Every day 10,000 baby boomers retire. And by 2050, this is projected to add up to 83.7 million Americans being 65 or older. That’s almost double the number of 43.1 million seniors in 2012. Our aging population will present all kinds of demographic challenges to policy makers, government officials, health care providers and family caretakers. Many politicos and pundits believe that Social Security will have to undergo profound changes or it simply won’t survive.
The Catholic Church, too, is coming to grips with its changing demographics.
Pope Francis has said that ignoring and abandoning the elderly is “a mortal sin.”
“We must reawaken our collective sense of gratitude, appreciation and hospitality, helping the elderly know they are a living part of their communities,” stressed the 78-year-old pontiff at a recent general audience. “Tossing them aside means tossing aside their experience and the way that experience can contribute to making life better today.”
At a special Mass in Rome honoring grandparents, the pope stressed that discarding older persons in care homes is a “hidden form of euthanasia,” adding, “There must never be institutions where the elderly are forgotten, hidden or neglected.”
And, moreover, he’s described old age as a “time of grace,” with grandparents having years of wisdom to pass on to the next generation.
nLiving in the ‘now’
Sister Gretchen Hailer, a longtime adult catechist who often gives workshops on “Aging with Grace,” recently told The Tidings that members of the laity, priests and even bishops needed to take Francis’ words to heart as well as what the Pontifical Council for the Laity had to say in “The Dignity of Older People and their Mission in the Church and in the World.”
The council stated that the Christian community must “strive to help older persons to live their own lives in the light of the faith and to rediscover in it the value of the resources that they are still able, and still have a responsibility, to place at the service of others. … Older people must be aware that their missionary task is not exhausted. They still have a responsibility to testify to children, young people, adults and those in their own age group that there is no meaning nor joy outside the bond with Christ.”
So how does one “age with grace” in our youth-crazy, secular society?
“First of all, we have the media who is telling us not to age,” the 74-year-old Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary said. “So we have to be media savvy enough and enough of a person who is comfortable in their own flesh, gravity pulled as it is, to realize what grace is.
“And once we realize that grace is all around us at all times, and it’s basically God’s self-disclosing on a regular basis, we are able to sort of live in the ‘now.’ And that slows us down enough to be aware of things that we’ve never been aware of.”
She talks about a hummingbird she calls “Little Gray” who comes to the bird feeder outside her North Hollywood apartment every morning and afternoon. One day she took down the feeder to refill it, and when Little Gray came, she watched him just sit on a branch with a look that clearly said, “Where’s my food?”
“It’s something like that — to look at something so deeply that you are able to see that it’s been there all the time, but you didn’t see it because you’ve been so busy about so many things,” she explained. “But now you have more time.
“People who live in the now are less apt to be like 85 percent of Americans who live in either the past or the future. And those are two days gone: yesterday is gone, and tomorrow we don’t know. So if we don’t live in the now, we’re absolutely missing grace. And so how can we age with grace if we are not constantly in the now?”
Sister Gretchen notes that in Pope John Paul’s letter to the elderly he said, “Be more, do less.” She thought that was pretty astounding.
“With older persons, we should give respect to the fact that these folks have lived long enough to see so many things,” she urged. “And if they are seeing through the eyes of faith, everything is grace. All is grace. So we can’t help but age with grace when we do that.”
nAdult faith formation
Starting out as a woman religious, Sister Gretchen taught every grade from kindergarten through high school, mostly English and religion because she had studied theology. Then a class on world religions swung her in a whole other direction. When parents complained, “How come you’re teaching about other religions and not our own,” she had a ready reply: “In order to be a good neighbor, you have to know what your neighbor believes.”
But with her adult faith formation studies, she quickly added: “And by the way, I’d be more than happy to teach you in the evening.”
It wasn’t long after that she went down to the archdiocese’s Office of Religious Education, seeking a full-time job in adult faith formation. There weren’t any, but she wound up teaching a media class. “So I trained myself in media literacy,” she reported.
She worked in her religious communities’ general house in Rome for three years After returning to the U.S., she put in another five years at the Religious Ed office.
Along the way there was a pit stop in Africa — Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya — to see firsthand how they were doing adult faith formation. She also taught deacons and their wives for a dozen years in the Diocese of Stockton, and worked for Franciscan Communications.
Then she started writing books. The first was “Believing in a Media Culture” and the last in 2014, a hospitality ministry guide for church ushers and greeters, titled “Making a Place for Others.”
Today she still does five workshops a month and gives retreats for lay mission helpers and mission doctors. She also volunteers at a hospice program called “NODA” (No One Dies Alone).
“I think I’ve aged with grace, probably in my last decade,” confided Sister Gretchen. “And that probably is because of health reasons, you know, because of arthritis and knowing that I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to be able to continue to do. It makes you stop and take note. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t do other things.
“And I think, again, it also helps to realize that you need to be at home in your own skin. To allow the prophetic sense that God has given us in confirmation to surface and to say things that need to be said — even though it might cause you to lose friends or reputation.”
Later, she mused, “G.K. Chesterton said, ‘A saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.’ And I think it would be a good thing to say, ‘An older person is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.’ There’s all kinds of ways that we can age with grace.”