Homily by Rev Dr Michael Duignan, Vicar for Education – Catholic Schools Week 2019

Catholic Schools Week 2019 Begins!

Homily by Rev Dr Michael Duignan, Vicar for Education

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo

27th January 2019


A truly Catholic school, firm in its catholic identity and precisely because of its catholic identity can at the same time see itself as a living “Courtyard of the Gentiles”. A special place where pupils, teachers and parents of different viewpoints learn respect for each other, get to know each other, dialogue with each other, and embark together on that great adventure of opening the doors of both the mind and the soul to life’s deep down questions.


Good afternoon! I would like to thank Bishop Kevin for giving me the opportunity to share with you some thoughts as we gather to mark the beginning of Catholic Schools Week 2019. The theme this year asks us to focus on the work of our local catholic schools.

My Fifth Class Copy Book

Before Christmas my mother was doing what you might call “deep cleaning” at home and came across a copy book of mine from 5th Class at primary school.  Over time, it had become somewhat discolored but it was in very good condition. The cover read the Adventures of Michael Duignan, Fifth Class.  As I turned the pages – a world of memories began to emerge from the mists of time.

My Local Primary School

I went to a very small 48 pupil rural school with two teachers. There were four in my class. The copy contained an English project where over a year we were to write nothing less that our own novel. The teacher encouraged us to write what we wanted – to use our imagination – and for the 10 year old me this seemed to be no problem. As I turned the pages a few weeks ago, I was impressed with witches and wizards, strange creatures with magical powers, great battles, and heroes and villains that would have given the classic Alice in Wonderland or the contemporary Harry Potter a run for their money.

Opening the Doors of the Mind and the Soul

It got me thinking about how lucky I was to have had the doors of my mind opened in such a way in that little school, a stone’s throw from my home. It was our local school, part and parcel of our local community. It was where I prepared for first Holy Communion, made my First Confession and learned about the gifts of the Holy Spirit before Confirmation.  Years before me my Father had gone to school there and years after me my nieces and nephews go there today.

Then and Now

The last 30 years have brought large developments to the area which has seen the population grow by almost 10,000 – the school now lies on the edge of the town of Athlone. The pupil numbers have rocketed with an enrollment of over 450. A new state of the art school building was opened two years ago. My nieces and nephews have friends called Nowak and Wójcik, Popov and Sokolov, Eze and Adeyemi, Ahuja and Anand.

Handing on the God-Given Wisdom of Life

The times may have changed and the makeup of pupils has changed too but the job of opening the doors of the mind and soul for each new generation continues. So too does the school’s role in helping parents hand on that wisdom for life that comes from God alone that we saw so powerfully portrayed being read out and explained to every man, women and child by Ezra in the First Reading today (1 Neh 8) 

From a sneaky survey of my nieces and nephews copy books, I can see that they are learning about the parables and how Jesus taught his friends what it was to be good. Before Christmas they were filling shoe boxes for the poor and last week learning wonder at God’s gift of creation and how much we should look after it. In April, my nephew will make his First Confession and in May his First Holy Communion while soon afterwards my niece will make her Confirmation.

The Misrepresentation of Catholic Schools

Nowadays, I am often saddened by the way some are intent on misrepresenting, denigrating and undermining the great work being done the length and breadth of this country in catholic schools.

It is no harm to remind ourselves that Catholics do not just run schools for the sake of running schools – or as some might like to portray for the sake of indoctrinating young minds.

As a faith community, we run schools in response to parent’s wishes to have their children spend their formative early years in a context that supports a faith based vision of life.

Should parents no longer wish to have such a faith based educational environment for their children such local catholic schools will, inevitably, one by one, cease to exist. In the future, our local catholic school may not be our nearest school but rather a school some distance away. Clear choices and even sacrifices will then have to be made by parents who wish their children to be educated in the unique environment that a catholic school is.

Pope Benedict XVI

Reflecting on the changes in my old Primary School over the year – from a small rural school to the large, multi-ethnic, multi-religious school that it is today and reflecting on the misinterpretation of Catholic education that seems to abound, led me to a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave in 2009 which inspired the setting up of a worldwide initiative called the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”.

The Temple “Courtyard of the Gentiles”

In the Gospel (Luke 1) we see Jesus teach in his local Synagogue in Nazareth. In other parts of the Gospels we hear of Jesus’ trips to Jerusalem and his visits to that most sacred of all places of worship for the Jewish People – the temple.

In addition to the areas reserved for the rituals of Jewish worship, the temple had a large courtyard called “the Courtyard of the Gentiles” where everyone no matter what religion they were or even if they had no religion at all could enter. Over time the Courtyard became the place where the Jewish religious leaders gathered to discuss the great issues of life with people from all faiths and traditions. It also become known as a place where non-Jews and even non-religious people could gather to discuss the meaning of life with people for whom faith meant a lot.

It was a meeting place of divergent opinion – a place where along with a sincere search for the real truth of things, diversity in outlook and opinion, was not just tolerated but welcomed, respected and valued.

The “Courtyard of the Gentiles” Initiative

Inspired by Pope Benedict’s emphasis on this temple courtyard, soon afterwards, the Vatican Council for Culture founded the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” initiative that set about creating opportunities throughout the world for people of faith and in particular people of no faith to gather and respectfully discuss the deep down questions of life.  The initiative was grounded on the belief that: Yes! People of faith have a particular belief and Yes! People of faith have a particular way of looking at the world. However, people of faith and people of other faiths or of no faith at all endeavouring to answer in a meaningful way life’s deep down questions. Entertaining different voices, engaging in dialogue and finding common ground would benefit all involved.

The Catholic School – and the “Courtyard of the Gentiles”

Today, our local communities are made up of people of different and sometimes contrasting religious beliefs and those of no belief at all. It is only natural that schools reflect this situation – and our schools certainly do. A truly catholic school, firm in its catholic identity and precisely because of its catholic identity can at the same time see itself as a living “Courtyard of the Gentiles”. A special place where different religious traditions and those of secular viewpoints can come to experience in an open way Catholic wisdom and practice. Where pupils, teachers and parents of a variety of viewpoints learn respect for each other, get to know each other, dialogue with each other, and embark together on that great adventure of opening the doors of the mind and the soul to life’s deep down questions.

In the process, hopefully forming well rounded generous happy people who will make a positive contribution to our future local communities, our future society and indeed to the future of humanity itself.

An Invitation to Support Local Catholic Schools

To conclude let me go back to where I began – to that recently found copy book, to my primary school to my local primary school, to catholic schools up and down the country today. Perhaps let it be an invitation to you to think back to the learning of your school days in your local school.  If you have children in a catholic school perhaps let it be a stimulus to you to think about the catholic school that they go to and its many different strands. As the local catholic community here in Sligo, as different parts of that one body that we heard Saint Paul speak about in the second reading (1 Cor), let us recommit ourselves to advocating for and supporting in word and deed the continuance of our local catholic schools as a real good not just for our faith community but also for our wider community and for our country in to the future.