Older Catholics at St. Francis of Assisi in Wichita, Kansas might listen to a speaker over lunch, take a diocesan bus ride, or spend time with kindergarteners, but in all their activities many seek to grow in faith and in community with each other.
“That’s how our faith grows, in the community and in everything else,” said Jo Forcum, 78, leader of her parish’s Harvest House group for Catholics over 50, part of a program initiated by the Diocese of Wichita.
“We are functional and [want] join our church,” said Forcum, a widow who joined the group of about 40 members, mostly in their 70s, in 2010. “We retreat, but not to Our Lord. We still need our faith.”
The Wichita Diocesan Senior Program attracts many participants. (Photo: courtesy photo)
The diverse and growing population of older U.S. Catholics, some of whom resist being labeled “senior,” seek to remain vibrant in their Church and come together for parish and diocesan events with peers for physical, social, and spiritual.
While some are still participating virtually to avoid exposure to COVID-19, more older Catholics are relocating and joining new senior groups that include more single, widowed, and divorced senior Catholics. Overall, ministry leaders cite an ongoing need for evangelism and training of the elderly.
For their part, older Catholics are trying to pass on the faith and find companionship, ministry leaders say, including “elderly orphans” who have no close family.
As baby boomers continue to age, the population over 65 grew by more than a third between 2010 and 2019, according to US Census data. As of July 2022, those over 65 made up nearly 17 percent of the population, according to US Census data.
Catholics age 65 and older made up 26 percent of the U.S. adult Catholic population and 20 percent of Catholics of all ages in 2021, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Dioceses and parishes have multifaceted senior ministries that account for early elders still involved in other parish ministries, empty baby boomers taking “me time” and older elders who focus more on “God time” said Sharon Witzell, senior adult program coordinator in the Diocese of Wichita’s Office of Marriage and Family.
Senior programs in the Diocese of Wichita and other locations include active social and spiritual groups and programs, life story writing, wellness, balance, home ministry, bereavement groups, and end of life planning.
Sue Thurston, 80, has been a member of the senior “Prime Timers” group at St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas for more than 10 years. A widow, she came together to find friendship in a group that would “do things, go places, experience things [and] listen to interesting lectures”.
Senior groups “make the world more expansive,” he said. “I think as seniors we often tend to isolate ourselves because we are not in the workplace that much. Some of us are even physically limited. In this way, it expands our world.
Thurston plans the group’s monthly entertainment, education, and game night schedules.
In addition to Prime Timers, St. Catherine of Siena Parish offers other programs for parishioners over the age of 60 who make up about 40 percent of the parish’s 3,500 households, said Pam Neumann, a pastoral worker, one of the ministry’s founders. .
Attendance at senior events has declined during the pandemic, and about half still attend online, she said.
“A lot of people have aged during the pandemic,” Neumann said. “They really feel their age. But they love being able to participate online, especially for presentations. Many of them got sick. Many people have died during the pandemic. … And people are more cautious.
The number of Wichita Harvest House senior groups has declined by nearly a third during the pandemic and some seniors have not returned to Mass and activities, said Witzell, whose office produces a newsletter featuring articles from local boomer-age Catholics.
Since the pandemic began, fewer Diocesan Catholics in Wichita are participating in the “ICT 50+” Catholic singles group, but 20 people are engaged, said Kathy Frasco, 68, who started the group in 2018. Based in St Peter the Apostle in Schulte, Kansas, the group has widowed and divorced members in their 60s and 70s.
The ICT 50+ group (ICT is short for Wichita) focuses on family- and parish-oriented support, said Frasco, who is divorced and previously led singles groups in Colorado. Members meet for Sunday mass, service, and socializing.
“I think for Catholic singles it’s because most of them don’t want to go out and do things on their own,” she said. “First of all, they don’t want to go out to eat alone. They already go to church on their own. I think it’s a matter of sharing with your friends.
Along with social opportunities, many of the leaders spoke of providing faith formation. “Let’s face it many people didn’t think about it [faith formation] from confirmation, even if they always go to church,” Neumann said. “We really try to help people open their hearts to this, to know who God is in their lives now and how they are expected to grow up. There is a real hunger for it.
Through both Lenten reflections and speeches from pastors, members of Forcum’s Wichita Harvest House group find faith enrichment together, he said.
“This has helped many people, and it has helped me because… we have forgotten many things about faith [we] help each other [to relearn]Forcum said.
Older Catholics may have served their parishes for years, but sometimes they feel they are no longer appreciated, Witzell said, noting that when senior parishioners wanted to help plan a new church in the Wichita area, the pastor would request only younger members of the committee.
Fewer priests are interested in traveling with older Catholics than younger ones, Witzell said. “I think it’s the culture and the age that’s out there,” she said. “Our culture says that the elderly are a burden; they are useless; they have nothing to contribute. I don’t call them elders. I call them ‘expert servants’”.
And more and more parishes are recognizing older Catholics’ need for consolation/bereavement support, said Moises Roberto De Leon, associate director of the Diocese of Sacramento’s Ministry of Family and Respect for Life, who noted that the diocese has 13 groups. “There is a need to console, especially for those who died only due to age and hospital care”.
California bishops developed the Whole Person Care Initiative in response to California’s physician-assisted suicide law, which went into effect in 2016. As part of the initiative, parish “Wellness Teams” accompany not only the dying but also the they said.
“I think it’s a holistic approach, trying to meet the needs of the whole person’s initiative,” said De Leon. “I was just debating ‘What is hospice care?’ for caregivers; what is the best way to serve but at the same time for them to take care of themselves.
Diocesan parishes also have prayer ministries that encourage homebound Catholics to participate in intercessory prayer, De Leon said.
St. Catherine of Siena’s mourning ministry reaches out to parishioners during the year following their loss and offers retreats, workshops and liturgies, Neumann said.
An increasing number of seniors are moving to the Austin area to be near their children who find work or study there, he said. “The weather is good; there are plenty of opportunities for continued growth and development,” said Neumann. “And so we see it reflected in our churches as well.”
Older newcomers are inspired by longtime parishioners who are active in the parish and get involved, he said. Some of the longtime parishioners are evangelizing to their new peers — or even younger ones, she said.
“The beauty of having conversations with older people is that they bring with them a wealth of experience and aren’t so easily destroyed by what’s happening in the world,” Neumann said. “They survived a lot. They have seen God take us through many, many things. It’s very comforting for many young people.”