Mary Immaculate College leads global initiative for Catholic educators

Mary Immaculate College leads global initiative for Catholic educators
A new million-euro initiative hopes to ‘imagine a future’ for Catholic education in Ireland, Fr Eamonn Conway tells Ruadhán Jones

Mary Immaculate College (MIC) recently announced it is leading an “exciting” new global project on Catholic education after receiving €950,000 in funding. Their aim is to make a “decisive contribution to the repositioning of Catholic education in Ireland” and globally, Fr Eamonn Conway, head of Theology and Religious studies at MIC, tells The Irish Catholic.

New generation

The Global Researchers in Catholic Education project (GRACE) enables a new generation of Catholic educators at MIC to connect with top-level experts in Catholic education in the USA, Australia and the UK, Fr Conway explains. Fr Conway, along with Drs Dan O’Connell and Eugene Duffy, will lead the project, which is already underway.

Fr Conway says that the idea for the project originated following a meeting with a professor in Notre Dame University Australia.

“We felt that there were a lot of issues common to University of Notre Dame Australia and indeed to Catholic education in the Australian context and the Irish Context,” Fr Conway continues. “You know, repositioning Catholic Education in the public square, the distinctiveness of Catholic education – we felt that we could work together on and develop a network to support young and emerging scholars across our two contexts, making available literature, research and so on.”

This was in 2017 and by 2019, two more colleges agreed to take part in the initiative – the University of St Mary’s, London, and Boston College. Following a meeting between representatives from all the colleges in 2019, the colleges agreed they needed to set up an international “community of practice”.

“We felt we needed to create a community of practice because we didn’t want it to be just a group of academics talking to other academics, but that it would involve all the kinds of people involved in Catholic education,” Fr Conway says. “So parents of course, but also chaplains, teachers, those involved in the leadership and management of schools, trustees – right across the people who are involved and invite them into scholarship and reflection.

“So we wanted to create a unique ‘community of practice’ that would be an invitation space for people across these various aspects of Catholic education that wouldn’t ordinarily meet, from the US to Australia to Ireland, and indeed the UK as well,” Fr Conway adds.

Fr Conway hopes that, in the future, they will be able to include colleges from the global south, to give a complete picture of Catholic education across the globe. Ultimately, the aim of the project is to pool the resources of experts and practitioners in order to create “a whole new generation of Catholic educators” and “thought leaders”.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate to get the funding from the All Hallows trust and the Presentation Sisters in Ireland to provide scholarships – they’re unique in the whole area of the humanities really, €20,000 a year for four years to do a PhD,” Fr Eamonn says. “That is to encourage a whole new generation of Catholic thought leaders. Many are teachers who will be able to – because of the funding – step out of the classroom to do their PhD’s.

Ms Considine had a very happy experience of religion through her parents and is ‘worried’ that the next generation won’t experience that”

“For my generation, what we have to contribute, is the networks we have built up, so we can call on the various scholars in the universities and contexts who can offer support in that whole area of the research undertaken by these students. To hand on what we have to a new generation,” Fr Conway finishes.

Claire Considine, one of the recipients of the scholarships, says she is “absolutely thrilled” about the project and looking forward to getting started.

“For my masters, I had been looking at the whole area of well-being and spirituality,” Ms Considine explains. “It’s really good to be able to develop that more in terms of looking at Catholic schools. Its looking at the importance of spirituality in terms of students wellbeing. There’s an awful lot of emphasis on the physical and emotional wellbeing, but it’s been neglected spiritually.

“I’m looking at that particularly with senior students, fourth, fifth and sixth years. Looking at it through the lens of religion – how we can bring wellbeing into their religious syllabus and make it inclusive for all which I’m really excited about,” Ms Considine adds.

Experience of religion

Ms Considine had a very happy experience of religion through her parents and is “worried” that the next generation won’t experience that.

“My background from home is that my mam and dad were a traditional religious family,” she says. ”We said the rosary every night, it was always very important that we go to Mass, that we be kind, good people. I had a really happy childhood, and happy because of our Church at home and our religious community. That’s what influenced me, the religion that my mam passed on to me and I’m worried that an awful lot of students won’t experience that now. I want to angle it in a way that it will appeal to them.”

The experience and knowledge the research makes available will enable experts, practitioners and researchers like Ms Considine to “make a decisive contribution to the repositioning of Catholic education in Ireland”, Fr Conway says.

“The project will be employing a post-doctoral researcher who will do a detailed study with regard to the realities of Catholic education in our schools or colleges,” Fr Conway explains. “We hope to gather data regarding what is actually happening on the ground in Catholic schools, how effective are Catholic schools in terms of communicating faith and evangelising, in doing something that is genuinely distinctive and reflects something of the Christian position on the human person. We want a root and branch investigation on that.

The project is well named, GRACE, because it has been an experience of grace for us”

“And then to imagine a future for Catholic education in Ireland, to present a vision for that and hopefully this will contribute to the whole policies around divestment and so on, which at the moment are not working off solid research. That’s an outcome we’d hope for at national level,” he adds.

“We thought this time last year that we would be fortunate to get the funding to cover the costs of young scholars to attend our conference, which is what we were looking at initially. The project is well named, Grace, because it has been an experience of grace for us. We think that unwittingly we have tapped into a wellspring of support, a wellspring of commitment to re-evaluating and appreciating again the unique contribution that Catholic education can make in this country and to bring forth its distinctiveness in a way that perhaps hasn’t been fully realised to date,” Fr Conway concludes.