'The lighting of a fire': Mater Dei Academy's plan to renew Catholic education -- and faith -- in Ireland

Students of Mater Dei Academy in Cork, Ireland, enjoy the sunshine outside the school's home at Farranferris Education and Training Campus in this undated photo. Farranferris opened as a boys boarding school in 1887 before closing in 2006. The picturesque campus is now home to a number of education projects including Mater Dei Academy. (OSV News photo/courtesy Mater Dei Academy)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) ─ A famous quote, oft attributed to Irishman William Butler Yeats, considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, says "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

And the philosophy that an authentic education is something more than cramming scholarly craniums with facts is ablaze at Cork, Ireland's Mater Dei Academy, an independent Catholic school in the classical tradition.

OSV News recently spoke with the principal founder of Mater Dei Academy -- Pádraig Cantillon-Murphy -- when he visited Washington for a presentation at the Catholic Information Center.

Pádraig and Grace Cantillon-Murphy -- husband and wife MIT graduates who returned to Ireland in 2010 -- in 2020 launched Mater Dei Academy accompanied by a small group of founding parents and just 12 students. Enrollment has more than tripled since, and the first principal of the academy -- Geraldine Heffernan -- was announced April 10.

Its mission is plainly stated on the school's website: "Mater Dei Academy is the beating heart for a new missionary pulse which seeks to revitalize Irish and European society with the values and traditions of our Catholic forefathers."

That said, the aggressive secularization of modern Ireland has been rapid for the nation that in 1946 was described by Giovanni Battista Montini -- the future Pope Paul VI -- as "the most Catholic country in the world."

"The reality we have today is essentially that of the early church, where we are a minority in a civilization that has essentially apostatized its faith," said Cantillon-Murphy, "and our mission is to be salt, to be light, to be leaven in that society. So the number one priority of the school is to make Jesus Christ present. First of all, in the lives of the kids. Second of all, in the life of the school. And third of all, in the wider society."

Outside the walls of Mater Dei's Cork city center campus, the secular atmosphere grows. As the London-based Catholic Herald reported June 14, "The proposed addition to the Irish Statute book, the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, seeks to create a new crime of hate speech (incitement to violence or hatred) as well as upgrading existing criminal acts when aggravated by hatred."

"It poses all sorts of problems," said Cantillon-Murphy, "particularly for us in the church, where people are now scratching their heads and asking, 'Are large tracts of the Bible now considered hate speech?' Because obviously there are very clear references to the way some people live. It seems to be trying to muzzle people."

The breadth of the intended statute was criticized by the Catholic Herald as "chillingly vague and ill-defined."

"That's not surprising for us who are in the country," Cantillon-Murphy noted. "It's the latest in a long catalog of legislative and constitutional changes which are essentially deconstructing a Christian vision and anthropology of society. And that is seen quite clearly in the schools, even though nominally, many of them retain their historically Catholic ethos. The reality, of course, is very different."

Almost 50% of modern Irish schools retain a Catholic character, but often superficially, Cantillon-Murphy explained. The remainder are state-controlled. Schools that are privately funded and independent of the government are such a minority that they barely register in statistical tallies.

"I don't anticipate our mission being to turn the clock back to a time where the church dominated education in the country," Cantillon-Murphy said. "We are a choice that parents make to be able to deliver education in an environment where the faith is supported."

Unlike other Catholic schools in Ireland, Mater Dei Academy operates independently of state funding; but it charges no fees to Irish residents, relying entirely upon donations to make Mater Dei's Catholic classical education as accessible as state-funded schools. The U.S.-based Saints and Scholars Foundation petitions the support of charitable Americans to make this possible.

Mater Dei's students take courses in theology, philosophy, English, Latin, mathematics, science, history and culture, geography, music, art -- and the Irish language.

"We've spent quite a lot of time trying to give the students the confidence to speak the (Irish) language, to be able to recite poetry in public," said Cantillon-Murphy. "For example, there's an old competition for public recitation in Irish poetry -- and we won both prizes this year."

While it's admirable to save Irish, or Gaeilge, from succumbing to the stagnant status of a "dead language," there's more to the effort than that.

"We see this as part of the mission -- not because it's a means to an end in itself, but that the language is a means of transmitting faith," Cantillon-Murphy commented. "The faith is interspersed everywhere in the language and the culture; it's wrapped up in the etymology of the words. You say hello by saying 'Dia duit,' which means 'God be with you.'"

"The language itself is full of imagery and poetry," he explained. "It's about really creating a certain pride in the students also, that this is something that belongs to them. Not for themselves -- but to pass on to somebody else. You learn so that you can teach. This is ultimately what we would like these students to be able to do, in a generation from now."

Mater Dei's expansion now includes international students through exchange partnerships with schools in France and Spain. Its elementary-level homeschool program is also available abroad. And teachers overseas in a variety of subjects are invited to contact the academy if they might consider teaching there for a year.

"For many years, there was very little sign of hope in the church," said Cantillon-Murphy. "Things are beginning to happen. Three weeks ago, we had the Corpus Christi procession in Cork. There were 4,000 people that came out in the streets -- it was the biggest procession in 25 years. And the kids from our school were the flag bearers for the procession, at the invitation of our bishop," he said.

"So there are lots of green shoots beginning to appear -- and please God, they'll continue to grow."

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Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.


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