When our children were young, we would attend the outdoor Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Grace in Glengowrie where the students would dress up and participate in the nativity play.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins would all come along and after Mass there was much chatter amongst the adults while the kids ran amok.
Then it was off home to prepare for the big day, looking out for Father Christmas in the sky and putting out a beer and carrots for him and his reindeers.
As our children grew up, we continued the practice of attending Christmas Eve Mass but the venue changed to the quadrangle at Sacred Heart College where close to a thousand people would bring their deckchairs and watch adults, children and a real life baby Jesus reenact the birth of Christ. These days the Brighton parish Christmas Eve Mass is held in the relative comfort of the college gymnasium but the rest is the same, including the sublime singing.
This sense of parish and school communities coming together used to be a given, and much more than a once-a-year event. When I was a child, just about everyone from our primary school went to Mass on Sundays and it was very much a social occasion. The biggest event of the year was the parish picnic. Three-legged races, egg and spoon relays and sliding down the embankment at Clarendon are among my favourite childhood memories.
These days there aren’t a lot of school families at Mass on Sundays. But school Masses are held regularly and are usually well attended by parents or grandparents, especially at the primary level.
According to John Neate, the chair of the South Australian Commission for Catholic Schools, our schools have never been more popular and he says that means they offer something that parents value.
But he also concedes they are very different to when he was at school and are ‘Catholic in another way’.
Drawing parishes and schools closer together
Today, many students come with little or no affiliation to the Catholic Church or are from different faith backgrounds. But the schools are places where Pope Francis’ message of welcoming all people and going to the peripheries is a reality.
A new document called Being Church Together says the traditional face of the Church, the parish worshipping community, represents a distant reality for many people today. It says the Catholic school community experience is a ‘real and valuable experience of Church, albeit limited to the years of connection with the school’.
In this regard, the document outlines how Catholic schools are ‘a gift to the fundamental mission of the Church: with the periphery near and in the midst of the parish the challenge is to open the church door, step out, to be with and to welcome’.
At a time when there seems to be a lack of social cohesion reflected in the alarming level of domestic violence, increasing numbers of children in State care and people living in poverty – strengthening communities in whatever way we can has never been more urgent.
The Catholic Church has a major role to play in making a difference to the lives of South Australians through its parishes and schools but also through Centacare Catholic Family Services, which supports 20,000 clients a year, Catholic Charities, Vinnies with its army of volunteers and Hutt St Centre.
Christmas is the one day of the year when Christianity and its message of love, hope and peace is front and centre. If only we can make it last much longer.