Energizing Parishes in Support of Religious Education

Article excerpt

In order to have a cultural impact, parishes must be places that meet the needs of the people. Before-and after-school programs can help fill those needs

The Catholic Church in the United States has made a cultural impact both as a voice in the public square and as a presence in the local community. Through hospitals, orphanages and social service agencies, but most especially through the work of parishes and their schools, the church has served the needs of people in neighborhoods, young and old alike, and brought them into contact with the church's mission and message. Today the balance of cultural power between the church's public voice and local presence seems to be tilting as fewer and fewer people experience Catholic institutional life or see the local parish as a primary locus of their activity.

Not all that long ago Catholic parishes were powerful units of social cohesion in which social as well as religious connections were made and cultivated. These active parish communities contributed significantly to the strength of their broader, civic communities. Today we live in a different world in which, as Robert Putnam pointed out in his book, "Bowling Alone" (2000), social connectedness is disappearing and social isolation is on the rise.

In order to have a cultural impact, local parishes have to be places that meet the needs of people. For much of their history they did just that. The doors to the church always were open and the priests and sisters were a familiar and, in most cases, welcoming presence. Social networks were constructed at parish picnics and among the members of the Holy Name Society, the Sodality and Altar Society and the local branch of the Knights of Columbus. Young people gathered in the schoolyard to play and joined CYO sports leagues and socialized at parish dances. Parishes were the focus of spiritual and social life and what happened there benefited the community.

What Can Parishes Do Today?

Families no longer are attracted to the complex network of social activities that once proliferated in local parishes and gave them life. Nevertheless, there are things that fami lies do need that parishes can help provide.

In our world today parents increasingly are drawn away from home by their work schedules. As a result, young people spend much of their time alone and oblivious to those around them. They spend untold hours on the phone, in front of the TV or surfing the net. They are forever connected to something that disconnects them from real life and social connections. They are either cocooned in the music of their iPods or transported by means of cell phones, Internet chat rooms or Facebook.

These children need adult supervision and more opportunities for making social connections. Parishes can develop initiatives that meet these very real needs and they should. With a little enthusiasm and creativity, they can include within them at least a small measure of religious training.

Many parishes have had to make the difficult decision to close their school. After closing the school, some parishes lease their former school premises to earn rental income. In some cases, the parishes are able to use the facilities in the evening. Other parishes do not lease out the former school so the facilities are available most of the day for parish activities. This article proposes productive ways for parishes without parochial schools to use their facilities to benefit children who now, for the most part, attend public schools. In particular, it proposes variations on standard after-school programs that can be structured to reinforce lessons learned through regular classes in religious education.

Many parents need assistance in caring for their children. Other parents, who do not strictly speaking need the assistance, would welcome the opportunity to have their children participate in supervised programs in which there is regular interaction with other children. …