The Catholic School in the Year of the Parish

[Address: CEAP Superintendents Commission Annual Assembly, Feb 7, 2017, Punta Villa Resort, Arevalo, Iloilo.]

I would like to thank Msgr. Mike Veneracion for giving me the opportunity to share my reflections during your Mid-Year General Assembly with its theme, “Catholic Schools and Parishes: Communities of Faith, Learning and Service. “

The letter of invitation given to me stressed that we come together “aligning ourselves with the CBCP 2017 theme of the Year of the Parish as a Communion of Communities” and echoing the words of the Pastoral Exhortation, “The Church is a mystery of communion. Our communion flows from the Trinity overflowing into humanity and sharing a common faith journeying together for the full unfolding of the Kingdom of God.[1]

The letter of invitation also stated that the challenge to CEAP Superintendents is to “more deeply discern not only the structures of governance in our dioceses and parishes but also the quality of faith life in the parish, the fellowship, belongingness, and participation experienced by the members.” This is a direct quotation from the 2012 CBCP Pastoral Letter, “Live Christ, Share Christ”. Here, 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines in 2021 are celebrated in the Church’s acceptance of the challenges of New Evangelization in the Philippines. Each year of a “novena of years” running up to 2021 is marked by a special aspect of New Evangelization. We have finished, “Integral Faith Formation” the “Laity”, “the Poor,” “the Eucharist and the Family”. Next year and the following years we will do, “the Clergy and the Religious,” “the Youth,” “Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue” and finally “Missio ad Gentes” – “Mission to all Nations.” This year we do, “The Parish as a Communion of Communions.”

In this context, it may be pointed out that the challenge of discernment on “the general structures of governance in our dioceses and parishes and the quality of faith life in the parish” does not fall only on the CEAP superintendents, but on the entire Philippine Church.

IMG_5546.jpgThe Privileged BEC in a Communion of Communities

The parish is presented as “a communion of communities,” affected by trans-parochial organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women’s League and charismatic covenanted communities, but privileging the basic ecclesial community (BEC) in their many varied manifestations. “In the Philippines our vision of the Church as communion is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement that is the movement to foster BECs” (PCP II, 39). In the logo of the “The Parish: Communion of Communities” the symbol of the BEC as communities of people with interlocked hands is central and prominent,

“Usually emerging at the grassroots,” the Pastoral Exhortation quotes from PCP II, “Basic Ecclesial Communities consciously strive to integrate their faith and their daily life. They are guided and encouraged by regular catechesis. Poverty and their faith urge their members towards solidarity with one another, action for justice, and towards a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy.” (PCP II, 139).

In this light the Pastoral Exhortation asks, “How can we work at renewing our parish communities so that they can better respond to the challenge of restoring all this in Christ?” It suggests that the renewal called for by our Lady of Fatima in prayer and fasting and in living the Eucharist be taken seriously. The latter is described profoundly:

“The Eucharist is the poverty of Jesus disturbing the complacency of the wealthy; it is the wealthy sacrificing house, family, and fortune to lift up the poor from their poverty. It is the Word of God inviting the confused, the lonely, the bored, the suffering to the joy of the Gospel. It is God’s life humanized in his incarnation; it is human life divinized in his suffering, death and resurrection. It is the compassion of the Father touching the life of the sinner; the conversion of the sinner practicing the compassion of the Savior.” The Eucharist is “Living Christ” and “Sharing Christ.”

Msgr. Mike suggests that our prism of reflection on the parish be “communities that engender faith, learning and service.” I suppose this means we can reflect on the parish, the BECs, the presbyterate led by the bishop, communities of consecrated life led by their superiors, transparochial organizations led by their officers, and Catholic schools led by their principals or presidents as “communities that engender faith, learning and service.” Since I have only been given half an hour, I will confine my reflections to the parish, the BEC and the Catholic school. 

The Quality of Communion in the Parish: A Profound Challenge

The first question: In this year of the Parish as a communio of communities, what is the state of the parish? Is the gift and mystery of communio alive and vibrant in the parish? This is the question that the CBCP asks in the year of the parish. “Our communion flows from the Trinity overflowing into humanity and sharing a common faith journeying together for the full unfolding of the Kingdom of God.” The prime analogue and source of the parish communion is the communion itself between the divine persons of the Blessed Trinity, the perfect reciprocal Love between the Father and the Son that overflows through the incarnation into sinful humanity effecting redemption.  That is perfect communion in perfect love.

How does the parish engender faith, learning and service?   And how might we improve it?

In the Philippine parish, the faith of the community is generally given, nurtured over many generations of believers. How is this faith nurtured today in the parish, or is it roundly taken for granted? How do believers in parishes move beyond a childish faith to a more mature adult faith? How does it mature? How do diversity of religions and secularism in our societies impact on the faith in parishes? Does the preaching in the parish help in nurturing the faith or hinder it? Are there opportunities for the parishioner for growth in religious education or even in theological reflection? How does this faith shape the quality of the relationship of the individual and various communities with God? What is the quality of the communal worship? What is the quality of individual prayer? How is a spirituality appropriate for our times nurtured and supported among the members of the parish? How is a member of the parish led to do what all human beings are ultimately created for: to serve God? What metrics might we use to evaluate the vertical relation between the people of God and their God?

Second, what is the quality of horizontal relationships between the people within the parish? How does the parish priest deal with his parishioners, first, with those in the center, and second with those on the periphery? How do the people deal with the parish priest and with one another? How does the parish priest learn more about his people, the life dynamics of those who are deeply involved in the parish, and of those who are marginalized, unnoticed, excluded, discriminated against? How do people learn more about how others in the parish are faring? How is human interaction, even love, based on an experience of God’s love fostered in the parish? How are friendships formed in the parish? Are there communities of friends in the Lord who pray together, celebrate life together, and serve the community together? Based on love, how does an engagement for social justice become an imperative?

Third, where people are said to be journeying together in the parish for a full-unfolding of the Kingdom of God, what precisely does “journeying together” mean? It’s easy to talk about this. But does walking together mean breaking the anonymity and namelessness and social class barriers of many parish communities? Does this mean walking together towards the same goal? Supporting one another on the journey? Sacrificing one’s interests or even one’s life for the sake of togetherness? Even more challenging, what does “Kingdom of God” mean? How does it unfold fully? If Kingdom of God is not just a pie in the sky and an escape from the responsibilities for shaping this world, how does it relate to the call in love for social justice and the call in social justice for the common good? What are the structures in the parish that allow these to be discussed and discerned? For those in the parish journeying together, whatm is the price one is willing to pay for the Kingdom of God?

One might ask: Is there anything like the PCSS, a quality assurance culture for parishes? What are the quality standards for Catholic parishes?

The Basic Ecclesial Community in the Parish: Work in Progress

Would a quality standard be that there be a rich BEC life? That would seem to be the effect of the stress placed by the CBCP on the BEC in the year of the Parish. BECs “are groups of Christians who, at the level of the family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment.”[2] Where parishes often cover great territories and are charged with the pastoral care of thousands of families, BECs have been a way of sharing pastoral responsibility with lay leaders. Whether through chapel communities or neighborhood communities, the BECs bring people together regularly around the Word of God to pray over its message and discern its meaning for service in their communities. Here a special “integration between faith and daily life is achieved. In my personal experience this has at times meant the BECs keeping a neighborhood clean, at other times it has meant BECs lobbying in Congress to protect the urban poor from unjust demolitions and to provide housing for those in need of shelter. In some BECs, because of the shared responsibility, the participation of the lay leaders in the life of the parish community is empowered, allowing the lay leaders to play key roles in the pastoral care of the people “side by side” with the parish priest or even with the bishop. They address catechetical needs, needs of worship in the absence of a priest, needs of livelihood within an economy unkind to the poor.

In other cases, the BECs are efficient ways through which the pastoral discretion of the parish priest and his coadjutors is efficiently implemented. The role that BECs play in the parishes and dioceses of the Philippines is therefore uneven and even undefined by canon law. Much depends on the pastoral policies of the arch/diocese and even on the individual attitude of the parish priest towards the BEC, and on how pastoral power and ecclesial treasure is distributed. In a diocese of Mindanao, for instance, the bishop has directed that the parishes get involved in the efforts of the diocese in the rehabilitation of drug dependents. But whether the pastoral directive is implemented on the level of the GKKs is in fact up to the discretion of the parish priest; he can apply his pastoral influence to implement the order, or he can ignore it. In this context, even the educated members of the GKK wait for the directives of the parish priest before moving even on a project like getting involved in community rehabilitation for drug dependents urged by the bishop. One wonders whether this is the way the BECs are supposed to function. Or, in an age where the Church is mandated to get involved in New Evangelization, do we not want to find strong lay participation not only in parish renewal but in bringing the benefits of new evangelization beyond the parish – to the work places beyond the parishes, to the community service organizations, to academe and to public service, to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, to the struggles today for the welfare of the farmers, the improvement of the plight of the laborers, to the upliftment of the living conditions of the urban poor, to the struggle for the preservation of our common home?

Where the Church is journeying towards the best possible realization of the Kingdom of God – where all human beings flourish in the joy of the Gospel together – the parish and the GKKs, it seems to me, cannot be turned in on themselves. Looking again at the logo of the parish, the centrality of the Word of God and the challenge of the Eucharist are not only for the parish but for the parish in the world, the Cross on which Christ died spans not only the parish but the wide society which the parish itself is missioned to evangelize and transform; on the Cross therefore are not only the ideally functioning BECs whose members interlock arms congenially, but the spiritual cynics, the aggressive secularists, the dysfunctional families of today, the sorry individuals defeated by competition or broken by substance abuse, the profit-hungry companies and corporations, the legislators motivated by self-preservation and purely partisan interest, the government officials tainted by corruption, and reformist leaders marked tragically by self-destructive hubris. Many of these belong to our parish communities, but their “belonging” is ambiguous, even merely conceptual, like the idea of a parish “communion of communities” that mirrors the communion of the Trinity.

Where is the Catholic School vis-a-vis the Parish?

So in all of this, in the communion of communities that is supposedly the parish seriously marked by limitations, dysfunctionalities and sin, where is the Catholic school? Where is the Catholic school in the parish? Where is the parish in the Catholic school? Both are “Communities of Faith, Learning and Service“ as are the various models of the BECs. Are the BECs to be addressed in Catholic schools? But if addressed in Catholic schools, which model of BEC? The BECs which empowers the lay Christians supported by the parish priest, or the BECs which empower the parish priest through the obedient support of the BEC?.   Is the concept of the parish as presented in the Pastoral Exhortation the concept that is to be taught in our schools?

That, I am afraid, is not for me to answer within the 30 minutes that have been allocated to me. That shall rather be a subject of this assembly of CEAP superintendents. Allow me, however, the following brief reflections.

The relationship of the parish communion to the Catholic school is largely undefined. The Catholic school is not specified in the logo of the parish. The Catholic school is not a requirement for the parish. The local parish is not necessarily a concern of a particular Catholic school. In the Philippine Catholic School Standards, the third and fourth defining characteristic of Catholic schools do not mention the parish. The school communion “actively engages parents and their families, alumni, other educational institutions and agencies, civil authorities and other sectors of society;” it does not include the parish. Furthermore, the ecclesial recognition and supervision of many Catholic schools can and do bypass the parishes.

The difference between parish schools which are supported not only morally but financially by their parish and diocesan communities and Catholic schools that are supported by the private means of their clienteles co-determines the participation of Catholic schools in the functioning of the parish and the influence of the parish in the operation of the school. The relationship of the parish to the parochial school cannot be transferred to all Catholic schools.   There are no lines of direct governance between parishes/dioceses and all Catholic schools, no one-sided entitlement of parishes to the determination of school policy. Cooperation between parishes and Catholic schools is painstakingly effected by dialogue and achieved meetings of minds and free decisions among mutually autonomous institutions to collaborate based on shared insight, shared concerns, and shared mission – when the often strong-willed leaders of these institutions care to consider what they share in their apostolic missions.

The practical concerns of the parish priest serving his parish community through leadership is all-consuming and are different from the practical concerns of the school president/principal and his/her school community that are all consuming. The parish priest is concerned with the life of his Christian community from birth to burial, its schedule of worship and devotions in the center and sub-centers of the parish, the quality of his preaching, the shepherding of the BECs and transparochial organizations, the special concerns of the parish with the urban poor, the farmers, the laborers and its program of social action, the relationship of the parish to its diocese/archdiocese. The Catholic school community is more segmented, the in-school youth from about five years to about 30 years of age. It deals with ordered technical programs of learning supervised by government. It deals with the education of its students and the ongoing formation of its faculty and staff. In the CEAP it deals with transformative education. But its leadership must bring together the financial means to sustain and improve the school operations.   In a word, the different operational concerns of the parish and the Catholic schools make their harmonization difficult. Some Catholic schools feel entitled to the support of the parish community; some parish and diocesan communities feel entitled to taxes from the schools – even when the major income of the school is government subsidy intended directly for the education of poor students.

Both the parish and the school communities are impelled by the Gospel to fight injustice in society and to work for the common good. Both the parish and their school communities are impelled by their missions to a cura personalis which mediates the love of God for each person and prepares each person for authentic discipleship in today world. The missions of both are overwhelming.

The reach of some Catholic schools transcend parochial and even diocesan boundaries. While Catholic schools normally are situated within a parish their students and teachers often come from beyond the boundaries of the parish, and even of the dioceses.

Whereas the Church will be with us till the end of time, neither the parishes nor the Catholic schools are guaranteed everlasting existence. There have been parishes that have been dissolved in the US because of dwindling Catholic populations but whose Catholic schools have survived them. Indeed, even in the Philippines as the search for parish communities that genuinely mirror the community of the Trinity progresses, parishes may need to be radically reorganized to mediate a communal experience for parishioners closer to that of the Trinity. Territorial determinations of parishes may metamorphose into creative sectoral structures.

Similarly, there have been Catholic universities that have been closed and never reopened. Today the existence of Catholic schools in the Philippines seems to be more precarious than the existence of their parishes. Many Catholic schools, especially those that are small, are more vulnerable to unfriendly market forces or hostile government policy than more robust schools. In my view, if the Catholic school in the Philippines is to survive, the idea of Catholic education, the importance of formative religious education for our youth that is integrated with their quality education as taught by Gravissimum Educationis[3] must be supported by the parish and diocesan communities and ultimately civil society.

Finally, when we say that the Catholic school “guarantees the freedom and right of families to see that their children receive the sort of education they wish for them” and refer to the Catholic school’s “mission of making Catholic education accessible and available to all youth especially those encumbered by poverty”[4] we do so only in the context of the Church community and civil society first supporting the Catholic school. They do so recognizing the primary right of parents to educate their children and provide them appropriate religious education. “Parents have the duty and right to impart a religious education and moral formation to their children, a right the State cannot annul but which it must respect and promote. This is a primary right that a family may not neglect nor delegate.”[5] If this level of religious formation cannot be provided by public education then it must be provided by Catholic education.   By itself, the Catholic school does not guarantee the right of parents to educate and form their children in religion; existing and operating, the Catholic school, however it sustains itself, is but a guarantee that the right can be exercised. To exist and operate, however, the Catholic school needs the resources to pay its teachers, build a learning environment for its students, house its classrooms, laboratories and libraries, and administer its services. It acquires the resources today not through royal nor ecclesial decrees, but either through collected tuition and fees or legislated public finance. No Catholic school is entitled to exist unless its existence is supported both by the church and the secular community. To exist and continue in existence, Catholic schools must win that support.

The Catholic School is Worth Fighting For

Without that support, Catholic schools in the Philippines will die.

Personally, I am convinced the existence of Catholic schools is worth supporting, and worth fighting for. I hope you are similarly convinced. I believe parishes and Catholic schools must choose to work together to keep each other vibrant in the service of New Evangelization.   Together with our parishes we must learn how to evangelize in plural cultures that are increasingly secularized, even as people, turned off by homilies that don’t speak to them and by jaded expressions of traditional religion, are increasingly religiously needy and desirous of depth spirituality. Together with our parishes we must learn how to evangelize, teach and empower the poor and unlettered, but also how to evangelize, teach and form the wealthy, the influential and the powerful in the collectivity of combative contentious communities that we in fact reach, so that from the power of the Gospel the needs of the excluded are truly addressed and poverty overcome. Together we must understand how to protect deeply Christian values: the sacred value of human life, the inviolability of human rights, the sacredness of the Catholic family, the sublime responsibility of caring for God’ creation, the imperative of dialogue with peoples of other faiths and cultures from the bedrock of our own faith, the compelling need for peace where peace is shattered by individuals and nations who kill in the name of God apparently to overcome unjust structures long imposed on them by western “Christian” civilization. President Duterte in Ambisyon Natin 2040 wants to eradicate poverty in one generation; do we respond that the poor will always be with us and that the Catholic Church is a church of the poor? We must learn how to share the Gospel and our church culture so that it becomes a liberating, humanizing, unifying force in our lives and not just a superstitious appendage. That means finding joy and consolation in sacrificing our self interests for our common goods and the common good of humanity.

We must learn how to do this, to render this service this in faith, fixing our gaze humbly on the Crucified yet Risen Lord who ran neither a Catholic school nor a Catholic parish but taught us the fullness of what we must learn and how we must serve.

[1] CBCP Pastoral Exhortation, “Parishes as Wellsprings of Mercy and Renewal,” 2017

[2] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no 51.

[3] Declaration on Catholic Education by the Second Vatican Council promulgate 28 October 1965 by Pope Paul VI.

[4] Cf. Philippine Catholic School Standards for Education for Basic Education (Phoenix-CEAP), Defining Characteristic VII., page 11.

[5] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 239.


About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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