It used to be that our schools had to take five per cent of non Catholics. In many schools it feels like the five per cent now are Catholics and the other 95 per cent are “paper Catholics”.
There are many reasons why parents send their child to a Catholic school. For some it is fundamental to their values. They want their child to be educated in surroundings that support the development of their Catholic faith.
Some parents want to use the skite value: “My child goes to a private school.”
Another reason is more pragmatic — it can be a help in getting into a good secondary school. You may also be able to get a particular job if you have come from a school that taught Christian values.
For others it is to keep grandparents happy as they hug their grandchildren, or look at their photos.
As our schools are full and our churches empty, do we see our Catholic schools replacing our parish communities as the primary faith community? How effective is the Education Review Office (ERO) special character review in determining how the curriculum is prepared and delivered?
Do classrooms get a tick in the box if all they do is display statues and holy pictures? Would it tell us the number of teachers and children participating in the Sunday Mass? Is there a conflict of interest for principals, in that the larger roll the more pay they get? Is there pressure from the “paper Catholics” to not expect their participation in parish life? Is time in the school seen as a time of preparation for belonging to the parish? How do parents rate the importance of being present at Sunday Mass? A typical answer today is: “The next few Sundays we have the finishing up of the cricket, then all our winter sports start.”
Many Catholic parents are asking if we are endangering the faith of our children by sending them to a Catholic school? Are we transmitting the faith to our children through people of faith?
The choices people are making suggest it is time for a new conversation. It is not possible to turn back the clock. We need to ask: “What might the future look like? Who should be involved in helping shape that future?”
We cannot keep running our schools from a distance. There has to be much more participation by the full parish community.
I have heard of some schools that are exemplary and are evangelising in the spirit of Vatican II. The success of those schools seems to be the ability of the parish community to work with the parents of school children. The principal and the DRS make this happen. Often either one of them, or a teacher of the senior students, is a member of their parish council. Schools should not be asked to take over and run Baptism and First Communion programmes. All sacramental programmes should involve full parish participation, otherwise there is an unease among parents that the school is being used to proselytise.
In some leading primary schools, senior children sometimes form a junior parish council and participate fully in parish life. They visit sick and the elderly and offer to do little jobs for them. They join the “Young Vincent de Paul” movement, train to be readers, cantors and leaders of song at Sunday Mass. They learn to write and read the prayers of intercession at Sunday Mass and help in the preparation for First Communion. This means they are also preparing for Confirmation and that their lives are mission oriented.
All non-Catholic parents of children at the school should be asked: “Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?” Explain the process and ask: “Would you like to join an RCIA group this year?” I know of one person, when asked: “Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?” said, “Yes, but no one has ever asked me.”
Many parents think: “We have done our bit. Our child is baptised.” This kind of secularism is the real issue facing our schools.
— Trevor Powell is a Catholic layman from Taranaki


  1. The reason the churches are empty (while the schools are full) are because they are fundamentally unwelcoming places. We have in the past few months tried for our family to join our local Catholic parish with three children under 6. As adults we were prepared to join in and be active members. We thought we would be welcome with friendliness, interest and actively brought in to assist . We were met with clear indifference, rudeness and overall lack of any interest in us or our family. We’ve tried for 3 months and now are walking away. The schools can be a huge draw but without these, church rolls would be dropping much further as the Sunday service needs to be radically updated to be of any interest to young families

  2. Alex, why am I not surprised by the distressing tale you tell ?
    I’m somewhat older, and have grandchildren whom I worry about. One of the things I worry about is their education at “Catholic” schools. Among others, Fulton Sheen is reported to have counselled: “Send your children to State schools where they’ll have to fight for their Faith, rather than to Catholic schools where they’ll have it taken from them”.
    And, as you have found, very many of our parishes are of the same spirit.
    You’ll have read the stories of prominent converts to the Faith who have found no encouragement and often discouragement from parish priests.
    It’s hard not to perceive that both the “Catholics” who run our schools and the “Catholics” who lead our parish communities are more akin to bureaucrats simply protecting their own positions.
    As for yourselves, have a few more children and you might find some real Catholics in the parish begin to offer friendship and support.