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Seniors in the Church
Homiletic and Pastoral Review - July 2001
A priest friend was having a little private celebration of his 65th birthday. Since it was a priests’ “in-house” dinner, one of his fellow priests gave him a coffee mug with the inscription “You are not over the hill yet but you are getting close to the summit.” It was a light touch but the thought might trigger some insight about the attitude toward senior years.
Is the Church a generation behind constructive approaches to today’s older priests, religious and lay people? Certainly our Holy Father is not. As a background for this article, here are the words of Pope John Paul II:
The expected retirement of persons from various professions and the workplace provides older people with a new opportunity in the apostolate. Involved in the task is their determination to overcome the temptation of taking refuge in a nostalgia in never-to-return past or fleeing from present responsibility. . . . They must always have a clear knowledge that one’s role in the Church and society does not stop at a certain age at all, but as such times knows only new ways of application.1
Many priests over 70 who often are considered as reaching the age to “sleep now and take your rest” as the good book says, or over 75 when they must retire, are still talented, energetic and not desirous of the rocking chair. Many lay people are now being corporate down-sized at the age of 55/60/65. Two things come to mind: time to adjust and deepen one’s spiritual life and time for the spiritual life to overflow to meaningful apostolic work.
Two things are of key importance when we think of the “third age.” A spirituality geared to this time of life, and an open mind to adjusting to a new approach to our part as a vital and active member of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The Holy Father has some clear reminders on both of these: “The spirituality of aging has its own unique challenges and invitations.2
No matter what our age, all of us must try to use to the full the time that still remains to us. There are those who believe that after a certain age there are no further challenges to face, that no further growth is possible. Each of you knows that this is not true. . . . But it is up to us, as Christians, to remind the world of the precious experience of the wisdom, vision and spiritual energies of the elderly.3
Priests and religious who are “retired” (that word always bothers me because most do not really “retire” to a rocking chair) can help in parishes and schools, especially in light of today’s shortage. Some who are physically slowed down could get into a letter writing apostolate, letters to the editor (they are really read), letters to sponsors of obscene TV, letters to legislators. Older priests could use their extra time, now free from administrative work, as a spiritual director for priests or for spiritual direction adapted to older people. Any active priest might well utilize retired lay people in parochial ministry. Too many parishes today, just as corporate America does, write off older people in a hurry to get new blood activity. Parishes today are chock full of talented people.
In light of the above thoughts, let me pinpoint some things that are happening and can happen with the thought that priests, religious and laity might be inspired to utilize in relation to older people.
1) In my Archdiocese there are over 150 retired priests. In a meeting of eight of us we talked about the need for a spiritual program geared to us. We approached a retreat house with the thought of a recollection day sometimes geared to us. The result was recollection days not just for eight of us but a recollection day every two months open to retired priests of all the surrounding dioceses. Thanks to the Redemptorists Fathers.
2) A lay woman who retired early from public school teaching offered to volunteer in her parish. The pastor knowing her talents asked if she wanted to help in the parish school. She has given eleven professional teaching years, refusing any financial payment.
3) Some people have no plans for retirement. One accountant of a large corporation I know had the high point of his day to walk two blocks, buy the N.Y. Times and just sit reading. Boredom led to a serious drinking problem. What about contacting capable retired people who do not know what to do and asking them to help. Tell them you need them. You might end up with a great asset to you and be the instrument of Christ in turning around a life.
4) One man who was retired early as a production manager of a large firm volunteered to take on maintenance and inventory supervisor responsibilities for a parish and school. He saved the parish thousands of dollars a year. The pastor wanted to give some compensation and he would not take it. When the pastor said he would write a check once a month anyway, his answer was “I won’t cash it.” The man began his daily work with Mass every day and was an example to countless parishioners.
5) Another man who was a top accountant for a major communications corporation retired early and has been working in his parish for twenty years. With the priest shortage there is a need for business administrators. Don’t write off the retired talent all around.
6) What about the local church having a day of prayer periodically, geared to those of the third age?
7) Don’t write off the shut-ins by just having Eucharist ministers bring them Holy Communion.
a) By prayer. Organize the shut-ins to pray and offer their sufferings for a particular intention each month: vocations to the priesthood and religious life; the success of pro-life activity in their apostolate to save millions of lives; for civic officials to turn around the officially sanctioned secularistic and materialistic culture.
b) By correspondence. Saint Catherine of Siena was a letter writer and resulted in changing the status quo of her day.
c) By telephone. To legislators and TV sponsors of obscene programs.
It is the duty of the Church to instill older people with deep awareness of the task they too have of transmitting the gospel of Christ to the world, and revealing to everyone the mystery of his abiding presence in history. It is also their duty to make them aware of their responsibility as privileged witnesses, who can testify—both before human society and before the Christian community—to God’s fidelity: he always keeps the promises he has made to man.4
The document on the subject issued by the Pontifical Council for the Laity begins with this meaningful caption: “The dignity of older people and their mission in the Church and in the world.” The keynote paragraph at the very beginning of the document is: “Scientific advances and the consequent progress of medicine have made a decisive contribution in recent decades to prolong the average duration of human life. The term ‘third age’ now embraces a large segment of the world’s population: people who have retired from active employment yet who still have great inner resources and are still able to contribute to the common good.”
And the document continues: “The Church’s attention and commitment to older people are nothing new. She has directed her missionary and pastoral care to older people in the most varied circumstances over the centuries. Christian ‘caritas’ has embraced their needs; it has given rise to the most varied forms of apostolate at the service of older people especially thanks to the initiative and concern of religious congregations and lay associations. The Church’s teaching, far from considering the question as mere problem assistance and charity, has always reaffirmed the primary importance of recognizing and fostering the intrinsic value of persons of all ages. She has continued to remind everyone of the need to ensure that human spiritual riches, the reserves of experience and wisdom accumulated in the course of entire lives, be not lost.”5
To implement these thoughts on a local level I would propose something new. Just as married couples often renew their vows on their anniversary, just as religious and members of secular institutes renew their vows, just as priests renew their commitment to the priesthood on Holy Thursday, what about a para-liturgical service for those of the third age at which the meaning and implication of baptism and confirmation in their lives is re-affirmed?
Concerning baptism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Having become a member of the Church, the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us. He is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church . . . baptism is the source of responsibilities and duties.”6
Concerning confirmation, the Catechism states:
“It gives special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the cross.”
And then continues:
“Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit—his actions, his gifts, and his biddings—in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life.”7
Most adults are not aware of the lifelong implications of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Perhaps once a year, appropriately during the octave of Pentecost, those in the “third age” category could take part in a ceremony with scripture readings, a homily geared to them, and a commitment to live and implement in their lives a renewed spirituality and apostolic endeavors. To the best of my knowledge there is nothing of this sort being done. This could re-affirm interest of the local church in their lives. It could pave the way for a continued spiritual program geared to seniors. It could open the door for implementing the needs of the local church by involving a pool of people with wisdom, talent and willingness. It could give a deeper spiritual dimension to some seniors who are already doing positive things.
During the suggested para-liturgical service the following is a type of commitment that all of those present could recite:
SPIRITUAL COMMITMENT OF SENIOR MEMBERS OF THE MYSTICAL BODY OF CHRIST
At our baptism and
confirmation we accepted the responsibilities as Catholics to unite ourselves
more closely to Christ and to be the salt of the earth and the light of the
Heavenly Father, may the sanctifying grace of baptism, the enlightenment and strength of confirmation, and the spiritual nourishment of the Holy Eucharist, help us to serve you in the service of our brothers and sisters.
Let us pray for each other.
As a final thought on
this whole topic, the words of Our Holy Father Pope John Paul II are
appropriate: “You are not to feel yourselves as persons underestimated in the
life of the Church or as passive objects in a fast-paced world, but as
participants at a time of life which is humanly and spiritually fruitful. You
still have a mission to fulfill and a contribution to make.”8
Msgr. Paul Hayes and his priest brother have written several books, pamphlets and articles. The most recent is a series of four books on a popular presentation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a volume on medical ethics. Msgr. Hayes established a production apostolate for Catholic programs on TV. He is retired from the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and currently is working in the Diocese of Trenton.