Seniors need some class: Let's have religious ed for our church elders

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Article Parish Life Seniors
Jesus taught adults, so why are parishes so focused on educating young children when the older members could really use the lessons? 

Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

I recently moved into one of those gated communities where you have to be at least 55 years old to reside. It is within walking distance of a large, vibrant, and well-organized parish. When the chaos of my interstate move subsided, I thought I should seriously look into what the parish could offer me aside from the sacraments, as well as what I could offer the parish.

Since my professional background is mostly in the field of adult education, including teaching religious studies and theology at the college level, I looked there first. What courses, lectures, meetings, and retreats could I attend to continue to grow in my faith? What could I contribute to the parish’s educational efforts to help others grow in theirs?

As I studied the first page of the Sunday bulletin, I noted three music ministers listed along with one youth minister, two religious education coordinators for grades one through nine, two others dealing with confirmation preparation, and one person overseeing a monthly book discussion club.

There was no adult education minister listed.

There were some very fine niche offerings, though, obviously aimed at groups with specific needs or wants: Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, an Alzheimer’s support group, a cancer support group, and quite a few others.

But while the parish’s educational reach was both wide and deep, I couldn’t find a spot for me to be an active, or even passive, participant. Could these very fine niche offerings have been further enhanced if there had been an adult education director coordinating them?

The over-55 crowd has to look hard for continuing theological education, even in parishes with large staffs and well-funded programs. It seems that the vast majority of Catholic parishes in America today are still more child-oriented, even those without a school. That strikes me as a little backward.

Jesus used children as models for adults. He didn’t catechize them. He wanted adults to humble themselves like children (Matt. 18:4-5) and “accept the kingdom of God like a child” (Mark 10:15). But Jesus didn’t teach children; he taught adults both before and after he asked them to follow him (Matt. 16:24).

Why is it, then, that so many parishes offer adults, especially older adults, so few opportunities to learn?

In thinking over the situation, the words of a former congressman came to mind. When being criticized for acting too rapidly on a piece of legislation, he would always respond by saying: “I’m 75 years old! I don’t buy green bananas! I may not still be here when they ripen and turn yellow!”

P arishes should consider founding what I call a Yellow Banana School of Theology: a religious educational endeavor powered by the urgency of age. The courses, like a ripe banana, should not only be short but also sweet. Short and sweet! Yellow not green! Short and interesting if not fun. The sweetener would be the choice of a dynamic, questioning facilitator to run the sessions instead of an answer-giving teacher or a dull, lecturing scholar.

Most courses would run one session, seldom two, and never three. The curriculum would be determined mostly by the students themselves, because as we age, our felt needs increasingly become our real needs.

There is an obvious problem: Resources—both in terms of money and personnel—are limited at most parishes. Obviously hiring an adult education coordinator, even if only part-time, would cost the parish something. But whatever costs there are could easily be offset by the judicial cutting back of the grade one through four religious education program.

Aside from having first communion preparation, all formal religious education could start with 10-year-olds. Admittedly this funding approach would be an act of faith in itself, but if we are serious about seeing Catholic Christianity as an adult undertaking—one that requires every bit of skill and training as the professions we devote ourselves to—we will be able to fund it at any price by any method.

But money is not the real problem. The real problem would be finding dynamic, questioning facilitators to lead the sessions. One thing is for sure: Ordination alone never made a good preacher, and it is no more likely to make a good facilitator if the gift isn’t already there. Perhaps members of teaching religious orders or successful public school teachers among the parish membership could help. Of course the talent pool would be widened if a cluster of parishes shared this educational effort. No matter what, good facilitators are crucial.

What to teach? Professional educators would no doubt refer to a student body that is over 55 as being “nontraditional,” like the student bodies found in the nation’s community colleges. It is said that about 60 percent of what is taught in community colleges is remedial. This remediation is needed not because the students are slow but because, for one reason or another, they need updating.

The same can no doubt be said of the students in the proposed Yellow Banana School of Theology. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults introduces those interested in Catholicism to its beliefs and practices. The Yellow Banana School would aim at updating mature Catholics.

It’s worth mentioning that the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath had quite an impact on Catholics over 55. Although today’s 55-year-olds were only 9 when the council concluded, today’s 65-, 75-, and 80-year-olds were 19, 29, and 34 respectively. They remember fish on Friday and Mass in Latin. They were also of childbearing age during the confusion and hurt triggered by the continued prohibition of artificial birth control methods in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Catholics over 55 experienced much socio-religious change, much more than their grammar school nuns could have prepared them for. The men may have had their faith tested—and perhaps even lost—in barracks and foxholes in countries they had only read about in Sister’s geography class. The women could now become more than nuns, nurses, and teachers; most would have to keep working after having had children.

The personal and social change for these groups was enormous. Perhaps now in their golden years their parishes should reach out in a very particular way to give them the confidence that only knowledge can give.

The teaching method? Questions and discussions, beginning with something the Catholic golden-agers know or think they know, with a creative updating. Let’s consider something all in this age group have been exposed to: the Baltimore Catechism.

The first Baltimore Catechism was issued by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1885. Question 13 asks, “What is God?” The answer provided is that “God is a spirit infinitely perfect.” Today many scientists would describe the power that holds together the parts of the atom—and thus all matter together—as being a benign, self-reflective energy.

The similarity between the two definitions, if handled with some creativity, might introduce our nontraditional students to one of the big topics in present-day theology—the perceived tension between science and theology—with a view to easing it somewhat.

At the end of the session exploring this topic the facilitator could distribute copies of a class outline along with a short bibliography for suggested reading and an evaluation form requesting topics for later sessions.

I would like to offer two suggestions that could help start this entire endeavor: First, appoint an adult education coordinator. Second, call the age group together to explain that appointment. That explanation meeting would be the first class of the Yellow Banana School of Theology. The nontraditional students in attendance would then be able to play a major role in determining the subsequent curriculum.
Just remember: yellow, not green.

And the survey says... 

1. My parish offers ample opportunities for adult religious education.

33% - Agree
50% - Disagree  
17% - Other

2. I would/already take advantage of religious education for adults offered in my parish.

77% - Agree
10% - Disagree
13% - Other

3. I would be interested in education sessions on:

68% - Prayer and spirituality.
67% - Scripture.
60% - Church history.
58% - Theology.
54% - Ethics and morality.
50% - Church teaching.
48% - Faith and science.
44% - Liturgy and the sacraments.
30% - Mary and the saints.
15% - Other.

4. Regarding their Catholic faith, I believe most adult parishioners know:

41% - Very little.
31% - A fair amount.
9% - A good deal.
11% - Other.

5. Cutting educational programs for children for the sake of adult programs is:

13% - An appropriate use of limited resources.
55% - A bad idea that will drive away families and eventually shrink the church.
32% - Other.

Representative of “other”:
“My parish has found the intergenerational program to be a way to reach everyone.”

6. My parish’s educational efforts do a good job with the following age groups:

82% - Children (up to 10 years old)
61% - Young adolescents and teens (11-19 years old)
20% - Young adults (20s and 30s)
20% - Adults (40-55)
20% - Seniors (55+)

7. Many parishes treat older members as if all they care about is bingo and other assorted lame ways to fill up their time.

42% - Agree
43% - Disagree 
15% - Other

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 5, pages 29-33).

Results are based on survey responses from 242 U.S. Catholic readers and website visitors.

Image: Darren Thompson