e-mail us


Elderly Catholics still optimistic for the church they love


A few weeks ago, before my recent time in the hospital, Jean and I went to Florida for a mini-vacation. We rented an economy car that looked like a venial sin compared with the yacht-sized cars favored by those little old men with peaked caps who cruise by at a steady 25 mph. The cars are polished like a pro basketball player’s head with, believe it or not, cherry-scented wax.

Florida is paved with doctors’ offices (“In-the-Office Vasectomy Reversals”) and pharmacies (“Viagra Delivered to Your Home.”) Sadly, it is also plagued with growing numbers of HIV-positive seniors. There are lots of mobile home-sized churches (“The Church of Practical Christianity”), announced with signs that read “Kick Start Your Day with Jesus” or “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.”

Ponce de Leon, who gave the state its name -- Pascua Florida, or “Easter Feast of the Flowers” -- should have hung around a little longer.

Florida’s Catholic population continues to flourish. In just over 40 years, six new dioceses have been established. In less than five years, the Catholic population has increased by 202,000, to 2,024,185 Catholics, including its governor, Jeb Bush, who converted in 1995. It is a Catholic Limbo.

We worshiped at an attractive church that was filled with people with white hair, white belts and white shoes. The priest sounded like W.C. Fields, hacking his way through a three-pack throat, while urging the faithful to return to get their throats blessed on the Feast of St. Blaise.

The experience got me thinking about the elderly and the church. When we got home, we motored out to Franciscan Village in Lemont, Ill., where more than 300 people, most over 80, are waiting for God. They include Jean’s 98-year-old mother, Marie Morman, who remains as nimble as a judo teacher and as clear-minded as a crossword puzzle fanatic, which she is.

She has lived at the village for six years where she lectors almost daily at the 9:30 liturgy. She and her friends are part of the 13 percent of the U.S. population that is over 65. According to Peter C. Peterson’s book, Gray Dawn, in less than 25 years senior citizens will comprise more than 25 percent of the total population. There will be more grandparents than grandchildren.

Longer life spans and a falling birthrate will cause the U.S. population to inch its way toward Florida.

At Franciscan Village and in Florida, I was able to glimpse the church of the future. Although the church performed over 1,044,000 infant baptisms last year, it’s likely an even larger number reached 65. (In largely Catholic Western Europe, the population is aging even faster.)

According to a recent Newsweek essay, in 2038, seniors will make up 34 percent of the population. They will be overwhelmingly white because at the present time most blacks, Hispanics and Asians don’t live that long. Because women continue to enjoy a longer life span, it is quite possible that portions of the population -- and the pews -- will have 10 women for every man, as do some retirement communities in Florida.

 Currently the average priest is 59; 34 percent are over 70. Overall life expectancy for males is 76 and, sadly, a priestly vocation is no longer considered socially significant. The losses would be bearable were it not for the fact that our church remains a clerical church. The pastor’s name remains on the signature card at the bank, and the bishop is a corporation sole, holding all diocesan property in his own name.

But the clergy would have to become more malleable in order to minister to people who have more control over their lives because their children have moved far away, their bad marriages have long since broken up and their lived experiences have caused them to view life differently. Like the people at Franciscan Village, they will have learned to deal with loss, will have found new and engaging interests, and will remain optimistic and more liberal.

Only a handful of older people remain morbidly obsessed with the past. The rest have learned to distinguish between divine law and church law. It’s likely that most have never heard of the renowned Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr but they would agree with his sentiment. “Frantic orthodoxy,” he wrote, “is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.”

In the future, seniors will likely tip the balance of political power in society at large. It is entirely possible that the percentage of practicing senior Catholics will be even higher than the percentage of seniors in the nation at large. (Many parishes now report an average age of 57 presently in the pews.)

Again, the majority will be female -- not a comforting thought for a church that still blames Eve for everything.

There will be a need for older priests but their numbers will have dwindled and most who are still around will have retired before 75. Years ago, an aging pastor could hang in until he couldn’t tell the difference between the curate and the housekeeper.

But his incipient senility could be compensated for by a covey of curates, living on the third floor. In the near future, however, most priests will likely be alone, overworked for their age and growing more eccentric than an English country rector. (Currently, 2,460 U.S. parishes are priestless, and a majority of the 19,677 parishes have only one priest.)

I have been blessed with many conversations with Marie Morman’s friends. They are exceptionally devout people, at Mass every day, attending scripture readings, praying the rosary and doing laps around the stations, although the Franciscans at the Village require none of this of them. The priest chaplains devote many of their homilies to reminding them of how good they are.

The seniors do not pine for the old days; prefer the English liturgy to the old arcane Latin and are uplifted by the blessings of group reconciliations.

Years of experience have taught them to be Catholics on their own terms. They have learned to be experts at forgiveness and acceptance -- quicker to forgive others than themselves. If pressed concerning a moral or domestic issue involving a family member, they answer quietly, “Well, that is a matter for their own conscience.”

One of the women who has lived nearly every year of the 20th century said, “Oh, we don’t even talk about those things.”

She was saying that the issues once carved in stone have been become weather-beaten with love and understanding. “I had a good marriage,” one widow said. “My daughter didn’t. Now that she has found a good man, I can’t tell her not to marry.”

Perhaps the only time I sensed that Marie’s elderly friends were nonplused was when “Lea,” their friend, died. She was their companion at Mass and other devotions. Her daughter was a frequent visitor. Yet, when she died, a funeral director came to collect her remains -- and that was that. No family. No wake. No funeral. Her friends were shocked. They thought it might be a family decision, but later the daughter told them that Lea had ordered the undertaker to collect the body and to dispose of it without ceremony.

Her friends’ only concern was that she may have harbored some guilt inherited from a hell-centered church and didn’t want to embarrass her family. Whatever the case, her friends were willing to be part of any service or to assure her that the Catholic church would respect her conscience. No grand jury or special counsel.

The elderly are not asking charged questions. There are no missile launchers next to their pews. They are not Kevorkianites, for example, but they accept the fact that over 70 percent of them will receive some pain reliever that will probably hasten their deaths.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, the religious right is backing out of politics largely because they cannot find a candidate who meets their litmus test. It’s equally likely that even the gentle souls at Franciscan Village would not pass a barcoding process administered by an increasingly restrictive church they love so much. But they remain placidly optimistic that the God they love even more has not left every decision in the Vatican’s hands.

It’s just a suggestion, but perhaps the next synod of bishops should be held in Florida or in a retirement community.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he collects Social Security and indulgences. To save his soul, contact him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999