During Advent and Christmas families, with members spanning multiple generations, come together to celebrate their faith. It is often during these celebrations that the younger generations come to realize and appreciate the older generations. Indeed, senior adults are gifts –– treasures of faith and wisdom –– waiting to be opened and shared.
In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis he devotes several paragraphs to the needs and concerns of senior adults who are members of our families and parish communities. “We must reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elderly feel like a living part of the community,” he writes.
Charlene O’Connell, a member of the diocesan Pastoral Plan Core Team, said senior adults help adults and children alike appreciate the long history of faith in Christ. She encourages parish communities to embrace older adults, especially given that Goal 3 of the Pastoral Plan, calls for us to “strengthen outreach and engagement with those at the periphery of society.”
St. Theresa Parish in Austin has a vibrant senior adult ministry that offers opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth as well as support, services and fun. While the parish already had activities for senior parishioners, this adult ministry took shape when the pastor, Father Larry Covington brought Sister Ann Pennington to the staff to serve as the parish’s first Minister of Senior Adults and Social Outreach.
Sister Ann is a convert to Catholicism whose own life story is filled with experiences that brought her to the church. Having played the organ on military bases for Catholic Masses and other church communities, having taught music as a missionary and here in Texas, she “fell in love with ministry” before she even entered the faith.
For several years, Sister Ann was also involved in hospital chaplaincy, hospice care, and community outreach. In 1999, she completed her Doctorate in Ministry studies with her work entitled, “Teaching Model for Hope and Spiritual Development for Senior Adults.” Along her path she encountered other remarkable people, priests and religious sisters who nourished her own faith and “loved [her] into the Catholic Church,” she said. In 2008, she became a member of her religious community, SFCC, Sisters for Christian Community.
In January 2015, she began her new ministry at St. Theresa Parish where she saw her first task as getting to know the homebound community -- listening to their stories, welcoming their ideas and responding to their need for social outreach and social gatherings.
Over the last two years or so, this ministry has developed and grown to include grief support for those who have lost a family member or friend, a book club where members read and discuss a book each month, an Alzheimer’s Caregivers Support Group, and the list continues to grow.
Sister Ann explained that new ministries are added based on needs and ideas shared by the senior adult parishioners. One of the most intriguing groups is the Genealogy Club for those interested in learning more about their ancestry. One of the favorite social gatherings is the annual Senior Adult Appreciation Banquet, which is hosted by the parish community.
Sister Ann also includes parishioners who are homebound through the Intercessory Prayer Ministry. Her face lit with joy when she talked about the parishioners who are homebound being given an opportunity to be a part of the faith community by praying for the members and their needs. With the help of Ann Thompson, who is a retired registered nurse, she collects prayer requests from parishioners then distributes the requests to homebound parishioners.
Sister Ann is devoted to the senior adult members at St. Theresa Parish, but she also serves anywhere she is called, visiting senior adults in their homes, assisted living centers, nursing homes and hospitals.
When asked how she takes care of her own spiritual needs, Sister Ann smiled and said she is fed by relationships and music. On Sundays she travels to St. Joseph Parish in Manor to provide music for the 9 a.m. Mass.
O’Connell said, Sister Ann’s story is remarkable and her full-time ministry has served her parish well.
“Sister Ann’s leadership in this ministry offers insights for any ministry to those on the peripheries within a parish community,” she said.
Another parish group that often goes untapped is the young adults, between the ages of 18 and 39. However, as Alison Tate, the diocesan director of Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry, said, “They may be quiet, but they are in the pews during Mass, they are participating and their numbers are larger than most people think.”
While most parishes are not able to hire a staff member to work exclusively with young adults, they can designate a staff contact or liaison for young adults in the parish.
Tate encouraged parishes to make sure the contact information is prominent on the parish’s website. Then she said the parish can invite young adults to gather on a regular basis and ask about their interests and personally invite them to be involved in various activities at the parish.
“This is an opportunity to invite them into the wider parish life as well as to discover how the parish can better serve the needs of the young adult community,” Tate said. She also encouraged a time for young adults to get to know the priests who serve the parish. The goals of young adult ministry should be based on connecting young adults to their peers, as well as to the church, the mission of the church in the world and ultimately to Jesus Christ.
The diocesan Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office has many resources for parishes who want to better welcome young adults. For more information, contact Tate at (512) 949-2465 or by email.
O’Connell said that like senior adult ministry, young adult ministry is often a hidden treasure within the parish community.
“In this season of prayer, reflection and gift-giving, I encourage every parish to consider all of the special gifts, from the very young to the very old, that are part of parish faith community,” she said.
“May we all reach out to those on the peripheries and tell our Catholic story, especially during this very special time of the year,” O’Connell said.
This article can be seen with the rest of the Catholic Spirit on the Diocese of Austin website.