Many years ago, when most of our grandparents, or even great-grandparents were children, the parish was the center of community life for Catholics. People went to church with those in their neighborhoods. Social events were largely based around parish activities, youth sports happened in church leagues, men were involved in the Knights of Columbus, women participated in service groups, and there may have even been a Catholic Action group functioning from the parish. Men and women often met their spouses at the parish, children met most of their friends there, and it was a true home for Catholics in the community.
Many parishes had schools, and parishioners saw the school as part of the parish. It was understood that families would send their children to the parish school, and all members of the parish, whether they had school-age children or not, saw supporting the parish school as an obligatory part of belonging to the parish.
Times have changed! Most parishes now do not have schools; consequently, many Catholic schools have a majority of students that do not belong to the parish they are attached to, and perhaps even a high percentage of non-Catholic students. Most Catholic parents do not send their children to Catholic school anymore, and even many of those who do are uninvolved in parish life. To many parishioners, the parish school is a completely separate entity, that simply provides scheduling conflicts.
A return to the halcyon days of our grandparents’ youth is not imminent, and not all the changes are bad. Many Catholic schools have done an excellent job of responding to a rapidly changing, in many ways post-Christian culture; they have reached out well beyond their local communities and have become effective tools in the New Evangelization. Still, it is a common concern among school administrators and pastors alike to unite the school more closely to the parish it is connected to.
What can we do to bridge the gap between parish and school? How can we make the school more a part of the parish community in this challenging landscape? Following are some suggestions, many of which have been put into practice masterfully at Catholic schools around the country.
The first step in more closely uniting a Catholic school and parish is having an intentional mindset. This means both the leadership at the school and at the parish must commit to bringing the two closer together. There should be a coordinated plan.
One option is to create a committee with members of school and parish leadership, as well as school parents, teachers, and parish ministry heads, as well as non-school-connected parishioners. A wealth of ideas and cooperation can come out of such a group.
Members of the school and parish must ask questions about the needs each other are experiencing and ways they can work together to fill those needs. Perhaps there are members in the parish community that need help, such as elderly or homebound parishioners that would enjoy visitors or need their lawns mowed. These are wonderful service opportunities for students and school families. Parishioners may own small businesses and be willing to hire or provide internships for high school students.
Catholic parishes and Catholic schools are excellent at providing service events and organizing charitable drives. But too often, they do these things separately, even when they share the same campus. Service events provide excellent opportunities for collaboration and introducing school families to other members of the parish.
The liturgical year can be celebrated as an entire school and parish community, and so can special parish events. Is it Father’s 25th ordination anniversary? Is the parish’s patron saint’s feast day coming up? Maybe you are welcoming a new pastor? These are all important things to celebrate. Make sure school families are expressly invited to parish celebrations. And make sure that the entire parish is invited and warmly welcomed to the school’s open house.
Finally, many parishes host ministry fairs, or festivals. Be sure the school is integrally involved in the planning and execution of these events. A Back-to-School picnic for the entire parish can be an excellent way to bring families together.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience in every Catholic parish. Parish schools can look for opportunities to invite parishioners to participate in school life and share their gifts and talents in ways that benefit the school. For example, the fifth grade may be studying anatomy, and there is a cardiologist in the parish who is willing to give a special presentation. Or an expert in finance can give a class on life skills and money management to the eighth grade.
How many veterans are in the parish? Can they be honored at an assembly on Veterans Day and speak to the students? Often Catholic schools think of how to utilize their parent population in these manners, but expanding that mindset to include the entire parish can be a wonderful way to build or strengthen bridges.
Finally, many parishes have vibrant homeschool communities. This can be challenging for Catholic schools. There can be a temptation for these groups to see each other as competitors. But that should not be so. The pastor can go a long way in helping with this. The homeschool community is likely very active in the parish, and afternoon or weekend activities in which both parish school and homeschool families are invited, can help forge partnerships and friendships.
Catholic parishes and Catholic schools in the 21st century face challenges that didn’t exist a few generations ago. But as disciples of Christ, we are called to be the light of the world. We can more effectively reach out to a world desperate for what we as Catholics can offer if we work together. And we will enjoy the blessings of the communities we will have built.