Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Ageing and decay: images of a youth obsessed society?

I'm not sure why I'm even bothering to comment on this particular Cath News blog post - like so many in that place, it completely misses the point and comes across as clearly silly as a result. 

However, the question it poses, of whether or not the ageing demographic of our parishes is a problem, is an important issue.

Ageing congregations as a stereotype of the decline of the Church

On this occasion, the writer, is critiquing the constant lament about ageing congregations in the Church, and claiming that this reflects the 'mindless equation of youth with vitality and renewal, and maturity with weariness and decay'.  The author claims that we should look at ageing parishes as groups of vital worshippers, and discard our stereotypes instead of reflecting back the societal wide invisibility of the aged:

"Each time in which aged people are merely viewed as signs of a decaying institution, whether that be within contexts of worship, aging congregations, or of the jubilant hope and derision expressed by some of the soon demise of aging 'liberals', we see the qualitative permeation of a wider culture of calculation which assesses worth according to precepts set by factors alien to Christian life, and hostile to the intrinsic worth of the individual. Whether it is in the workforce, or across popular culture, mature aged people are made to be invisible. A workplace is seen as vital and cutting edge only if it has a young workforce. Trends across popular culture are seen as having cache only if they attract the young. A faith community is only paid attention to when the aged are in the background. What is the qualitative difference here between what a society-as-market regards as worth, and what we too are told is evidence of spiritual vitality?"

There is of course something to this argument.  We do live in an age that devalues wisdom and experience. 

But there is nothing healthy about a congregation which only consists of older people, unable to pass on the benefits of that experience.

The bonds of true community

A truly healthy community surely consists of a good mix of demographic groups: young, old and middle aged.

Why?  Because a Catholic community is supposed to be something continuous, with a past, a present and a future.  It is not simply something that exists for a few years then dies. It is only the loss of a sense of history and tradition that one could even attempt to claim that a community that only consists of older people could possibly be healthy.

But it is equally true I think that a community that only consists of young people is equally unhealthy - one of the reasons I find the constant emphasis on youth ministry rather tiresome.

Because a true community is about more than how many people are actually in a place.  A true community involves bonds of mutual support.  A true community sees its older members as mentors, and draws on and treasures their life experiences as something the next generation should know about. Ours is a faith that is 'handed down', not reinvented with each generation.

Constructing such communities is clearly an important challenge for society at large in the face of an ageing population overall.  It is one where the Church should be leading, not accepting the status quo.

Towards a healthy community

Considered purely in terms of demographics, most traditionalist communities do look healthier than standard parishes, though many have a 'missing middle' that may prove problematic in a few years time.  The number of younger people, particularly families, in them is of course the reason they seem so threatening to those ageing liberals!
Whether traditionalist communities are healthier in terms of actually valuing the experience and knowledge of older members however is a rather more debatable.  In fact, in my experience traditionalist communities have tended to reinvent their own traditions without much reference to what actually happened in the past. Nor are they busily trying to capture the history of their communities before those founding members of them pass on.

There are some reasons for this of course. Within the traditionalist movement, many younger members see the 1950s style catholicism  - with its emphasis on low masses, schmaltzy hymns and a narrower attitudes treasured by some of the older people  - as in many ways less than desirable.  Many are really products of  the contemporary church with a liking for a nicer liturgy rather than traditionalists per se.  And many priests have hit on their own particular preferred spirituality, their own preferred reference period and culture, and are more interested in 'converting' the laity to it than listening to what the laity might actually prefer or have developed for themselves.

It's true of course that the practices of the past cannot simply be accepted untested as to their applicability today.  A Church that values traditions great and small, however, should have a presumption in favour of what has happened in the past, favouring continuity over reinvention, and favouring hearing out those who embody that continuity.  Our older members may well have insights and memories that could prove helpful in truly grounding communities in the traditions of the Church. 

And valuing older people in our church communities will help us build a wider society that values the contributions of older people and is healthier for that.

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