Catholic Schools Week was recently celebrated throughout Ireland. The 2011 theme, Rooted in Jesus Christ, is inspired by Pope Benedict XVI's Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland which was published last March.
So what are we celebrating and what is unique about a Catholic school? In our schools pupils learn of the world and themselves in a context shaped and sustained by the extraordinary reality of God who became man in Jesus Christ. Our pupils are invited to engage with Jesus Christ who gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction.
If the Christian faith is about an encounter with the person of Jesus, then our catechesis has to move beyond the "discourse, concepts and rules" of which Pope Benedict XVI has spoken and which has for so often dominated our catechesis, into a catechesis which introduces us more directly into knowledge of Jesus the person.
Accordingly, on January 5 last, Irish bishops published Share the Good News, the first National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland. This directory sets out a 10-year strategy for the Irish church. It has many implications for schools and is receiving the close attention of the school community.
This directory says that parents/guardians hold the key role in the faith formation of their children, supported and aided by the parish and the school. For this reason, in baptism, parents pledge themselves to become their own children's catechists.
Logically, so as to teach children to pray, parents need to pay attention to their own prayer life. Children learn the first steps in education and formation from their parents.
Catholic schools build on this work already begun in the family. Our schools enable pupils to enter into the community's experience and knowledge, its history and culture, its values and faith. Catholic schools seek to launch children on their lifelong journey with an education that honours them personally and helps them develop and use their affective, active and cognitive learning capacities.
During this Catholic Schools Week we celebrate the work of our schools in a rapidly changing environment. But these changes are not an Irish phenomenon.
Last November the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales published a report on a range of data about inspection outcomes and attainment of Catholic schools provided by the UK's Office for Standards in Education.
This UK report indicates that Catholic schools have many strengths including high academic attainment and successful cherishing of pupils' development, noting:
By reviewing this UK empirical data we can safely assume that Catholic schools in Ireland provide a similar positive contribution to our educational system and also to our local communities, North and South.
In this special week, let us rejoice that our democracy facilitates parents in their cherished right to establish schools of choice. At home and abroad the record shows that faith-based schooling is part of the solution and not the problem for a diverse and pluralist societies.
Monsignor James Cassin is Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Council for Education