St. Fanchea’s College,
6 December 2012
My dear friends, members of the staff, the Board of Governors, parents, pupils and guests.
I had a late holiday this year, I’m not long back at work. One of the pleasures of a holiday for me is that I get a chance to read. This year, one of the books I took with me had the title “The Governor.” It was written by John Lonergan. He retired two years ago after spending twenty two years as Governor of Mountjoy Prison. I found it a most interesting book full of humanity and full of insight into the human person in all his complexity.
Let me give you a sample. A group of mature students fromAllHallowsCollegevisited Mountjoy as part of a social studies course they were taking. They met a group of ten prisoners, five men and five women. A young prisoner who had stayed silent for an hour of this meeting asked for permission to speak. “This is my life story,” he said. “I’m the youngest of a family of eleven. When I was two, my Ma left one day and I’ve never seen her since. My sister reared me, because my Da is an alcoholic. When I was seven, I was sent toSt. Joseph’s in Clonmel. When I was eleven, I was in St. Laurence’s in Finglas. When I was sixteen, I was sent to St. Patrick’s Institution. Now I’m twenty, and I’m doing five years in Mountjoy. I have spent all my life in and out of special schools, institutions and prisons, and nobody ever came to help me or to do anything for me. The only person who did anything for me is my sister. That’s what I’ve got from society. Nothing.” That was how he saw the world we all share.
Speaking about his own role when he was working with young offenders in Loughan House, John Lonergan writes, “When I look back now the secret was connecting with each boy – just chatting to the boys, trying to understand them, encouraging them, treating them with kindness, explaining to them the benefits of education and how to deal with their own personal difficulties. That, and showing them social skills like how to behave in the communal dining room, how to keep a bedroom tidy and reasonably clean, how to talk to people, how to request things : all the things we take for granted. I learned that fundamentally life is not fair and that there’s no such thing as equality. Some children are born into circumstances where the odds are so stacked against them it is almost impossible for them to overcome the obstacles in their path.”
Again, quoting from John Lonergan, he says, “Not everybody is born into the right circumstances, with the stability, the intelligence and the talents to live the type of life that the general public expects them to. Sometimes there was no love or kindness in their lives. Sometimes they were treated like animals – abused, beaten up, neglected, ostracized, raped, brutalised. Getting the message ‘I believe in you’ – possibly for the first time in their lives – is a powerful thing and the vast majority of prisoners respond positively to it. A progressive prison system does its utmost to help prisoners to grow as human beings. I have seen men and women grow far beyond my wildest expectation. They have responded to basic human kindness, compassion and positivity. So many have been educated, not necessarily in the classroom but simply as a result of how they were treated. An enlightened system helps prisoners to develop the emotional, social and educational or vocational tools to make a better fist of living decent responsible lives when they get out, whatever the challenges and temptations facing them. And that is not just good for them but for all of society.”
At this stage you may well be saying to yourself “Where in the name of God is this man coming from? Where does he think he is and, even more importantly, where does he think he is going?” The First Lady of the U.S.A. at the time, Barbara Bush, once addressed a group of parents in a school setting and asked “Where will our country find leaders with integrity, courage, strength – all the family values – in ten, twenty or thirty years? The answer is that you are teaching them, loving them and raising them right now. Parents who want the best for their children must first teach them how to believe the best in themselves. I put it to you that there is nothing more precious you can give your children.”
Children’s self-esteem is greatly enhanced when they are made to feel important by the adults in their lives. An obvious way of expressing this is simply to be present for significant occasions. One man, now a father himself, relates the disappointment and frustration he feels towards his father, “Between the time I was five and thirteen, my father was home for only two of my birthdays. I never felt he cared about me.”
Educationalists tell us that we often make the mistake of focusing on what our children are doing wrong rather then on what they do right. They advise that it is better to teach children rather than correct them. Parents who overuse the chisel in chipping away at shaping their children will weaken their confidence whereas those who build up and offer positive comments are more likely to create a strong foundation of love on which to build.
Young people can be greatly empowered when we ask for their assistance and advice. When a father asked his two boys to set up his newly bought computer, they not only set it up and neatly organised the manuals and the boxes of equipment but began to teach their father what they had learned. The father’s respectful request left the boys feeling valued and appreciated in that they saw that they could do things that he could not do. They had something worthwhile to give.
Many parents justifiably complain that their teenage children won’t talk to them but in some cases the problem arises from parents not taking the time to listen with respect and care. When parents don’t listen the children put up the shutters feeling that their stories and experiences are of no interest to their parents. It makes all the difference when they feel from your reaction that you understand and appreciate their feelings. Children will believe in themselves and be more confident if we are respectful of their aspirations and dreams. “Talk the talk and walk the walk,” is a saying young people use to remind us adults that they are watching us and that who we are and what we do shout louder than anything we say by way of advice. A short story writer called Clarence Kelland wrote, “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”
When I arrived back from my recent holiday, there was a message on my phone to say a friend of mine had died. She was eighty-five years old, a widow for many years, a former social worker and counsellor with the Catholic Marriage advisory service. She was a gem of a human being; a warm, sympathetic, positive and generous woman who did more good to others than she ever realised when she was alive. In years gone by, she was invited to work with the girls in this school in the area of personal and faith development. I can recall her speaking with great admiration of how far seeing the staff and governors of this school were in giving the time, attention and importance which they did to the development of the girls a human beings. These girls would be the adults and mothers of tomorrow and society would thrive on the good sense and healthy values they would have learned during their years of formation.
People like Frankie McNally, theBelfastwoman who was buried last week, and John Lonergan, whose words I quoted to you earlier, challenge us and remind us of important truths. When we listen to the Word of God in the story of creation, as it is presented in the Book of Genesis, we hear that at the end of each day God looked at what he had created and saw that it was good. We should never lose sight of that as priests, religious, parents and teachers. What God created in giving us this universe and in giving life to man and woman – what God created was good. If our vision of this goodness has been darkened, the season of Advent reminds us that the arrival of a child has remedied this and restored to us the light if we are disposed to accept it.
I would like to acknowledge with great confidence the debt of gratitude which the people of Fermanagh feel towards the Sisters of Mercy and the governors and staff of St. Fanchea’s. You have been a centre and source of light to our young girls in sharing with them the love of God; and you have been a centre and source of knowledge and of wisdom in preparing young people for the challenges and responsibilities of life. Sisters of Mercy and the lay teachers and governors who carried this torch over the years with conviction and generosity of spirit, we salute you. St. Fanchea’s has made an enormous contribution to lifting the community which it served to a higher level of awareness, self-worth and self-confidence. You have enriched the quality of life for those families you have taken on to serve. I am glad to have the opportunity, on behalf of the Catholic community of Fermanagh, to acknowledge this to you and to assure you that whatever the future brings in the reorganisation of educational provision in our schools the tradition which you have built up will have to be part of it. It is too precious to be lost. You will have our full support in ensuring it will be there for the benefit of future generations.
May God be with you to direct and guide you and may the coming festive season find you all at peace and in harmony with those around you.
+Liam S. MacDaid