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ACE's Mission in Ireland

on Wednesday, 30 November 2011.

Responding to a Need for Faith and Trust

Turmoil besetting the Catholic Church in Ireland has deepened the challenges facing the country's Catholic schools, and ACE has been working with leading Irish educators to respond to these challenges.

ACE, which has had various involvements in Ireland from the late 1990s, has increased its activity in Ireland since 2006 with a vibrant ACE Advocates community and the hosting of several conferences in Ireland and at Notre Dame for high level educational leaders from the primary and secondary sector.

ACE also recruits and selects two Irish teachers to participate in the ACE Teaching Fellows program each year. The upcoming 2012 visit by Notre Dame to Ireland provides ACE with an excellent opportunity to deepen our mission in Ireland.

The ACE Ireland mission, which has been set by Irish educators themselves, has three basic goals, says Rev. Sean McGraw, C.S.C., co-founder of ACE and a leader in ACE's work in Ireland.

"The goals are to develop future leaders for the schools, to support the faith life of teachers, and to build partnerships between educators in Ireland and the United States," says Father Sean.

Those goals address concerns about the Catholic identity embodied in Ireland's Catholic schools at a time when the Church there is reeling from a clergy sexual abuse scandal and rapid declines in regular church attendance.

In a November presentation to ACE staff and faculty, Father Sean pointed out that Mass attendance in Ireland fell from 90 percent in 1973 to 41 percent in 2006 and falling – especially among the young and urban sectors. Last year, just 16 men began formation for the priesthood in Ireland's seminaries, according to the country's Independent newspaper. That's down from at least 150 new recruits annually during the 1980s.

"Religious social capital—the basic trust among people and toward church institutions —has been severely damaged. Unfortunately, this loss of confidence has prevented the Church from being a positive voice during the country's current economic problems," Father Sean says.

Catholic schools, which constitute 93 percent of Ireland's primary schools and fifty percent of the secondary schools, have been challenged by secularization and often lack clear Catholic identity. Despite the efforts of many great leaders, too often, many Catholic schools fail to infuse spirituality into teaching or to catechize and inspire students with a dynamic faith, says Father Sean.

The Catholic schools, while owned by the Church, are funded by the government. This period of rapid flux being experienced by the Catholic Church in Ireland has made it difficult for many educators to engage their colleagues in conversations about enhancing Catholic identity and building children's faith.

That's where ACE comes in, says Father Sean. "We're a trusted group that has been able to bring together key educators both in Ireland and at Notre Dame to discuss and engage in solutions that address these issues in our schools and in leadership formation programs across the country."

We have already shared the gifts of some of our best leaders with our partners in Ireland. For example, Rev. Lou DelFra, C.S.C., ACE's director of pastoral life, gave a week of conferences in Ireland last fall and Rev. Ron Nuzzi, ACE's senior director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, will offer conferences in January 2012 to kick off Catholic Schools' Week.

Alumni of ACE's ACE Teaching Fellows have been catalysts in creating an active ACE Advocates community that regularly attracts 40 Catholic school leaders for mass, dinner and conversation once a month. These regular meetings have provided a place where educators can celebrate their faith and discuss the state of Catholic education in a supportive environment.

ACE's efforts are led in Ireland by John O'Malley, an ACE 9 graduate who is principal of an alternative school. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational leadership at Trinity College, Dublin.

ACE will continue to deepen and enhance its current initiatives, including collaboration with Irish ACE STT members and the ACE Advocates community, plus preparation of yearly leadership conferences at Notre Dame, retreats for aspiring principals, and professional development opportunities provided by ACE faculty and staff in Ireland. ACE is exploring how best to capitalize on the success of these various initiatives in the years ahead as we continue to share our model of teacher formation, with its emphasis on spirituality and community, in a new context.

The ACE Advisory Board will hold its Fall 2012 meeting in Dublin as a means of exploring and deepening our longer-term efforts in Ireland. Father Sean suggests that members of the ACE community who are interested in supporting ACE's efforts on behalf of Ireland's Catholic schools should pray for the cause and keep in touch with ACE to learn about next steps. Please contact John O'Malley (John.B.O'Malley.28 @nd.edu) if you want further information.

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