Aging Baby-boomers and the Church
As the Church in Spain gears up for the World Youth Day extravaganza that takes place every three years and draws hundreds of thousands of youngsters the world over, the National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen Jr urges the Church to pay attention to its greying population.
Quoting from the United Nations population division’s report “World Population Ageing 2009”, Mr Allen points out that the numbers of older people (60 and above) in the world will exceed the number of children (15 and under) by 2045. The elderly, he says, are the fastest growing demographic segment of the population (from both ends–longer lives and fewer babies) creating a completely new phenomenon in human history. The demographers have named this trend, Grayby-boom.
There are all sorts of moral and spiritual reasons why reluctance to embrace the elderly is unfortunate. Setting that aside for the moment, however, it’s also self-defeating. To put this in crassly commercial terms, the 65+ population represents the most promising ‘growth market’ for the church’s ‘product,’ and in a boom cycle, only a dysfunctional company would fail to adjust its sales and customer service to ride the wave.
“All this suggests the need for a broad ‘gray-friendly’ consciousness in the church. To offer just one practical example, seminaries ought to be encouraging future homilists to slow down in their delivery, since elderly parishioners often struggle to hear when someone is speaking in rapid-fire fashion. Parishes should be ensuring that structures are accessible to the disabled, and to offer transportation programs for senior citizens. Even schedules may need to change. Parishes that cater to younger adults often start faith formation sessions or Bible study groups at 7:00 pm or later, on the theory that by this hour, participants will have returned home from work, taken care of their kids, had dinner, and be ready for something else. Senior citizens often might be more comfortable with events that begin in the early afternoon. All of this should be worked out in local settings by talking to the elderly themselves.
“None of this, of course, means that Catholicism ought to abandon the young. But the basic point is that far from clucking sadly when we see gray heads in the aisles, hearts ought to gladden. If someone were to dream up a program of outreach to marginal Catholics that drew 6.8 million back into active practice of the faith within a quarter-century, it would be hailed as one of the great evangelical success stories of all time. Today, demographics are to some extent doing the job all by themselves.”
This is a trend that the Church in this country seems to have identified and looks like it is being proactive about. In the autumn of last year, Caritas Social Action this country finished a large-scale survey of its services to the elderly, to see where there was potential for it to grow and improve what it provided for older people
At the time, Philippa Gitlin, who heads CSAN, said:
“As the demographic projection shows an increasingly ageing population, this will be of even more significance in the future and I think it is an area where the voice of the Catholic community should be heard more loudly.”
She also said that the Church was “ideally placed to set up intergenerational projects for the mutual benefit of both older people and younger people”.
When the report came out, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said:
“”I would like to remind you of an old adage that the true value of a society is to be judged by the way in which it treats its elderly and those who are most vulnerable. I think that is a sobering thought, which gives the lie to claims that are sometimes made that we are a most well developed society.
“This is a measure of the challenge that we face, within the Church and within society, in which the experience of being aged, dependent and terminally ill is emptied of meaning and therefore of respect.”
Just think of all that growth potential. Still, somehow I don’t see the next Pope or the one following him say at his installation Mass: “The Church is old and alive.” It’s just a bit less catchy than “The Church is young…”