Parishes Bring Together Older Catholics

Diverse population of seniors actively seeks faith and fellowship.

Clockwise from left: St. Anne is patron of grandmothers and older adults. Harvest House is a program started by the Wichita Diocese.  The senior group at St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, is popular too.
Clockwise from left: St. Anne is patron of grandmothers and older adults. Harvest House is a program started by the Wichita Diocese. The senior group at St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, is popular too. (photo: St. Anne statue, Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Pescenica, Croatia, Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock; courtesy photos)

Older Catholics at St. Francis of Assisi in Wichita, Kansas, might listen to a speaker over lunch, go on a diocesan bus trip or spend time with kindergarteners, but in all their activities many seek to grow in their faith and in community with each other. 

“This is how our faith grows, in the community and everything,” said Jo Forcum, 78, a leader of her parish’s Harvest House group for Catholics over the age of 50, part of a program started by the Wichita Diocese.

“We’re functional and [want] to be part of our church,” said Forcum, a widow who in 2010 joined the group of about 40 members, who are mostly also in their 70s. “We retire, but not from Our Lord. We still need our faith.” 

Wichita diocesan seniors program
The Wichita diocesan seniors program draws plenty of participants.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

The diverse, growing population of older U.S. Catholics, some of whom resist being labeled “seniors,” seek to stay vibrant in their Church and gather for parish and diocesan events with peers for physical, social and spiritual enrichment. 

While some still participate virtually to avoid COVID-19 exposure, other older Catholics are moving and joining new senior groups that include more single, widowed and divorced older Catholics. Overall, ministry leaders cite an ongoing need for senior evangelization and formation.

For their part, older Catholics seek to pass on the faith and find companionship, ministry leaders say, including “orphan seniors” who lack family close by. 

As the baby boomers continue to age, the over-65 population grew by more than one-third between 2010 and 2019, according to U.S. Census data. As of July 2022, those 65-plus constituted nearly 17% of the population, U.S. Census data showed. 

Catholics age 65 and older made up 26% of the U.S. adult Catholic population and 20% of Catholics of all ages in 2021, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Dioceses and parishes have multifaceted senior ministries taking into account early seniors still involved in other parish ministry, empty-nester baby boomers taking “me time” and older seniors focusing more on “God time,” said Sharon Witzell, program coordinator for senior adults in the Wichita Diocese’s Office of Marriage and Family. 

Senior programs in the Wichita Diocese and other locations include active social and spiritual groups and programming, life-story writing, wellness, balance, homebound ministry, bereavement groups and end-of-life planning.

Sue Thurston, 80, has belonged to the “Prime Timers” senior group at St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, for more than 10 years. A widow, she joined to find friendship in a group that would “do things, go places, experience things [and] hear interesting lectures.”

Senior groups “make the world more expansive,” she said. “I think as seniors we often tend to isolate because we’re not in the workplace as much. Some of us are even restricted physically. This way, it expands our world.”

Thurston plans the group’s monthly entertainment, educational and game-night programs. 

Besides Prime Timers, St. Catherine of Siena parish offers other programs for parishioners over age 60 who comprise roughly 40% of the parish’s 3,500 households, said Pam Neumann, a pastoral associate, one of the ministry’s founders. 

Senior event attendance fell during the pandemic, and about half still attend online, she said. 

“A lot of people grew old during the pandemic,” Neumann said. “They’re really feeling their age. But they love being able to join in online, especially for the presentations. A lot of them got sick. A lot of people died during the pandemic. … And people are being more cautious.”

The number of Wichita Harvest House senior groups declined by almost a third during the pandemic, and some seniors haven’t come back to Mass and activities, said Witzell, whose office produces a newsletter with articles by boomer-age local Catholics. 

Fewer Wichita diocesan Catholics are participating in the “ICT 50+” Catholic Singles group since the pandemic started, but 20 people are committed, said Kathy Frasco, 68, who started the group in 2018. Based at St. Peter the Apostle in Schulte, Kansas, the group has widowed and divorced members in their 60s and 70s. 

The ICT 50+ group (ICT is an abbreviation for Wichita) focuses on family and parish-oriented support, said Frasco, who is divorced and previously led singles’ groups in Colorado. Members meet for Sunday Mass, service and socializing.

“I think for the Catholic single it is because most of them don’t want to go out and do things alone,” she said. “First of all, they don’t want to go out to eat alone. They go to church alone already. I think it’s a matter of sharing with your friends.”

Along with social opportunities, several of the leaders talked about providing faith formation. “Let’s face it, a lot of people haven’t thought about [faith formation] since confirmation, even if they go to church all the time,” Neumann said. “We really try to help people open their hearts up to that, to learn about who God is in their lives now and how they’re expected to grow. There’s a real hunger for that.” 

Whether through Lenten reflections or talks by parish priests, members of Forcum’s Wichita Harvest House group find faith enrichment together, she said.  

“This has helped a lot of people, and it’s helped me because … a lot of stuff we’ve forgotten about faith [we] help each other [to relearn],” Forcum said.

Older Catholics may have served for years at their parishes but sometimes feel they’re no longer valued, Witzell said, noting that when senior parishioners wanted to help plan a new Wichita-area church, the pastor only requested younger committee members. 

Fewer priests are interested in traveling with older Catholics than young people, Witzell said. “I think it’s the culture and the ageism that’s out there,” she said. “Our culture says seniors are a burden; they’re useless; they don’t have anything to contribute. I don’t call them seniors. I call them ‘seasoned servants.’” 

And more parishes are recognizing older Catholics’ need for consolation/bereavement support, said Moises Roberto De Leon, associate director of the Sacramento Diocese’s Family and Respect Life Ministry, who noted that the diocese has 13 groups. “There’s a need to console, especially for those who’ve passed away just because of age and hospice care.”

The California bishops developed the “Whole Person Care Initiative” in response to California’s physician-assisted-suicide law, which went into effect in 2016. As part of the initiative, parish “Wellness Teams” accompany not only the dying but their caregivers, he said.

“I think it’s a holistic approach, trying to address needs of the whole person initiative,” De Leon said. “Just having a conversation on ‘What is hospice care?’ for the caregivers; what is the best way to serve, but at the same time for them to have self-care.” 

Diocesan parishes also have prayer ministries that encourage homebound Catholics to participate in intercessory prayer, De Leon said.  

St. Catherine of Siena’s bereavement ministry reaches out to parishioners during the year following their loss and offers retreats, workshops and liturgies, Neumann said. 

A growing number of seniors are moving to the Austin area to be near their children who find jobs or study there, she said. “The weather is good; there are plenty of opportunities for ongoing growth and development,” Neumann said. “And so we see that reflected in our churches as well.”

Older newcomers are inspired by longtime parishioners who are active in the parish and also get involved, she said. Some of the longtime parishioners are evangelizing their new peers — or even younger people, she said. 

“The beauty of having conversations with older people is they bring a wealth of experience with them, and they’re not as easily shattered by what’s going on in the world,” Neumann said. “They’ve survived a lot. They’ve seen God carry us through many, many things. It’s very comforting to a lot of the younger people.”