PEP Newsletter

Ideas For Your Parish


December, 2017

Ministry to the Aging

                Most Catholic parishes in our country have a large population of older people, some of them quite healthy and others close to death.  All of them are approaching the final stages of their lives and face the challenges of diminishment and death.  A member of my Jesuit community, Pat Burns, SJ, wrote an unpublished article entitled, Fleshing Out That Final Mission (June, 2016).  His intended audience was older Jesuits but it contains wisdom that applies to anyone of “a certain age.” 


The Aging Continuum

            Pat Burns, SJ writes, “Most U.S. Jesuits today are probably taking better care of their health and doing more to prepare for old age and diminishment than was the case only a few years ago. . .  All of us are, of course, bombarded with advice from the culture on how to handle retirement and all those golden years, though these messages normally say little about how to handle diminishment and death.” (P. 2).  The same could be said for the general public as well.

            He goes on to describe those along the aging continuum.  At the beginning of this continuum are those who are retired but are still active.  They do not need any special health care or a special health-care community.  They continue to work, perhaps part time, without feeling useless or bored.  At the end of the continuum are those who are experiencing really serious physical and mental diminishment because of sickness or old age.  Between these two end points are all those who “are still able to do some limited activity but also experience some physical and mental diminishment.  Most of them need some special health care, and most either reside in a special health-care community or are preparing to move to such a community.” (P. 5)


Facing Mortality

            “In spite of the attention paid to the phenomenon of aging in our contemporary culture, very little is said about death itself and the suffering entailed in approaching and passing through physical death.  Even the word ‘death’ is often avoided: people ‘pass’ these days,” says Burns.  He goes on to say, “Christian belief in a personal resurrection after death might be considered a helpful and consoling sentiment both for the dying and for those left behind, but the reality quotient of that sentiment is seldom addressed directly.” (P. 8)  He suggests that one of the challenges facing every aging person is simply to acknowledge one’s own mortality.  One aspect of a spirituality for aging is to admit that “the decline I am currently experiencing will inevitably get worse, not better.  As a person I am made for life, life without end, but as an enfleshed person in a material creation I will inevitably pass through physical death.  I have been given time to prepare to pass through death, even as my time in this life is running out.  So I had better begin to think seriously about my own death now.”

            A spirituality for aging includes: 1) Naming what I am losing as I move into a final stage of life in this world and say “yes” to it.  2) Facing diminishment and death freely as God’s will for me, emptying myself of self-centeredness so I can be completely filled by God.  3) Focusing on the hope that I am made not for death but for life, life without end.  Physical death is a passage to eternal life.  4) Savoring all the good things that have happened throughout my life and being utterly thankful.  5) Engaging in a loving dialogue with my God.  As Pat Burns, SJ says, “Dying is not the end but the final stage of a pilgrimage that leads to the fullness of life, perfect communion, endless day.” (P. 11)

            A parish might offer roundtable discussions for those of all ages on the topic, include reflections in the parish bulletin or occasionally offer homilies on the subject.  It is something all must face one day.