Matthew Kelly has a well-used example to help parishes take advantage of Christmas and Easter as evangelizing opportunities. “If I could go to the world largest companies,” he opines, “and guarantee them that I could have a room full of former customers or customers on the fence about their product for 1 hours at least twice a year I would be a billionaire!” The point he is trying to make is that Christmas and Easter for Catholic parishes are prime touch points for evangelization. A parish should put a lot of time and resources to take advantage of it.
As important as Christmas and Easter are for evangelization touch points, what if I told you I could get hundreds of families, many of whom are only marginally Catholic, connected to a ministry in your Parish that engaged them every day of the week? What if I told you that I could have these adults on your campus consistently, and that many of them would become committed volunteers and actively invest their time, talent and treasure into this ministry? What if I told you this ministry would bring adults together in friendship and community?
Guess what? More than likely your Catholic Parish already has a ministry just like this; it is the parochial Catholic school.
Too often Parishes look on their Catholic schools as pariahs. They look longingly at the parish resources being poured in the school and ask themselves what good they could be doing for evangelization and faith formation of adults if they could divert that money into parish adult faith formation programs.
Let’s abandon the idea that the children will evangelize the parents
On the surface, you cannot blame parishes in having this outlook. Let’s be honest, “evangelizing up” just does not work on a consistent basis. Even if children do receive a great Catholic education, it is rare to see that filter up to the parents. The faith of the parents has the greatest impact on the faith of their children. If the parents do not have faith it becomes very challenging for the children to have faith. A Catholic School education will be no more effective than a once a week parish religious education program in that regard. The answer always comes back to evangelizing the parents, and Catholic Schools focus all of their time and resources on the children.
Let’s end the Parish vs School Competition
This reality often sets parishes and schools up for competition. The parish tries to find ways to pull school families from the school community into the parish community because in the parish community there are programs that can evangelize the adults. The frustration is compounded in parish workers as they look out at their faith formation programs and find them filled with older, highly engaged Catholics. The people they wanted to reach, the younger adults who were less engaged in their faith, are so involved in the school that the parish programs are not even on their radar. This kind of narrow-minded parish vs school thinking completely misses the biggest opportunity a parish has for evangelizing adults.
A Challenge to the Parish
Let me challenge Parish workers across the country to change your view of your Catholic School. End the competition right now! Look at your Catholic School as a ministry of your parish. Better yet, look at your Catholic School as one of your greatest opportunities for adult evangelization. If you have a heart for evangelization and you want to reach young families with the Gospel drop what you are doing and go connect with the Catholic School community. Stop expecting them to come over to your programs. Stop running your programs in you have to. There is a growing, committed, and engaged community of adults an arm’s length away.
A Challenge to the School
I am convinced that the fate of Catholic Schools is tied to the fate of the Catholic Parishes in the United States. As the parish dies, so dies the school. Catholic schools, listen up, this is a challenge to you. As your enrollment drops you focus on marketing, academics, faculty development, tuition assistance, and even your Catholic identity to become more competitive in the market place. All of these things are very, very important but you are missing the most important thing of all. You must evangelize the parents. The health of your school will be directly correlated to the discipleship of the parents of your children. You must work with the Parish staff to shake things up and find new ways to evangelize the parent in your school community. You have their time, you have their commitment, you have their engagement, do not squander it. You will be digging your own grave.
A School of Faith
If you are a Catholic School looking to make your ministry one that evangelizes adults as well as the children the first step is to look inward. The core truth of all evangelization is that you cannot give what you do not have yourself. The Principal, the Teachers, the Secretary, the Gym Coach, the Music teacher, the entire faculty must be growing as Missionary Disciples. As you grow together into a community of disciples the Holy Spirit will guide you in new and exciting ways to evangelize the parents in your school community. Most importantly, evangelization will happen naturally not programmatically. Missionary Disciples are on mission every day of the year, every second of the day. Mission is not a job in which you clock in and clock out. As your faculty grows as a community of disciples they will invest in authentic relationships with parents that will change their lives.
Here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati we are blessed to be working with the Holy Family School of Faith. The entire mission of the School of Faith is to form the school faculty as a community of Missionary Disciples. As the faculty grows together in discipleship they will create a fire that will spread not only to the children but to the parents and to the rest of the parish community as well.