Irish Catholic Education – Time to Mobilise Parents? For what exactly?

Jul 14, 2020 | 6 comments

The Irish Catholic school – incapable on its own of ‘faith formation’

In an alarmist edition of the Irish Catholic, Senator Ronan Mullen has called upon Irish Catholic bishops to mobilise Irish Catholic parents to fight off likely Irish government plans to “kick the Church out of education”.

Calling a proposed ‘citizen’s assembly’ in the Republic of Ireland a likely ploy to ‘cut the constitutional thread’ that give churches the right to run schools Senator Mullen calls upon Ireland’s Catholic bishops to ‘engage Catholic families’ for resistance.

This alarmist note is echoed by Dr Tom Finegan of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and Dr John Murray of Dublin City University.

However, given the complete absence of evidence that Ireland’s Catholic schools are currently developing an enduring Catholic faith in their students, for what exactly should – or could – Ireland’s Catholic parents be ‘mobilised’?

This question must be in the minds of Ireland’s bishops also, given the following:

In answer to Dr Diarmuid Martin’s question, the reason for the disappearance of Share the Good News  seems fairly obvious: taken as a complete body, Ireland’s Catholic diocesan clergy are unable to engage confidently in open dialogue with adult Catholics – parents included – in a faith formation role.

This inability is all the more serious in light of the series of cataclysmic shocks suffered by the Irish church since 1992. Not even our bishops have felt able to assemble their people for frank admission and open dialogue on all of that.

Given this background, what is the likelihood that Irish Catholic parents should – or could – now be mobilised merely for the constitutional defence of the mere existence of nominally Catholic faith schools?

If ‘mobilisation’ is now even to be considered, the only feasible agenda is one that frankly admits the entirety of the crisis of continuity that now threatens the future of Catholic faith in Ireland – and invites all interested adults into frank discussion of all of that. Until the indispensable faith-forming role of parents is recognised ‘the Church’ will continue to kick itself out of Irish education.

Sean O’Conaill, 14th July, 2020

ACI Submission to Irish Bishops Conference 01/10/2019



    I qualified as a teacher in a Catholic teacher training college many years ago, with Religious Education as my speciality. In the training college, when I commented to the head of the RE department on the very low level of knowledge being imparted in RE lectures I was told it was to take account of the many non-practising Catholics on the RE course who knew little about their religion. Their presence in RE was the result of them not being able to get into the subject department of their first choice and being advised to enrol in the RE department as there was always room there.

    When I started teaching in a large Catholic secondary school, I discovered that the school never had an RE specialist before, had no Catholic RE textbooks and that all RE teaching was carried out by form teachers, many of whom were either non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics. Many classes told me that they were told to do their homework during RE lessons or read a book. When I was later appointed as Head of RE I was on the lowest Heads of Department salary structure and remained there until I left years later. Visits by local clergy from the school’s wide catchment area during RE lessons mostly involved the priests talking to the pupils about football but never about anything spiritual or religious. On parents’ evenings I was rarely interviewed by Catholic parents as the RE teacher of their children, indicating a shyness or inability by them to discuss religious development or a lack of interest in their religion.

    I was Head of RE in two other large secondary schools and the same situation prevailed. RE was the Cinderella subject, the least resourced and the only subject without any trained specialists before I arrived.

    You can imagine then my shock and anger when I regularly heard priests at Sunday Mass exhort Catholic parents to have their children attend their local Catholic schools to protect and develop their children’s’ knowledge and practise of their faith. It was sheer hypocrisy!

  2. Neil Bray

    I think that the efforts at restoring Gaeilge in the 26 counties are instructive here. Schools were deemed the prime instruments in this endeavour. But over the decades it became clear that the schools for all their efforts up to the 1960s could do very little. The entire process reflected the opinion once expressed by the influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith that schools are reactive cultural institutions, and not proactive ones. As both pupil/student and teacher I remember when Gaeilge practically inebriated the primary classroom day, but eventually gave way to an era when new primary teachers hit the chalk face knowing little and caring less about the language. My subsequent secondary school experience revealed situations of almost Gaeilge free zones. The culture had impacted on the school, not vice versa.

    Similar social process has arisen in the context of Catholicism. The culture has for the greater part ceased to regard Catholicism as central to life. In countries such as Germany and Austria where Catholicism has sought to accommodate itself to the ambient culture, the numbers as going through the floorboards.

    Cultivating faith is different to promoting a language, but there is little schools can do in either case given the broader cultural impact of teacher orientation and domestic values. I have a lot of experience on school boards and I have seen the extent to which students are given experience of liturgy, but have also seen the impoverished catechetical prescriptions. I observe how primary pupils in my parish have fairly constant liturgical experience, but know that these experiences will by and large terminate when they move on.

    I have had letters published on National newspapers advocating significant reduction in the number of schools governed by Catholic trusteeships. This in the interests of developing a system where those who seek Catholics schools will have them available untrammelled by the genuine attitudes of those teachers or parents for whom Catholicism is not the choice.

    I have since changed my mind. I would now support the retention of schools with Catholic patronage as institutions which are not forced to become institutions of the “naked public square,” that is places where reference to Catholicism is forbidden. This does not of course provide any significant evangelisation, but provides for its possibility. It will be a major achievement in the 26 counties. Murray, Finnegan and Mullan know their stuff.

    I have had the good fortune to observe some parishes in France where there is significant revival of practice. Even in one case where there is a close relationship between pastor and schools, the bulk of the endeavour is focussed on the young marrieds, returning to the sources as one might say. But the endeavour is within – I don’t like using the term – orthodox Catholicism. It works within the weakness inherent in original sin. We spend a number of days in one parish each year just to experience it. The training of the children by the parents is very noticeable.

    Two years ago we enjoyed for a week the company of a priest retired from Ecuador who set up a national movement of catechetics based on teaching parents to teach their children. It was structured, yes really structured, possibly beyond a level in an Irish setting.

    So retain the freedom of Catholic schools to promote Catholicism, promote catechetics at parish level by priests and laity based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and pray, pay and obey. “I have overcome the world.”


    A well-argued case, Neil, but your recommendation, with which I agree totally, faces three big problems:
    1. the reluctance of diocesan priests to organise anything, apart from celebrating Mass or raising money, and especially nothing that will involve them having to attend, lead or participate in on a regular basis,

    2. the current and increasing incidence of lapsation among Catholic parents with children attending Catholic schools so they are very unlikely to get involved in catechetical courses to help them cultivate their children’s Catholic faith.

    3. The Bishop taking the lead in Catholic Education in Northern Ireland , Donal McKeown, has repeatedly said that Catholic schools are not just for Catholics but for everyone. He doesn’t seem to see major practical and moral problems associated with that approach or to suggest any solutions. If it is to be Catholic schools for everyone, does that mean Catholic faith formation for everyone? Will non-Catholic pupils in Catholic schools be proselytised by having to participate in, or endure, Catholic RE lessons, sacramental preparation and school/classroom Mass attendance? Alternatively, will they be excused? It would be immoral for Catholic schools to impose the religious side of their work on non-Catholic children. If they are excused attendance in Catholic RE lessons, classroom Masses, Catholic morning assembly etc, where will they go? In my experience, few schools have appropriate empty spaces for them or the teachers available to supervise them, which is a legal requirement. As a deputy headmaster of a large Catholic secondary school, I often asked non-Catholic parents applying for their children to attend our school – “Why a Catholic school” and the answers were invariably about their better discipline and examination results. It was never about Catholic faith formation or attending Catholic RE lessons, school and classroom Masses etc. When I mentioned our Catholic faith formation programme, they usually said they didn’t mind as they didn’t think it would have any effect on their children.

  4. soconaill

    Aidan writes: “As a deputy headmaster of a large Catholic secondary school, I often asked non-Catholic parents applying for their children to attend our school – “Why a Catholic school” and the answers were invariably about their better discipline and examination results. It was never about Catholic faith formation or attending Catholic RE lessons, school and classroom Masses etc. When I mentioned our Catholic faith formation programme, they usually said they didn’t mind as they didn’t think it would have any effect on their children.”

    And of course we cannot be sure that for Catholic parents also it is the exam results that matter most, while faith formation would just be an optional extra, like aerobics.

    Which makes it easily possible that Catholic schools are far more effective engines of secularism – i.e. of mindsets and lifestyles that are uninterested in and disconnected from Christian belief – than of Catholic creedal conviction. This too could be easily researched, but we can easily see why such research could be far too embarrassing for the mindset that makes of the very existence of ‘our Catholic schools’ an indispensable totem pole to dance around.

    Come to think of it, for Irish writers from James Joyce to e.g. Brian Friel and Edna O’Brien, Catholic schooling has been not only ineffective in attaching them to Catholic belief but grist to their rejectionist mills. Seamus Heaney is an alumnus of St Columb’s College, Derry and was at QUB in the era of Vatican II but never truly ‘caught’ the faith either. Ireland’s Catholic Schools: Engines of Secularism – how might that fly as a book title for some historian or sociologist?


    In talking about the evangelisation of pupils in Catholic schools and of their parents by the parish I would suggest that we need to be clear about what exactly that evangelisation should contain.

    Is it to be knowledge of the Catholic religion, its doctrines, beliefs and Sacred Scripture, is it spirituality or is it God’s gift of faith? I would say that it should be an integration of all three and lead to a deeper faith.

    In my experience, many Catholic parents are quite ignorant of many important aspects of their Catholic religion, including the meaning and centrality of Eucharist and the importance of regular and prayerful reading at home of Sacred Scripture. How many Catholic parents felt able and willing to organise an appropriate prayer service at home for all their family on Sunday mornings during lock-down? I suspect very few.

    Religious knowledge and spirituality are the way but a deep, growing and lasting faith is the goal! Faith is a loving and an ever-growing relationship with the unconditionally loving and triune God who resides within each of us and is all around us. Faith is our constant awareness of that divine, loving presence and our response to it in spontaneous prayer and in service of others. A Christ-centered spirituality needs to be developed which enables us to pray spontaneously to God in our own words, however haltering at first, and not be confined to repeating memorised, formal prayers.

    The development of God’s gift of faith in children and young people requires a close partnership between Catholic parents, Catholic schools and parish clergy, each reinforcing and supporting the other.

    • Kevin Walters

      Most parents (Especially) in Ireland have an understanding/knowledge of the Catholic faith which includes parables from the Gospels and are aware of its doctrines (Especially the doctrine of Mortal Sin and Hell ). But as you say Adrian a deep, growing and lasting faith is the goal! as in ‘a constant awareness of the divine’

      “Jesus, I trust in thee”

      We are taught to pray without ceasing, which could be described as trusting in God from moment to moment, we do this when we see ‘all’ through the eyes of faith, Trust in God is not just about words, rather it is a movement of the heart, that induces a shared honest relationship with Him, and underpinning this relationship, is our humility before Him. (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases him-self)

      When we place our trust in Him, no matter how broken (Sinful) or feeble our attempt/effort might be, we will receive grace in the ‘present moment’. If we continue to do this in humility our faith/trust will be strengthened, as we slowly ‘die to self’ while taking up our daily cross (Brokenness), The Holy Spirit will show/lead all honest seekers “how to find and experience God”, as eventually, He will dwell within us. Trust is the key and we do this, when we bend our knee.

      Please consider continuing this theme via the link

      kevin your brother
      In Christ


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twenty − 16 =

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This