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Religious education is a ‘lived’ subject

The following is an article from the Irish Catholic by Aoife Kehoe, student in Colaiste Bride, Enniscorthy. Aoife has written about the benefits of studying Religious Education. 

Religion is an exam subject I experience outside the classroom. 

Religious education as an exam subject was first examined in 2008. In 2016, 1320 students throughout Ireland sat the exam.

The curriculum presents ten topics from which students must study four. In my class we studied four divergent and truly engaging themes.

Namely:

1. The search for meaning and values, which examines philosophical and religious answers to the question of the meaning of life.
2. Christianity, origins and contemporary expression. This section profiles the early Christian movement and its influence on contemporary Christian identity.
3. World religions – explores two major religious traditions, ie: Islam and Judaism.
4. Religion and gender – seeks to provide an understanding of the role gender plays in people’s religious experience.

Students are also required to complete a research project. My research involved profiling a theologian and a scientist’s perspective on climate change.

I’ve been asked to reflect on my experience of leaving cert exam religion, and notwithstanding my concerns regarding the exam in three month’s time my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Many commentators on the educational system in Ireland criticise its limitation in terms of the need for rote learning and the lack of opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. These criticisms cannot be levelled at leaving cert religion. In the search for meaning and values section of the course, I have experienced twenty three opinionated and vocal young women grapple with deep philosophical questions originally posed by famous philosophers.

Here are just samples………….. How do we know we exist? (Aristotle)……….Can one trust one’s sense’s? (Plato)…………What’s the definition of justice? (Socrates) ……..Can we prove God’s existence? (Aquinas).

I can’t proclaim that any of the above questions have been decisively answered by my classmates or indeed by our teacher Mr Kehoe, however it has been a most rewarding and challenging adventure to engage in such a deep reflection on questions that are central to humanities existence.

Religious education is a “lived” subject; it does not exist in a vacuum or within the confines of a textbook. It is a subject that I experience on a daily basis in the world beyond the classroom. My classmates often comment on how relevant the information we learn in class is to the world that surrounds us. Issues that arise in the media are often explored in our class.

We’ve learned the meaning of concepts such as Atheism, Agnosticism and Secularism. It is quite stimulating to then listen to a debate on radio or TV about the need for the Catholic Church to divest its role in education in Ireland or to read articles in newspapers about the need for pubs to be allowed to open on Good Friday.

In early 2016 Pope Francis in a book entitled “The name of God is mercy”, spoke about the need for Christians to treat homosexuals with dignity and mercy. These comments received a significant amount of attention on social media as well as in mainstream media. The attention given to the Pope’s statement made me realize how valuable religious education is, since we had spent a number of classes learning about the Catholic Church’s response to contemporary social issues.

Had I not chose to study religious education as an exam subject I believe my interest or understanding of many current affair issues would be diminished.

On a more personal level the opportunity to learn in some depth about Jesus and his message has strengthened my faith. I have learnt a great deal about Jesus, the person and his message of love, inclusiveness and compassion. In Luke’s gospel Jesus shared a meal with Zaccheus, the greedy tax collector.

n Mark’s gospel we witness his compassion towards the man with leprosy and in the gospel of John he treated the women at the well with dignity and respect. These were all excluded and marginalised people. A good catholic education challenges us to reflect on the contemporary world in light of the Gospel.

Therefore, Jesus’s actions challenged me to treat all people with respect. His actions challenge me to be aware of the marginalised in today’s world. His loving commitment to society’s most vulnerable urges me to examine my attitude towards homeless people, to extend compassion to Syrian refugees and indeed travellers who are often on the margins of society.

In this secular society the values espoused by religion are often presented in a negative light. At best religious belief and practice is seen as irrelevant, at worst religion is presented as a dark force which restricts human freedom. To be fair some criticism of organised religion is justified and warranted. However, my studying of religion for leaving cert has reaffirmed for me the positive contribution religion can have on society.

I have learnt about the work of people like venerable Catherine McCauley and Fr. Peter McVerry have made enormous contributions to the lives of Irish people. Catherine McCauley’s personal sacrifice and total commitment to the needs of teenage girls throughout the world is truly inspirational. Her vision, determination and her Christian faith are testament to the positive impact religious faith can have in the present and the future.

Fr. Peter McVerry’s work with the homeless and his critique of materialistic and consumerist society highlights how relevant the Christian message still is in a secular Ireland.

In conclusion the opportunity to study a subject that has given me such a broad understanding of the world around me has been most rewarding. I have learned to appreciate the many wonderful rituals and customs associated with the Islamic faith. I have developed skills of reflection when I reflect on the ministry of Jesus Christ and the impact his message can have on my life.

I have grown to respect the many philosophers and the deep thinkers who have sought to make sense of and give meaning to humanities shared existence.

Martin Luther King Junior believed “The goal of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”
I believe leaving cert religion fulfils this goal. My hope is that my leaving cert examiner believes it too.

By: Aoife Kehoe, 6th Year student, Coláiste Bríde, Enniscorthy, Co.Wexford.