A number of parishes around our state are heavily weighted with retirees. We really cannot do without them. They often make up the work force of volunteers and leaders of devotional and service groups.
Outreach centers, Catholic schools, St. Vincent de Paul Societies, the Council of Catholic Women, the Knights of Columbus, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies’ counterpart rely on membership from numerous age groups for volunteer services. They want representative groups of young adults, parents, and older adults (single, married, or widowed) in their midst.
But when it comes to the call for all hands on deck, an amazing number of the volunteer receptionists, drivers, after school assistants, lunch duty aides, home visitors, and work force for migrant projects, prison ministry, Christmas collections, and assistance to the poor in the neighborhood come from the more senior parishioners.
The same is true of parish liturgical functions and civic projects. Numerous elders are lectors, altar servers at weekday Masses, sacristans, ministers of the Eucharist, catechists, and leaders of retreats, bereavement programs, and prayer groups. In the public arena, we find our more seasoned adults serving with Volunteers in Medicine, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, NAMI (supporting those with mental illness), pregnancy centers, public libraries, Special Olympics, and numerous others. How do we account for this phenomenon?
One obvious factor is disposable time. Those who are employed full-time and are heads of households or caregivers for family members obviously have limited availability. Yet we can also note that not everyone with flexible hours rushes to volunteer. They may, instead, travel widely, play golf or bridge, spend days scouting outlets, and so on. This is not to say that recreation is in any way evil — it is often healthful and needed, but it is a matter of balancing time.
The other factor that explains why these volunteers keep showing up is the drive of their Christian commitment. There are numerous exemplars of this around the diocese. But perhaps just mentioning one will give some perspective.
Stella is a 95-year-old who volunteers in the parish, setting up for the earliest Sunday morning Mass, and then proceeds to spend two days a week at the St. Francis Center on St. Helena Island stocking the food pantry, and then gives her Friday mornings at the desk of St. Gregory the Great Catholic School. She actually has numerous counterparts, male and female. Their motivation is, at heart, the call of Matthew 25 to serve the least of the brothers and sisters.
In his recent exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis has spoken about these self-giving people. He refers to the “elderly … who never lose their smile” and who grasp every opportunity to serve. He calls them the “saints next door.” They exhibit “the holiness of the Church militant.” What is that Church? It is the active, loving, prayerful people who seek, until the ends of their lives, ways to live the Kingdom of God on earth.
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.