The Bishop of Derry has said he believes criticism of Catholic education will continue to grow, not because the church is doing a bad job, but because it is daring to speak a counter-cultural message into our society.
Bishop Donal Mc Keown was speaking at the opening of the first Diocesan Religious Education Conference which continues today in St Columb's College.
An estimated 800 people will attend the event which began yesterday, with Bishop Donal Mc Keown saying the high numbers show the interest that there is in Catholic education.
The bishop said the Church faces many challenges in Catholic education ; some from people who criticise the existence of faith-based schools, and others arising from the social realities that all schools now face.
In the growing absence of a cohesive society that helps to socialise young people, he said schools are being expected to fill the gap in all sorts of areas of human growth. In that context, Bishop Mc Keown suggested, schools can become the battleground for competing value systems.
He said Catholic schools do not seek merely to offer a good secular education with a bit of R.E. fluff on the side, concluding that in a society where too many young people are dying for want of a reason for living, there is a greater need than ever for an education system that offers them a meaning for which to live
Speech in full -
“I believe that criticism of Catholic education will continue to grow, not because we are doing a bad job, but because we are doing such a good job of daring to speak a counter-cultural message into our society. We will increasingly be condemned for being heretics if we are crazy enough to speak openly about love, community, forgiveness, virtue, family and responsibility rather than just grades and famous past pupils.” – Bishop McKeown
It is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you here to this, our first Diocesan RE Conference. And it is amazing to see that so many people have turned up – well over 800 between today and tomorrow. I know that you have come, partly because of the excellent speakers and workshops that we have. But I believe that we have such a crowd because you have a passion for what you in your individual schools.
We face many challenges in Catholic education. Some challenges come from those who criticise the existence of faith-based schools and who would prefer that education could be the only area of society where we don’t have choices. Other challenges will arise from the social realities that all schools now face. In the growing absence of a cohesive society that helps to socialise young people, schools are being expected to fill the gap in all sorts of areas of human growth. In that context, the schools can become the battleground for competing value systems.
But deep down our main concern is not ourselves and our structures. You have dedicated your lives to education because schools are privileged places where we can influence the lives of precious young people.
Like so many of the great founders of religious congregations and local parish communities down through the centuries, in 2019 we wish to be able to offer education for young people so that they can both cope with the tough realities of life, and work to change a dominant culture that crushes too many people all around the world and in this diocese. After all, the big killer in this country is not political violence but rather the hopelessness and meaninglessness that come from the ludicrous message that more freedom alone will make for a happy and wholesome society.
Our theme is “The path I walk, Christ walks it”. Our schools do not seek merely to offer a good secular education with a bit of RE fluff on the side. It is over 40 years since a seminal Vatican document stated that the Church establishes her own schools because
she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole person, since the school is a centre in which a specific concept of the world, of the human person, and of history is developed and conveyed.
That is precisely what Jesus did. He was crucified because He offered a different way of looking at human dignity, community and values – and was seen as being a heretic for doing so. I believe that criticism of Catholic education will continue to grow, not because we are doing a bad job, but because we are doing such a good job of daring to speak a counter-cultural message into our society. We will increasingly be condemned for being heretics if we are crazy enough to speak openly about love, community, forgiveness, virtue, family and responsibility rather than just grades and famous past pupils. Many will shout for our removal if we are brazen enough to speak of a God who gives meaning to our lives whether we are rich or poor, glamourous or frail, hero or villain. Indeed, if we are not a prophetic voice in our society, the path we walk is not the one that Christ walks. As Pope Francis put in some 15 years ago when writing to his own diocese in Buenos Aires, Argentina:
“If in our schools we do not develop a different way of being human, a different culture, a different society, we are wasting our time.”
Of course, a further challenge for us is that we can’t even be satisfied with speaking with that prophetic voice in our schools. That 1977 document is clear that a Catholic school,
is not only a place where one is given a choice of intellectual values, but a place where one has presented an array of values which are actively lived. The school must be a community whose values are communicated through the interpersonal and sincere relationships of its members.
Worthy words are not enough unless the school community is explicitly committed to creating an environment where our alternative worldview is made concrete. That applies in how we celebrate achievement, how we support the less gifted, how we deal with disputes.
Thus, we set very high standards not just for the academic success of our pupils but also for the sort of mini societies that we model in our school communities. IT equipment can help the acquisition of knowledge and skills – but it takes people to help form idealistic and generous young people. The heart of leadership does not lie in more efficient systems but in the hearts of leaders ‘You have to lead from somewhere deep in your heart.’ 
And the purpose of that education is that the next generation will be equipped to bring God’s love and mercy into an often harsh and dangerous world. The antagonistic approach of many politicians, the unsustainable depredation of the physical environment and the fragmentation of the human environment – all of these can be changed if young people can be helped by inspiring schools to be architects of a better future and not just prisoners of a painful past. That involves a formation to the responsible use of freedom and a cultivation of the virtues that call people to heroism and not just to the lowest common denominator. It means campaigning for the value of learning for its own sake. It means modelling a way of education where learning is not a commodity to be fought over but a but a journey to be savoured, a journey where none of us is as smart as all of us.
Thank you all for coming here. I hope and pray that this conference will be the beginning of a renewed journey in our diocese. The aim is to have another similar event in two years’ time when we commemorate the centenary of Saint Columba’s birth. You are all doing great things in your schools already. That is why our faith-based schools are such educational leaders here and all around the world. Working together we can build on what we have and face whatever challenges the future will throw at us.
In a society where too many young people are dying for want of a reason for living, there is a greater need than ever for an education system that offers them not just the means by which to live but a meaning for which to live (Cf Viktor Frankl).
God bless the work and thank you for listening.