Homily of Cardinal Cahal Daly
Mass of Thanksgiving
St. Peter’s Basilica, Monday 7th October 1996
Among the many distinguished people assembled here today, I shall name only one, and that is Kevin Ellison. He is the young man whose recovery from a life-threatening illness was officially pronounced miraculous by the appropriate Medical Commission and was accepted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as a miracle brought about through the intercession of Blessed Edmund Rice. Kevin’s cure was an essential condition for the Beatification. It is eminently fitting that Kevin should be here today with his brother and sister to honour the new Beatus and to acknowledge with gratitude the power of Blessed Edmund’s prayer.
With our hearts still filled with the joy of the Beatification liturgy in this Basilica yesterday, we are gathered here to give thanks to God for the Beatification and to thank Him for Edmund Ignatius Rice and for the Institute of Christian Brothers which he founded. At the same time we thank God for the Institute of Presentation Brothers, who also have Blessed Edmund as their holy Founder. Because of the spiritual bonds which linked Edmund Rice with the Institute of Presentation Sisters, which Nano Nagle founded, we are also in this mass thanking God for the brotherhood and sisterhood of grace which binds the Presentation Sisters and the Presentation Brothers with Blessed Edmund and binds all three Institutes in what we might call the Presentation Religious Family. All of us who are privileged to be here above the Confession of St Peter today and to share the supreme act of thanksgiving to God, which is the Eucharist, have some link with Edmund Rice through the brothers who have faithfully continued his charism for the past century and a half. The Brothers are joined by Associates who have pledged themselves to share the Edmund Rice charism and ensure its continuance into the future. We are joined also by many lay teachers in the schools of the Brothers, as well as the present day pupils from the Brother’s schools in all the continents where the name Edmund Rice is known and honoured through the work of his religious family.
The term, “Presentation Family”, is appropriate because Edmund Rice adapted for his new Institute of Religious Brothers the rule first drawn up for Nano Nagle’s Presentation Sisters. This was itself based on the rule drawn up for the Visitation Sisters by St Francis de Sales. In fact, the first name given by Blessed Edmund to his religious society was “The Society of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary”; and this is the name still used by the Presentation Brothers. The chapters in Nano Nagle’s Rule on zeal for the education of the poor, on detachment from worldliness, and on warm community spirit, were those which Edmund himself particularly cherished; while the devotion to the Blessed Eucharist, to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to the Passion, which were inculcated in Nano Nagle’s Rule, found an echo in Edmund’s own heart and were in fact his personal devotions of predilection. At his reception of the habit of religious life, Edmund Rice took the religious name of Ignatius. He always regarded Ignatius as a spiritual guide, ans was assisted in his own spiritual growth by Jesuit Fathers.
Ever a devout lay Christian, husband and father, and successful businessman, Edmund increasingly since 1802 had being growing in the interior life and had been eagerly pursuing the unum necessarium, the “one thing necessary”. He avidly read the writings of St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila and Alphonso Rodriguez. He cultivated a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and a great love of Our Lady. A decisive influence on Edmund and on his spirituality and his Rule and his apostolate was, as I have said, that of Nano Nagle. Nano (or Honora) was born nearly 50 years before Edmund. Her Presentation Sisters were the first Irish-originated Sisterhood and the Rule drawn up for them was the first such Rule to be drawn up and be papally approved for an Irish Sisterhood. In turn Edmund’s rule for his Brothers was the first Rule for an Irish-founded Religious Institute for men in post-Reformation Ireland.
It was Nano’s personal holiness and her total commitment to the poor which first kindled Edmund’s enthusiasm. Already as a layman, Edmund had become aware of the miserable plight of poor boys in Waterford. There was no provision for their religious education or their moral formation, and Edmund saw this as a shameful their personal dignity and of their Christian calling. When plans were being formulated for a new community of Presentation Sisters to be set up in Waterford, with a school for poor girls, Edmund as a lay businessman was deeply involved in preparations for their coming and in the raising of funds to finance the school. This new school was in fact near to Mount Sion, where Edmund was later to form his first community of Brothers. Edmund was able to observe at close quarters the Sister’s life of prayer and poverty and work for the poor. He was filled with admiration and he became more convinced than ever of the need for similar schools for poor boys. It was, however, above all, the lives of prayer of the Sisters and their spirit of self-giving to Christ and his Kingdom which impressed Edmund, and which he saw as the secret of their commitment to the poor. Consequently, his thoughts increasingly turned towards the formation of a community of men committed to prayer and holiness of life and living out their prayer and love of God in works for the education of the poor.
The foundation of the Institute of Christian Brothers can variously be dated to 1802, when Edmund gathered around him his first small group of young disciples; or to 15th August 1808, when his companions and he first donned the religious habit and pronounced religious vows; or to 1822, when they formally accepted the Papal “Brief of Approval”, signed by the pope in 1820; or to 1829, when they adopted the new Rule, which was formally published in 1832, after a period of trial. Meanwhile, the community in the South Monastery, Cork, opted in 1827 to remain a diocesan community under the Bishop of Cork; they formed the nucleus of the Presentation Brothers.
Edmund’s Educational Legacy
The achievement of the sons of Edmund Rice in nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland was phenomenal. It has few parallels in any country. The Brothers played the major part in the creation of Catholic education in the educational desert which was the immediate post-penal day Ireland. They provided free education for the poor long before the term was even coined and when the State contribution to education was minimal and when even that minimum was denied to the Catholic poor. Many of the men who created the Irish State, many of the men who formed its first governments, who staffed its civil service, who played leading roles in the literary and cultural, educational and social development of the country, were “Christian Brother’s boys” or “Presentation Brother’s boys”. Their past pupils are still as numerous and as distinguished. The work of the Presentation Sisters is no less outstanding. This was at a time when, apart from a small new Catholic middle-class which was beginning to have access to business and prosperity, the vast majority of Catholics in Ireland were unskilled workers, many of them illiterate. A Lord Chief Justice of the time had the famous remark:
The laws of Ireland did not presume a Roman Catholic to exist, nor could such a one breathe there without the connivance of the Government.
Even when Catholic Emancipation came, there still remained in force a legal ban on religious orders. Edmund had serious legal problems about the Brother’s right to raise or dispose of the funds necessary for the schools.
In every sphere of life, therefore, Catholics were made to feel inferior; and, particularly in the case of the boys whom the Brothers taught and their parents, thay often had a poor self-image, a poor sense of self-worth and low expectations of life. This should be kept in mind when the Brothers are charged with teaching an extreme and narrow Irish nationalism. Their objective was to give their pupils belief in themselves, pride in their country and its history, conviction that the poor could, with good education, emulate the more economically privileged and that Ireland had a right to justice and equality among the nations of the earth. Just as the Presentation and Mercy Sisters and many others did so much to empower Catholic girls and women, so the Christian and the Presentation Brothers empowered Catholic boys and men. Together they thereby had a huge part in the building of the foundations for a self-confident nation. Ireland owes them an immense debt. It is wonderful to see that debt recognised in these days in Rome by the presence here of a large and distinguished delegation from the Government and the Oireachtas and from local Government.
There have been patches of tares here and there among the rich broad acres of golden wheat which is the harvest of Edmund’s planting. When I say that these are the exceptions in an otherwise outstanding spiritual and educational record, I do not in any way minimise the pain and the hurt caused by cases of abuse of children.
Sadly, religious consecration or priestly ordination do not eliminate the weaknesses of our fallen human nature. But I do wish to say that the “bad image” sometimes given to the Brothers in some sectors of the press and media is totally unjustified, unfair and unjust.
Today we unreservedly thank God for what the Brothers have done and are doing for Church and society in Ireland and across the world; but we thank Him even more for what the Brothers are in their lives of prayer and dedication to the establishment on earth of God’s Kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace. A collection of school memories, written by past pupils of the Presentation Brother’s schools, published recently, includes a very striking tribute paid by John McGahern, a past pupil of the Presentation Brothers Secondary Schoolin Carrick-on-Shannon. Speaking of his days in that school, McGahern writes:
“I look back on those five years as the beginning of an adventure that has not stopped…. I look back on my time there with nothing but gratitude, as years of luck and privilege, and, above all, of grace, actual grace”.
So it has been for countless thousands of past pupils of the Brothers. Past pupils who are here, and thousands who are not here, would would want me on this great day to salute the Brothers in their name and to wish for the Brothers themselves a future of grace and blessing as great as their past has been.
As a bishop, I freely confess today that relations between some bishops and the Brothers in the early days were not always as cordial as they should have been. Therefore, I specially wish today to tell the Brothers how much we bishops owe to them for their incalculable service to the Lord and to the Church in all our dioceses. May the reward they are receiving in these days of joy and celebration in Rome and back at home be a foretaste for them of eternal joy and reward.