Wednesday, 29th August, 2018, is the 174th anniversary of the death in Waterford of Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, Founder of the aboriginal and undivided Society of the Presentation, from which derive both the Presentation Brothers and the Christian Brothers and all institutes and initiatives, educational or other, that spring from either or both of these bodies, including Lux Edmundi.
By that date, virtually all recognised schools in the Republic of Ireland, primary and post-primary, will have commenced the 2018-2019 school year. Catholic schools will do so this year in the immediate after-glow of WMOF2018 and, especially, of the associated visit to Ireland of His Holiness, Pope Francis, “bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter … ‘head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth’ (CIC, can. 331)’(CCC, para. 936)”.
Blessed Edmund lived under seven popes: Clement XIII, Clement XIV, Pius VI, Pius VII, Leo XII, Pius VIII and Gregory XVI. It was Pius VII who, in 1820, issued Ad pastoralis dignitatis fastigium, the papal brief which allowed the majority of the then Society of the Presentation – a congregation of diocesan right – to form the Society of Religious Brothers – a congregation of papal right – which entailed that they would be governed, not by the local bishop, but by a Superior General elected by themselves from amongst their own number. The first so elected was Blessed Edmund himself.
The papacy was, in fact, under severe attack in the early years of the Founder’s life. The Revolution of 1789 had shattered the Church in France and threatened it throughout Europe and beyond. Napoleon had occupied the Papal States and had imprisoned Pius VI and, for a time at least, Pius VII. More generally, the influence of the Enlightenment seemed in the ascendant everywhere and “liberals” rejoiced that the power of the Catholic Church was about to be broken forever.
That, of course, did not happen. In fact, the Catholic Church has now more adherents across the globe than it ever had. Those famous observations of Lord Macaulay’s – a strong advocate of “progress” and no lover of what he saw as benighted papal resistance to it – may be re-iterated here: “There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. … No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Parthenon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eight … She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot in Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple at Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s”.
What Nero failed to do in the first century, and Stalin in the twentieth, will not be done by anyone here in the twenty-first. We who are called anew by the Lord this August to make disciples of our students must respond with ever greater faith, courage and energy, in the utter conviction that Christ is with us always (cf. Mt 28:20); that, therefore, “the gates of hell will not prevail (ib. 16:18)”.