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10/30/2012 11:39:00 AM
Aging faithfully in a youthful culture
Catholic News Service photo
An elderly Native American woman prays during a 2011 Mass at St. Mary's Church in Tohatchi, N.M., on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Catholic News Service photo
An elderly Native American woman prays during a 2011 Mass at St. Mary's Church in Tohatchi, N.M., on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Tom Sheridan

Take my advice. Don't read actuarial tables. Especially if you're ... um ... older.

Actuarial tables are those things insurance companies use to tell how long you'll live.

Doing research for this article, I stumbled across those actuarial tables and discovered, to my dismay, that I have about 15 years left.

Statistically speaking, that is.

Yes, I'm old. (Beats the alternative.) Growing older makes me see the world differently, pray differently, treat people differently and consider life -- and death -- differently.

There is an unfortunate perception that religion is only for the old. And yes, our pews are heavy with gray hair. Nor is that bad.

Older Catholics are an increasing force in parishes, as in society. That will surely increase as the boomer generation ages. Perhaps because they have more available time, older folks are usually better represented on parish and diocesan boards and at events.

Older Catholics often find their faith more relevant with the inevitable approach of death and are more likely to be regular Massgoers. They are also more likely to vote their faith -- making them a valued demographic during this election year.

But all those gray heads worry some people. What will happen to the church, they ask, when older folks die off? Who will carry on the traditions? That's why, appropriately, there's a strong effort to attract younger people, especially young families.

More traditional Catholics complain that changes and dilution of traditions following the Second Vatican Council contributed to this dearth of youth. They maintain that the slow reintegration of the extraordinary form of the Mass and a return to pious devotions are enticing young people back into the fold. But make no mistake, such changes also resonate with many -- though hardly all -- older Catholics who remember the more structured, more mysterious nature of the pre-Vatican II church.

However, despite our current demographics, the church is getting younger in some ways. Hispanic Catholics are bringing many children into Catholic schools. World Youth Day and related events have been an unprecedented success. Religious men and women, long considered an aging demographic, are now seeing younger candidates applying. And the median age for priests being ordained for American dioceses is trending lower.

Nevertheless, growing older and remaining spiritual in a youthful society can be a challenge. Despite living in a society and a culture that worship -- literally -- youth and consider age to be a burden, we older people still have many gifts to share with the church. And the church must continue to take advantage of those gifts.

Older Catholics have, in general, developed a more balanced sense of justice. And more patience, especially helpful in an organization that cherishes long-range planning and grows nervous at quick shifts. Old age is also a great equalizer. We all face death, no matter what our faith is, so it's a great starting point for ecumenism and evangelization.

Maybe that's why the psalmist acknowledged old age this way: "Now that I am old and gray, do not forsake me, God, that I may proclaim your might to all generations yet to come."

As the ticking of the clock grows louder, I realize that I'm at an awkward age: old enough to know better and young enough to recognize it. I may be pushing 70, but in good enough shape for competitive softball several days a week. And I do love those senior discounts. But don't let my kids catch me calling myself old; they don't want to hear it.

"Hey," they're quick to say, "you're not old."

Sometimes, I think they're more afraid of me getting old than I am.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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