By Dr. Marcus Ashlock
The seasons of our lives bring many challenges, opportunities and rewards. The spring finds each of us learning and growing as children into teenagers, finding out what it means to be members of our family, students in school, members of groups and followers of our faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.” (CCC 2207)
We learn how to be effective members of our immediate family, as well as our societal families in school and in our parishes. Learning to value the role of family early and the role we each play in that family helps us become ready for adulthood.
As spring matures into summer, we, too, mature into adults as we find out how much stress adulthood brings, stress not seen during the innocence of youth. We also begin to discern our vocations in life. We learn to be a part of a team, whether work teams or a married husband and wife team, and we practice what we were taught as youngsters. We watch our children grow, see ourselves fully mature, and take care of our parents as they once took care of us.
Doing so fulfills our obligation as members of that family to care for those who once cared for us. The catechism tells us, “The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.” (CCC 2208)
In our youth, we often see the world with us as the center; however, as adults we learn to put others first, especially the ones in need and those less fortunate.
Once the summer leaves are turning, alerting us of changing times, we look around to find many older family members gone, our children leaving the nest as young adults or young parents, and we’re beginning to see the end of our careers on the horizon. Families expand as parents transition into a new role as grandparents and the elders at the table. Some have spouses or children not making it this far along in the journey and this season finds some alone in life.
It also brings more time on our hands. While we had been directing our schedules around work and children’s school events, we seem to realize it’s once again time to determine where we fit in life. Time gives us another opportunity to focus and reinvent ourselves. However, this season can be difficult to navigate.
Managing the transition
According to Mary Weber, interim clinical director and assistant program director for Catholic Family Services, retirement brings many joys as well as its challenges. Often times one’s identity and primary social connections are intertwined with one’s work and profession where many hours of life have been expended. Despite looking forward to retirement, once it arrives it may become difficult to make the transition.
“While it can be a person’s dream not to have to wake to the dreaded alarm clock, it can feel foreign not to have a schedule or to have structure to the day,” Weber said. “It can still be an adjustment; even when a change is good, it can be hard initially.”
Weber maintains the best starting place is for retirees to give themselves permission to allow the adjustment period to unfold. Some strategies she suggests include defining and adhering to a schedule, being curious and finding new meaning and enjoyment with new freedom and experiences, and finding healthy ways to achieve new goals.
Weber also says it’s important to remember humans are designed for connections and meaningful interactions, so take time to brainstorm ways to keep and build positive relationships or invest in new ones now that you no longer have coworkers. The Church can be a great source for those connections.
Faith can be the avenue to which many find meaning later in life as they end their working careers. Faith plays a significant role in one’s life, especially during change or possibly challenging times, as well as becoming a source of wisdom for younger parishioners.
“Church is a great place to mentor younger people, volunteer, join a small group discussion and share your talents,” Weber said. “Your life experiences have given you wisdom and with retirement you have the opportunity to share it with others. What a gift to pour on those in the middle of the hustle and bustle of life.”
Senior diocesan priest Father Edward Pierce agrees and feels the golden rule for seniors is to stay “busy, busy, busy” and to participate in faith sharing.
“I think the real core is that we need to admit we need one another, our friends and relatives, when we get together,” Father Pierce said. “It’s so different when you have that dimension of safe faith sharing; in doing so, you’re helping others grow in faith and you’re also deepening your own faith.”
Father Pierce knows from nearly 50 years as a priest that one’s home parish can be a place for people to volunteer and stay involved and to not only help others, but also allow others to care for us. Participating in committees or religious education groups as a participant or as a leader allows people to commune with one another through the weekly fellowship. Most importantly, simply become involved.
For many retirees who were involved in their parishes as younger adults, the time available after retirement presented numerous and different opportunities for participation and growth in their faith. Donna Cannon, parishioner at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Sioux Falls, who retired from the Sioux Falls diocese after more than 27 years, describes her involvement in her parish changing after retirement.
She had always participated in singing in the choir, and she’s also a cantor. However, after she retired she wanted to take some time to figure out what this new chapter in her life had to offer.
“I’m just going to take a year off and just be, to get a feel of what this retirement is all about,” Cannon said. “In a city of this size, there are so many opportunities and I just let the Spirit lead me.”
According to Cannon, pretty soon she was going to daily Mass and increasingly became more involved at church, and then all of a sudden, it seemed to her, she became involved in the Right to Life Convention and felt she was in the right place at the right time.
Cannon described a meeting where one of the other committee organizers felt overwhelmed with the media portion of organizing the convention and asked if anyone knew someone who could help in that area. Donna had spent many years in the communications office at the diocese and felt God had put her there, so she spoke up to volunteer to manage the media.
“It’s just amazing how that volunteer piece has brought out my gifts from the diocese, and it’s helped me find new gifts,” Cannon said. “It’s blessing me, it truly is. I definitely know I’ve found my niche.”
Ray and Bonnie Soukup, parishioners at St. John the Baptist Parish in Wagner, also felt the opportunities have changed over the years, especially after they retired. Ray had been a lector and sacristan for many years and once their children were old enough to be left in the pews by themselves, Bonnie also volunteered as a lector and sacristan. Additionally, they both serve their parish as extraordinary ministers.
“We attend adoration each week and daily Mass where we lead the rosary,” Bonnie said. “I have taught catechism and we both participate in the Bible studies here at the church.”
For most people who work in the secular world while raising children, there may be little opportunity to attend daily Mass or participate in more activities that do not involve children. Parents have a more child-driven schedule when participating in activities until the kids are grown. Retirement opens many doors to serve and pray for others.
A senior’s role in intercessory prayer
One of the many ways senior parishioners see their own faith deepen is when they participate in intercessory prayer. Since his ordination in Sioux Falls, Bishop Donald DeGrood has been raising awareness of the call to missionary discipleship for each member of the diocese. Seniors can play a vital role as intercessory prayer warriors.
“It gives you a sense of being able to help in some manner, not physically, but being able to mentally be with that person or the family by introducing your prayers for them,” Bonnie said.
Cannon recalls a time as a young mother when she spoke to Bishop Dudley regarding her prayer life and the struggle of raising a family while trying to find time for prayer, and he told her, “Donna, there are many widows out there praying for you.”
“That really touched me because I knew that I could be a good mother with that kind of prayer backing,” Cannon said.
Afterwards, Cannon felt she turned a corner in her understanding of prayer as she grew in her faith. She says she used to pray at Mass and use more of the traditional and memorized prayers from her pre-Vatican II youth but then had an epiphany where she realized she could use prayer any time.
“As I grew in my faith and understanding of prayer, I realized your daily activities can be prayer and I learned what prayer looks like. So, I began to internalize that and realized I could talk to God anytime; I didn’t have to be in a church setting,” Cannon said. “Being able to use spontaneous prayer was a great revelation to me; it was life changing.”
Cannon describes how she and her husband, Jim, began praying each night with their children, as a family. They used rote prayers as well as spontaneous prayers and listened to their children as they prayed for others or about their school life.
“It’s surprising what you learn about your family, just going through that and what they worry about,” Cannon said. “It’s so beautiful to see how prayers are answered.”
Jim and Donna have been supporters of Focus Ministries and NET Ministries over the years as sponsor hosts and especially in prayer support. Once a person signs up to be a prayer sponsor, that person receives a newsletter with needs and prayer intentions. Jim and Donna know they are helping through their prayers.
“When people know you’re a prayer warrior, they allow you to know their heart so you can be very specific in how you pray for them,” Cannon said.
Father Pierce says in his parish many seniors would provide intercessory prayer for daily adoration, and even when they would have religious education programs, seniors would come in and pray for the teachers and students.
“We needed the back-up prayers,” Father Pierce said. “The teachers need it and the students need it. Intercessory prayer is such an important role for the parish.”
We are all one body
In chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel, in what is called the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, our Lord speaks as an intercessor directly to the Father, not to his disciples nearby. Toward the end of the chapter, Jesus prays for his immediate and future disciples as one body. Each one of us belongs to the body of Christ.
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 20-23)
While it’s easy to think most things are centered upon the youth, maybe because of their numerous activities and boundless energy, the body of Christ includes each of us: the young, the old; the healthy, the sick; the able bodied and those with impaired mobility. Each of us has a role to play and it is everyone’s job to look around for ways to include and involve those silent groups.
Father Pierce maintains the key is to get involved in some way to keep those relationships strong. Many older single people suffer from loneliness or maybe they have an ailment keeping them from being too active. We need to create opportunities in our parishes for people to feel wanted and needed, whether committee work or programs to involve handicapped groups, bringing them together throughout the diocese.
“It’s a special ministry caring for those in need, people who are lonely will fill the void with something,” Father Pierce said. “The Church should provide opportunities to allow them to fill the void with Jesus and the spirituality of our faith, not filling the void with addiction.”
Before the pandemic, Ray and Bonnie attended Mass each Friday at one of the Good Samaritan Society nursing homes, assisting the priest as extraordinary ministers. Those who are able come down for Mass and Ray would take the host to each room for those not mobile.
“They enjoy visiting with you afterwards,” Ray said. “It’s just amazing how faithful they are and it’s inspiring to see how they have carried on through this with their faith.”
Strategies to stay involved
- Focus on your faith. You must feed it for it to grow; it cannot be something you do only on the weekend. Feed it every day. (Bonnie Soukup)
- Look for opportunities to help others, such as the handicapped or the locked in and pray for them daily. (Father Edward Pierce)
- Organize a retiree or senior group for outings and other parish activities such as weekly discussion/coffee/fellowship groups. (Mary Weber)
- Keep a “God Journal,” writing something from times you were moved by the music or homily at Mass. Keep notes to remind you of your blessings. (Donna Cannon)
A prayer for seniors
All praise and glory are yours, Lord our God.
For you have called us to serve you and one another in love. Bless our sick today so that they may bear their illness in union with Jesus’ sufferings and restore them quickly to health.
Bless those who have grown old in your service and give them courage and strength in their faith.
Lead us all to eternal glory. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.