Older Catholics enrich the Faith at parishes

In this Year of Faith, Catholics are called to deepen their knowledge of the Faith, grow closer to Scripture and Church teaching and practice the New Evangelization. Older Catholics, with their years of wisdom and often their greater availability for involvement, play an important role in witnessing to the Faith, not just in this special year but all the time.

In this In Focus, we look at ways seniors enhance parish life and their communities, and how older priests can serve as models of the Faith, even in “retirement.”

If you go to Sunday or daily Mass regularly, you might have noticed something about the people who are sitting in the pews with you: A lot of them would qualify for the AARP.

And they do more than go to Mass. Older Catholics populate the ranks of lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, ushers, parish pastoral councils, committees and other groups. Look to see who is counting the collections on Monday morning; chances are, most of the people sitting around the table are older adults. The same with the ladies cooking pierogi for the parish festival, or playing bingo at the weekly game.

“The younger people are so busy, they just don’t have the time,” said Kathy Villeneuve, 72, of Cleveland, Wis. Villeneuve and her husband, Lee, have four grown sons and belong to St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Humboldt, Wis. “I don’t think they’ll really do it until we older people aren’t doing it anymore.”

They are among the founding members of the parish, which was created when four neighboring parishes were closed in 2002. She is on the parish pastoral council and the building committee and, with another parishioner, cares for the flowers on the church grounds.

Villeneuve worked with the RCIA program for 10 years after spending more than 20 years teaching religious education at her former parish, St. Wendell in Cleveland. She has long had an interest in theology, stoked with lectures and continuing education at Silver Lake College in nearby Manitowoc.

Lay activity

Villeneuve said that interest may have started when she was a young mother in the 1960s. She was 28 years old, with four children under 5 or 6 years old, living in Michigan, and she made the time to go to a series of talks her pastor gave on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, starting with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

“That was the whole thing with Vatican II,” she said. “The laity were the Church. We had to become more active.”

The generation that was coming of age then might have become more active in their parishes even than their parents, she said, because lay Catholics were not asked to take so much responsibility in their parishes before the council.

“My mother went to Mass and came home,” she said. “My mother belonged to the altar society, but that was really all there was.”

Center of family life

Maybe there were not as many opportunities for laypeople to take responsibility in the parish, but it was still the center of family life, said Alice Sopala, 72. Sopala and her husband, Walter, 85, are members of Resurrection Parish in Chicago. They are also members of the Focolare movement, which means they are active in Church affairs beyond the parish.

Walter Sopala, who is of Polish descent, said that he recalls religious life being central not only to the family, but also to the Polish ethnic identity, especially with the many devotions to Mary. Alice Sopala, whose family was Irish, said her father did not convert to Catholicism until later in life, but still showed up in church for all of his family’s important events.

“I think the church was more central to our lives in the earlier part of the last 50 years,” Alice Sopala said, noting that for her mother, the answer to every problem or crisis was to be found in church. “It could be a school problem or anything. She’d say, ‘Why don’t you go to Mass in the morning?’ She’d come up with some solution that was involved with faith.”

She and her siblings were surrounded by people who shared their religion, she said, although they did not necessarily share the same level of belief or devotion. “It seems to me there were a lot of people who went to Mass on Sunday because that’s just what you did. They did it because they would be discriminated against if they didn’t.”

Still, Sopala said, despite her family’s level of religious activity, not all of her seven grown children practice the Faith regularly. Some went to public school, some went to Catholic school, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why some have remained practicing Catholics and some haven’t.

“It seems to me that I knew from the time I was a child the place the church has in my life,” she said. “Why didn’t that happen for some of my children?”

Personal connections

So far, that hasn’t been a question that Tom and JoAnn Rowley of Cypress, Texas, have asked themselves. Their five children have more or less followed in their footsteps, with one daughter a consecrated virgin. When they moved to Texas six years ago, they threw themselves into life at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Houston by seeking a meeting with the pastor to find out what he wanted them to do.

Tom and JoAnn Rowley like to find ways to keep their large, multi-ethnic parish united.Photo courtesy of the Rowleys

Also members of Focolare, which emphasizes unity among people, they were pleased when the pastor asked them to come up with ways to bring the large, multi-ethnic parish together, and they started with a dinner featuring foods from the major ethnic groups, which include Hispanics, people from several regions of Africa, Vietnamese and Anglos. They also started family-based reflection groups in which everyone — even the children — has a chance to reflect on the meaning of Scripture in their lives.

“When you do that, you start getting invited to the basketball games and the soccer games and the birthday parties,” Tom Rowley said. “And the church becomes more like a family. It builds not only the parish family, but also the personal connections between the people who participate. There’s a depth of coming together.”

JoAnn Rowley, a cradle Catholic, said that’s how she remembers the parish when she was growing up. “Being part of a parish is being part of a family,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing: bringing the parish back to the family.”

As to why they would spend their later years devoted to the church, it’s simple, said Tom Rowley, who converted as an adult.

“The Church calls us all to be saints,” he said. “In all my flaws, in all my weaknesses, I’m really trying to move in that direction.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.