to turn outwards towards the world, to serve its needs in joy and hope.

As followers of Jesus we have a particular consciousness of this world and all that it offers. Like Jesus we engage fully with the world, loving and serving it in positive ways.

The Church of Vatican II calls us to let our lives bear witness to this:

We affirm and promote everything that is authentically human.

We nurture and protect family life.

We promote cultural development that enriches and enhances humanity.

We engage in politics that are built on fair play for all.

We strive to construct a peaceful world community.

We offer our worship in spirit and in truth using elements that bring toge the r the fruits of an unpolluted earth and the work of free, willing human hands. [Sources of Renewal: Cardinal Wojtyla 1972]

This vision of Church of Vatican 2 is without a doubt more scriptural and more organic than the one it sought to replace. It is more faithful to the dream of Jesus Christ when he walked and talked among us. The difficulty is that it does not appear to lend itself to the neatly codified system that can be put into a catechism and learnt by heart.

We would like to turn out young people who are well-equipped to live in today ' s complex world:

confident in their academic background;

well-prepared for a useful citizenship:

and emotionally balanced for good relationships and family life.

We would like them to know, love and serve the God and Father revealed in Jesus Christ, secure in their Catholic identity and aware of the ir mission to communicate Joy and Hope to others;

not fully good , perhaps, but “in love with Goodness”!

The question is how? I have been encouraged to share here an experience I had in Jerusalem . Before Christmas a group of Sisters came toge the r to make a day's retreat in preparation for the feast. When the leaflet for Mass was handed out I was taken aback to see that the final hymn was Faith of Our Fathers. It awakened many echoes for me, but never before associated with Christmas. I stood up, none the less, to belt out my determination “be True to Thee till Death” expecting the usual martial air and militant mode. But the organisers had chosen to sing the hymn to a totally different tune. It was sung to a reflective and meditative melody that we use as a communion hymn: O Bread Of Heaven, beneath this Veil….And I was utterly floored by the impact it had on me. Try it sometime! All of a sudden I realised that if the Faith of my Fathers and Mothers was living in me still it was in virtue of a great undeserved gift of God, and not by my own efforts. What is needed today is not perhaps new words. The Good News does not change in essence. But maybe we need to sing it to a new melody…one that reflects our assurance and confidence in a God who has such faith in us. We are ready now to lose the triumphalistic and defensive attitude……

The question to ask in connection with the faith formation of ourselves and our young people is this. What are the absolutely essential elements to hand on to the next generation to give them a good start in their Christian, Catholic life, and which they can hold on to for their entire lives?

If we can identify these essential things it might give people in schools criteria by which to work out the ir approach to faith formation and to measure the effectiveness of their efforts.

Ronald Rolheiser, points to four things which he calls the non-negotiable pillars of a Christian discipleship. [ Seeking Spirituality 1998]

1. Personal prayer and a sense of personal morality.

2. Social Justice

3. Mellowness/generosity of heart and spirit.

4. Participation in worshipping community.

Personal prayer and morality may at first look like two things, but they are twin aspects of what constitutes a relationship with God.

They are clearly seen in the life of Jesus himself.

It is clear from Jesus' word and example that everyone must have a personal relationship with God, nourished by communication with God. But this is a not the narrowly conceived God who solves our problems, and meets our needs, and delights in our dependence. This is God is at work within an evolutionary worldview - enlisting us as willing co-workers, respecting our talents, autonomy and freedom and patient with our shortcomings. This is evident from the behaviour of Jesus with his disciples.

We in the Christian world do not have a monopoly on God ' s communication, and can marvel at the work of this God wherever people of goodwill do good things in God' s name.

The verbal expression of a relationship is validated only by behaviour and action. We say crudely “ put your money where your mouth is. Or ” “If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk.” God says, and God ' s Son repeats, “ If you love me keep my commandments. ”

The morality we give our children today is not law-based directive, but an approach to our actions that engages us totally, because our actions express us more completely and accurately than our words ever can.

The test of good personal morality is startlingly simple, as we see in the Judgement Scene of Matthew 25. What do we do when faced with clear human need? We reach out and respond. This brings us quite logically to the next pillar.

Social Justice is the second non-negotiable of Christian commitment.

The prophets of Israel had already made social justice a condition of authentic worship, and it underpins a great deal of what is written in the New Testament.

Attention to scripture informed the most recent phase of Catholic Social Teaching: begun in 1891 with the publication of Rerum Novarum and reaching a climax with the words of Paul 6th [ The Evangelisation of Peoples 1975 ], who told us without equivocation that if Justice was not being done in our communities, the n the Gospel was not being preached.

In this area great progress has been made in terms of awareness and action, and our schools have shown the way in making it a central element in the Faith Formation. Like the rest of the world, we alert our school communities to respond to the human crises and tragedies that occur globally or locally;

We also make pupils aware of less palatable things like structural injustice and the systemic evil of our world, and with the m we try not to be consciously part of oppression and exploitation, even when this affects our food, our clothing and our fun. We point out that the way to measure the fairness of any community, big or small, is to keep an eye on how its weakest, poorest, and most powerless are treated: the very old, the very young, those with a physical, emotional or psychological problems.

This is a hugely positive development in Christian and human awareness, of which we can be justly proud..

The third non-negotiable pillar is mellowness/generosity of heart and spirit. Naming this quality may be new to us, but once we do name it, we recognise it as something essential to a genuine Christian ethos. Failure to nurture it was, I believe, the great deficiency of our tradition, and it gave rise to the intolerance and rigidity which too often characterised our past policies and practices, and left considerable numbers of wounded and angry Catholics in its wake. It allowed us to be very hard on ourselves and othe s. We forgot that the Gospel injunction to be perfect had to be balanced by mercy and forgiveness that we invoke “ seventy times seven ” in favour of others. The essence of mellowness of heart is found in the very strict injunction not to judge others (Matthew 5),

It comes from the heartfelt gratitude and joy we experience when we know that we are known and loved by God, but a God who loves and values all o the rs as well. This leaves us open and free to relate across a wide range of visions and views.

Through mellowness and generosity we learn

to embrace diversity: to rejoice in difference, to be patient with failure, to cope with opposition.

We learn to meet the other as gift, not threat, and we struggle to free ourselves from the petty envious spirit that can sour and spoil our lives.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we learn that we may sometimes choose to be absent from our Father ' s house through foolishness and weakness like the younger son, but we can also banish ourselves and become outsiders through intolerance and anger. The young son may have been a greedy wastrel, but the older one lacked mellowness of heart! Mellowness of heart builds bridges and mends fences, and is indeed a non-negotiable element of authentic Christian discipleship.

The fourth non-negotiable element of sound Christian spirituality is participation in a worshipping Community.

This is a delicate area nowadays in view of the great falling off in attendance and participation in Sunday worship. Mellowness of heart and spirit means I can understand the wide range of reasons why people find this expression of Catholic/Christian faith difficult at the present time. But it would be very wrong of me to leave it out, or to suggest that it matters less than it does. When the Catholic community ceases for any appreciable length of time to be a worshipping Eucharistic community, it is very difficult to see how it can remain Catholic. To formally recognise our God, to place ourselves publicly and explicitly within Holy Presence, the re is only one way, and the Scripture cannot be made to say it differently. There have be times and places where

we ga ther as a people ,
we tell our stories ,
we break the bread. [John Shea: Stories of God.]

Throwing in our lot with the worshipping community is not easy these days and there are huge difficulties. It is no longer an option to keep our eyes front and follow the mysterious actions in privatised isolation as was the way of an older Sunday liturgy. Modern liturgy is designed to yank us out of the comfort zone, and face the essential messiness of human community. Not everyone is comfortable or happy with this.

How does this impinge on the task of the Catholic School to have a significant role in Catholic Christian formation?

School Masses have the potential to be great catechetical occasions but they are hard work: there are massive constraints of time, space, and motivation and it is clear that the responsibility for the pupils' worship cannot ever be the responsibility of the school. On the other hand, creating awareness of how central the Eucharist is to fully committed Catholic life is essential to the work of Christian, Catholic Formation.

These structural elements for a life of Prayer & Morality, Social Justice , Mellowness of Heart and Spirit , and Eucharistic Worship are well-covered in the textbooks and are restated in the DVD - the Vision, but the schools can no longer be expected to be solely responsible for the complete Formation of pupils in the Faith. It is quite unrealistic to think that children nowadays will leave school as fully formed “ practising Catholics ” as was presumed in former times. Further, higher, deeper education in the faith must be ongoing and applied to every aspect of human growth.

It must be carried on into adult life, as is taken for granted in other areas of human development. We need to recognize that the Christian, Catholic commitment is primarily an adult commitment.

It is a matter for regret that for all our wisdom and experience we have not been able to devise a programme of ongoing adult Catholic formation that will build on the work that our schools have done and are doing. Catholic teachers and parents cannot be expected to carry out their responsibilities without this essential input, and I would suggest that all the advantage of maintaining a system of Catholic education is in danger of being lost unless effective sustained adult Catholic formation be made a priority.

Footnote on Sources:

As many will recognise, much of the content of this paper is a mosaic of precious tesserae, big and small, from Scripture, Church Teaching, the ologians, teachers, colleagues, family and friends, that continue to nourish my heart, mind and soul, and the se have helped me to evolve whatever I have been able to echo back here of catholic wisdom and insight.

Margaret A. Agnew SSL 1 st November 2006
Summary: Placing the Catholic School in the context of current Church teaching.


The Legacy of 2nd Vatican Council.

1. Recovery of Scripture as a Normative and Foundational.

2. Universal Call to Holiness.

3. Universal Call to Mission .

4. The Declaration on Religious Freedom and the restatement of primacy of conscience.

5. The discovery and appreciation of historical development in human affairs and its implications.

6. The importance of understanding culture as a major influence in human thinking and human institutions.

Past Theological Thinking governing the way we were.

A monarchical God, operating as external manipulator:

A mechanistic worldview.

Defensive the ological style.

An exclusivist view of Church.

Expansionist when strong: ghettoised where threatened.


Catholic schools preparing Catholic children to live in a Catholic world.

Catechism: Prayers: Mass and Sacraments: Ten commandments as a rule of life.

Why Catholic Schools worked.

Part of a genuinely Catholic world and society - uniformity in home, school and local community.

Excellence in academic matters.

Absence of a parallel and competing youth culture, with prolonged and more widely available schooling which has changed the face of youth education everywhere.

 How does a Catholic school stay Catholic - the task for today.

The four “ non-negotiable pillars ” of Christian/Catholic formation (rooted in Biblical data).

1. A sense of personal prayer and morality.

2. A commitment to Social Justice.

3. Mellowness/generosity of heart and spirit.

4. Participation in a worshipping community.

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