Opening of Catholic Schools Week – Homily of Rev Dr Michael Duignan

Opening of Catholic Schools Week

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo

Sunday 28th January 2018


Homily of Rev Dr Michael Duignan, Episcopal Vicar for Education and Formation in the Diocese of Elphin


Catholic Schools Week 2018 calls on the whole Catholic school community to become acquainted with the richness of Catholic wisdom on the importance of family and family life and not to be afraid to hand on that vision in an age appropriate manner to our future generations.


Childhood memories of family

I am the eldest of four girls and two boys. Growing up we shared the joys and challenges of an Irish farming family. We spent a lot of time together. I suppose we had to because there were no other children for miles around. When it came to work, we were all expected to play our part – there were carrots to be picked, turf to be saved, silage to be cut, cattle to be tended to. As I grew up and moved on – I have to admit there were occasions when I looked back and rejoiced that I could finally live happily free of carrot-picking, turf-saving, silage-making and cattle-herding. Now, I tend to view those childhood times differently and have begun to cherish them as having a unique formative influence on my life.

Family –the first school of life

As children we learned to find eye-opening wonder and endless joy in a bird or a snail, a jar of frogspawn or in a strange type of flower or weed. We stared foxes in the face, ran after rabbits, rose pheasants in the meadows and caught fish in the river.

We dug holes and cut down trees, we planted seeds and watched them grow. We sheered sheep and we delivered lambs and watched chicks pick their way out of eggs. We filled our noses with the smell of slurry or freshly cut peat – rolled in hay and threw apples from the orchard at each other. We played and laughed, we fought with and forgave. We had good times and bad times. We loved and learned to deal with disappointment and loss.

Back then we were students in that first school of life which we call the family. Nature was all around us and in their own inimitable ways Daddy and Mammy were our teachers – even if at times we were hesitant if not even uncooperative students. I share these thoughts about my family – to encourage you to think about your own family. Be it the one you grew up in or be it the one you are now part of.

Family – A most important formative influence

Families come in all shapes and sizes. We can debate and even disagree about what defines a family or what family life should be about. However, I think everyone would agree that, for better or for worse, our families are one of the most important influences in our lives. 

Family is where we start out in life. Family is where we are nourished on the road of life. Family is where we learn the basics of what it means to be a person and how to love and live with other people. Family is where our God-given spiritual and religious openness is nurtured and grows. Family can bring us the greatest of happiness in life and because of its unique importance to us family can also cause us the greatest pain in life.

Like the prophet raised up by God that we heard of in the First Reading, – contemporary Catholic wisdom draws our attention to the importance of family for the good of humanity and invites people of faith to intentionally work to promote, care for and support all that is good in family life.

World Meeting of Families, Dublin 2018

At the moment the Catholic Church in Ireland is busy preparing to host the 9th International World Meeting of Families. Every three years it “brings together families from across the world to celebrate, pray and reflect upon the importance of marriage and the family ….” This family focused event is of such importance that it is expected that Pope Francis himself will travel to Ireland to attend and take part.

The Catholic School and Family

Today we gather to make the beginning of Catholic Schools Week 2018. This year, against the backdrop of the upcoming World Meeting of Families –we are asked to reflect on the connection between our Catholic Schools and family. What might this mean?

Richness of Catholic wisdom on the family

First of all, I think, it calls the whole Catholic school community to become acquainted with the richness of Catholic wisdom on the importance of family and family life and not to be afraid to hand on that vision in an age appropriate manner to our future generations. Pope Francis speaks of the family as “a good that society cannot do without” (AL 44) and insists that “the Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed.” (AL1)

Schools and family working together

It challenges Catholic Schools to redouble their efforts to see each child who comes through their doors not as isolated individuals but rather as a son or daughter, a brother or sister intimately linked to their families with the ups and downs of their particular family’s life.

Family is the first and foremost school that life enrolls us in. Catholic schools build on and compliment the education being received at home. Our schools work best when they connect closely with family and build real and meaningful links whereby parents, as is their inalienable right, are openly welcomed to be involved in their child’s schooling. Catholic schools should be family friendly schools at every level.

The temptation to simply hand over children’s education

Emphasizing the need for school and family to work hand in hand, challenges busy parents not to be tempted to simply hand over their children’s education – and perhaps especially their religious education to schools – but rather to take up their parental responsibility and with a renewed interest to play their part in the holistic education of their children that lies at the heart of a Catholic School.

Families on the margins

Pope Francis over and over again reminds us of the Christian call to have a particular concern for those on what he calls the margins of life. In a now famous interview, Pope Francis gave in 2013 he said:

“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”


We all know of families on the margins of life, families in difficulty – in difficulty for a wide variety of reasons – social reasons, economic reasons, and personal reasons. Our teachers know only too well the struggles of families on the margins and the consequences of families in crisis – they see it in the faces and in the hearts of the little ones sitting before them.

Although our schools cannot be a solution to every problem – our Catholic schools in particular should be havens of understanding for children (and also parents) who suffer when family is in crisis. As Catholic school communities we have a special calling to go that extra mile and to help heal, as best we can, the wounds inflicted by family trauma and to walk side by side with the children in our care until they reach a better place.

The good news of the family

To conclude let me go back to where I began – to my childhood memories of family that laid the foundations of who I am – to your experience of the family that made and makes you who you are. This Catholic Schools Week let us take heart from Jesus in the Gospel who impressed those who heard the common sense truth of his message and let all those involved in Catholic Education recommit ourselves to, in word and in action, hold up the importance of family and family life, warts and all, as essentially good news for our world – or as Pope Francis says “good news indeed.” Amen