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Trust will lay foundations for new era of Catholic schooling

THERE has been a noticeable spring in the step of Catholic school authorities, lay and religious, in recent times.

It's as if they've come through a long period of questioning and uncertainty and are now more comfortable with their role in the new Ireland.

"We're unashamedly Catholic," was how Pat Diggins, who heads up the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, put it.

The largely lay trust is taking over responsibility for nearly 100 Christian Brothers' schools. Different trusts are being set up for the other congregations and today's pastoral letter from the bishops gives this move their blessing.

The renewed confidence was also evident at the recent annual conference of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools in Galway.

Delegates who might previously have been coy about talking about their beliefs in public were unapologetic in doing so -- this was not the Church militant, but lay people more confident about expressing their religious convictions than in the past.

The growth of the multi-denominational school sector, the Celtic Tiger with its rampant individualism and the influx of people with different beliefs have combined to force Catholic schools to spell out what exactly they stand for.

That's what the bishops' pastoral letter sets out to do. It reminds us that Catholic schools seek to reflect a distinctive vision of life and a corresponding philosophy of education, based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is an acknowledgement of some of the dreadful things that happened in schools and institutions in the past that made a mockery of such a philosophy. But there is also a reminder of the hard work and sacrifices made by other priests, religious and lay people when times were hard: they delivered an education to generations of children who would otherwise have been deprived of it. This is the view historians are likely to take as well.

Quite how Catholic schools will evolve in the future remains to be seen. There is substantial support for Catholic education as evidenced by the recent survey 'Factors Determining School Choice' which the bishops also published.

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The same survey showed significant support for multi-denominational schools, which are growing at a very rapid rate.

The pastoral letter makes it clear that pupils from other denominations are welcome in Catholic schools -- they are seen as an enrichment of the educational experience offered by the school.

At present, the Church runs the vast majority of primary schools and several members of the hierarchy have agreed that it has a disproportionate number of them. Thus, the likely scenario is a reduced number of Catholic-run primary schools but much greater involvement by lay people in both primary and secondary school management and trusteeship.

The Catholic Church won't be the powerful player in education that it was in the past, but it will still have a significant voice and role to play in the future.

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