St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
You have picked a good day for a celebration – Pancake Tuesday, just before we enter into the season of Lent. I think that both St Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis would like that. After all, the big celebrations around the world on this day are often called Carnival, a word that a Latin term that means 'goodbye to meat'. Lent is about saying goodbye to something in order to achieve something that is even better. And that is what you are doing here in Clonmany. You are leaving behind a name that has served you and previous generations very well – and taking on an even better name to enable you to face the future with confidence.
This is an historic area – the site of ancient relics from the past, including a monastery. It is the site of a popular and confident music festival during the summer. And you have four national schools, all dedicated to preparing young people to serve as members of the local community and to be a blessing on people wherever they go as global citizens.
And you have chosen the name of saint who worked locally in 13th century Italy – and whose influence is felt globally. His love for nature, his concern for peace-building and the joyful simplicity of his life – these are still seems as very attractive for modern men and women. And in an age of so much pollution, war and complexity in life, he is a great model for young people of all ages!
The Irish Bishops had a two hour meeting with Pope Francis – who chose the same patron's name as you – and he said a couple of things to us about Catholic education. Firstly, he encouraged us to keep Catholic schools as an enormous contribution to the Common Good. Other providers have a right to be in the public sphere – but Catholic schools will be there as long as families appreciate what they offer, whether those families are from a Catholic background or not.
Secondly, he said that we have to aim for quality in what we offer – but never to promote excessive competition or elitism. There is no room for snobbery in the structures or message of a Catholic school.
Thirdly, he reminded us that - in an age that tends to value only what it can measure and aims for exam results as the only measure of educational success - we have to ensure that our education focuses on developing the head, the heart and the hands of all our young people. That means valuing the different elements that go to make up a person. It is no good to focus only on the head and forget the other two. Or to say that intellectual knowledge and practical skills are vital and leave the heart and its formation to somebody else. After all the most important job that any of our young people will ever do is to be a good human being and a member of their community, wherever that may be. Bringing up children well does more for society than all the inventors of the iPhone or the biggest paid celebrity on the planet. You need well-educated heads, hearts and hands to do tnat sort of job!
Somebody said that the longest 30cms in the world are from the head to the heart and it takes big hearts and wise heads to help our children undertake that journey. If the head and the heart are out of sync, there are problems. That is why good teachers are so important. And I thank them for their generous work.
But a wise teacher also knows how to help young people express themselves and be creative. The world of human hands is not just about manual labour. Pride in one's work enhances self-esteem as well as beautifying the world. And then children who have been developed in all the areas of their personality will be able to be great parents and role models. Having good qualifications make help you earn a lot – but it does not guarantee that you are a wise or a good person. And the Jesus who inspired St Francis of Assisi wanted people to grow in all areas of their personality, no matter what their past had been.
So, St Francis of Assisi is a nice name. But he was more than just a cuddly figure who talked to animals. He was a person who believed in the love of God for the world and was not afraid to talk about it. He was someone who gave up his family wealth so that he could make God's love known in the world. And he built up communities of men and women who would dedicate their lives, not to being rich and apparently powerful, but to being poor and very influential. Our modern culture tells us that we ought to look after ourselves, not others or the environment. And it tells us that community can be a pain. Francis gave a much wiser message – believe in love, in people, in community and in God. It is for that message that he is remembered almost 800 years after his death. Most of our allegedly important celebrities will be forgotten in a few years because they took all they could get and gave little.
Francis of Assisi was a tough man who had to fight many battles to be taken seriously. Even his family was initially opposed to what he did. But he had determination and that has been a blessing on the world.
Francis would tell you to learn about the world and all it beauty. He would encourage you to be a dreamer like himself, who believed that people could do great things. And he would tell you that the only real reason for loving Brother Sun and Sister Moon is because he loved the God who made the whole universe.
Carry his name with pride – and ask him to inspire you to do great things with your life.
+Donal, Bishop of Derry