An Interview with Mary Shanahan

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation?


Mary: I was born in Ireland, into a Catholic family. My father, in particular, encouraged us all to pray and brought us to Mass (though, as children, we did not always appreciate the value of that!). After reading me a bedtime story each night, my father would say simple prayers with me, and I really relished that time together. Both of my grandmothers were also strong women of faith who, in different ways, showed me that life and faith are not two distinct entities. They taught me that faith is a deep source of support during difficult times and they both embodied that spirit of community and solidarity which, for me, is at the core of the Catholic faith.


As a young child, my family and I moved to England, where I attended Anglican schools as well as Sunday school after Mass. I have found that these experiences of schooling in another tradition instilled a deep respect for ecumenism within me, as well as an insight into the sense of mystery which lies at the heart of so many of the world’s religious traditions. My Sunday school experiences were also fantastic. The Sunday school teacher, Gabriel, was such a kind woman and really made each of us children feel important and valued. When my brothers later attended Sunday school with her, they had the same positive experience.


Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.


Mary: I attended an Anglican high school in England that offered an excellent programme in Religious Education which I sat an exam in. While the Religious Education programme was not taught from a particular faith perspective, my teachers were outstanding. They encouraged each of us to explore our beliefs and values, as well as to reflect upon those of others. Outside of school, my father ensured that going to Mass continued and I also continued to pray, though, I must admit, that I struggled more with this as a teenager than I did as a child.


We returned to Ireland when I was a sixteen, and I enrolled in a multi-denominational high school which had strong links to the local parish. The Religious Education teachers there did not have an easy job and yet they were always extremely compassionate. All three had attended Mater Dei Institute of Education (a Catholic college of education) and, when I expressed an interest in teaching, they each recommended the college to me. Eventually, I decided that I would apply to Mater Dei to train as a Religious Education and English teacher. I can easily say that that was the best educational decision I ever made.


Dr. Knight: You went to college and became an educator. How did you make that decision?


Mary: I was very sure from about six years of age that I wanted to be a teacher. I longed to become a primary (elementary) school teacher but was not able to take that path. When we returned to Ireland, I learned that one must have studied the Irish language to enter primary school teaching and, having lived in England for ten years, I had not done so. To say that I was devastated by this news was an understatement and I cried many tears as a result. However, teaching remained in my heart and I began to think about becoming a high school English teacher. As I said when I answered the last question, I was taught my three Mater Dei graduates. They had each studied English and R.E., which was not a subject combination I had really considered. However, my high school guidance counsellor (who was also one of those three Mater Dei graduates), Catherine McCormack, spent a great deal of time with me, both helping me manage my disappointment about primary teaching and advising me in relation to becoming an English teacher. In spite of my initial reluctance and uncertainty, she steered me towards the wonderful Mater Dei and I will be forever grateful that she did.


Dr. Knight: What ministries did you discern as an educator?


Mary: That’s very difficult question to answer. I suppose that I associate the idea of having a ministry with much better Christians than me and I am very conscious of my own inadequacies. Perhaps the best thing that I can say here is that, from the start, I was very committed to trying to show compassion as this is a Christian quality which I consider to be essential for educators. I would also say that I view teaching as a form of service, a way of unselfishly giving to others. I have always thought that, if one has a talent or gift which can be used for the betterment of another, then one should share that. So, if your college friend is struggling with her philosophy assignment, and you have philosophical ability, then you should try to help her. Likewise, if you are struggling with a college liturgy assignment and your friend has a talent in this area, then she should (and will) help you. I may well be talking from personal experience with these examples!


Dr. Knight: What was the mission of your educational district? Did you realize that mission?


Mary: The Irish education system is very different to that of the U.S. and so we do not have an educational district system. There are various types of school – denominational (mainly Christian) and multidenominational – and so there are varying ethoi at play. For a time, I worked in a multidenominational school before deciding that I wished to become an academic. I had completed my M.A. in philosophy and had just commenced my Ph.D. and so I felt ever more drawn towards the university sector.


Dr. Knight: After you started in this position what was your next discernment?

Mary: I began tutoring and lecturing in a number of Catholic colleges of education and I knew then that I had truly found my place as an educator. My first experience of college teaching was in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (now part of the Institute of Education at DCU), and I had the most fantastic time. The ethos of the college was so apparent in the way that staff and students interacted with one another; I looked forward to teaching there each week and very much felt that I had started on the right path. I then secured lecturing hours in St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, where I trained religious education teachers. After this, I tutored and lectured in the areas of religious education, religious studies, philosophy, and education in Mater Dei Institute of Education, University College Dublin, MaynoothUniversity, and the Church of Ireland College of Education. I later returned to work in both St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, and St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, before coming to St. Angela’s College, Sligo, to take up the post of Lecturer in Education (Religious Education). In 2018, I was appointed the Director of Religious Education at St. Angela’s and I have been Acting Head of the School of Education here since January. My association with so many Catholic colleges of education has not been accidental; I am a keen advocate of the Christian educational vision and I consider myself to be a Christian educator.


Dr. Knight: Do you think of your work in writing a book part of your spiritual mission?


Mary: I believe that humility is extremely important and so I am not sure that I would consider any of my writing to be a spiritual mission. Again, I would tend to associate books which clearly articulate and contribute to a spiritual mission with devout individuals, saints in particular. What I would say is that my Christian faith, my life, and my work are intimately related. Therefore, when I am writing, I am always doing so as a Christian. So, while I do not view my books as part of my spiritual mission, they are written from a Christian perspective.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?


Mary: That is a difficult question to answer as I am very conscious of my own shortcomings and limitations. That being said, I am very grateful for the gifts that I have been given. In general, I am a compassionate person and I believe that kindness is extremely important. I am also grateful for my love of learning, particularly the peace I find when I am reading. Above all, I am grateful for the gift of motherhood. While I am proud of my academic accomplishments, becoming a mother has been the greatest gift of my life. That may sound like a truism, but I mean that most sincerely. While parenthood is certainly challenging, my husband and I are profoundly grateful to have been blessed with two healthy and happy (most of the time!) children.


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading your book?


Mary: Essentially, I would like them to understand that, like its subject matter, religious education is a dynamic and multi-faceted field of study. I would also like the differences of opinion in terms of the nature, function, and value of religious education to be viewed as opportunities for enriching dialogue rather than divisive factions. Most of all, I would like to them to appreciate the fundamental importance of a programme of study about religions and beliefs in schools. If we are to create a compassionate and inclusive society in which the call to love one’s neighbour is placed at the centre, then we surely need to begin at a place of understanding. A subject such as religious education provides us with an opportunity to create such a place of understanding in a spirit of dialogue and mutual respect.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?


Mary: They are certainly manifold, at both an internal and an external level. There is a certainly a need to reconsider the approach to synodality and to consider much greater lay involvement, as Pope Francis has called us to do. I think that there is also a very real need to face up to the reality of many failings of the Church, particularly in relation to the victims of child sexual abuse. I would like to see much greater recognition of the voices of the victims and I would like to see the hierarchy engaging much more actively with survivors’ groups. It also seems to me that the role of women in the Church, particularly in leadership roles, is something that also needs to be reconsidered. We must look again to the early Church, to the first Christians, and to the models of Christian female leadership to be found there.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?


Mary: Time and time again, I come back to the Christian spirit of community and solidarity. Such a spirit was very much at the core of my formation as an educator at Mater Dei Institute of Education and, as a result, I will always view the ‘Mater Dei way’ as the best way to approach teaching and learning. Each of us students felt valued and cared for, which is not always the case in higher education.


I would also say that the peace which prayer brings to me is something which I am deeply grateful for. Even during some of my greatest trials, I have been able to find a measure of peace through prayer.

Dr. Knight: Are there any other issues you, as an accomplished writer, want to bring to your readers?


Mary: I am not sure that I would consider myself to be an accomplished writer, but thank you for referring to me as such! In terms of broader issues, it seems to me that a great many of us Christians need to return to a more compassionate engagement with the world. Whether we agree or not with how others choose to live, it is neither our right nor our duty to condemn or to shame. Christ calls us to love and to do so compassionately. This is something that I try to work at every day and I think it is important for us all to remember this.