First diocesan-wide Maturing Adult Spirituality and Education Day draws hundreds
By Lois Rogers
Gathering in the name of the Lord for a day of spiritual growth, formation and socialization that’s become known as Maturing Adult Spirituality and Education Day is a tradition in the Trenton Diocese.
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But this year, a new approach enlivened the proceedings even more than usual. In previous years, each county hosted an individual event, but this year, for the first time, some 350 participants from all four counties gathered together in one location – Hamilton’s St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish.
There, in a busy agenda, the group was able to glean the insights of Dr. Richard T. Johnson, an eminent expert on spiritual gerontology, in morning and afternoon presentations on spiritual vitality and Christian retirement success.
They would also be afforded time with a panel of experts on issues critical to their health and well-being, share continental breakfast and a catered lunch, listen to tunes from a Do Wop group known as “Remember When” and worship at Mass with Vincentian Father Martin McGeough in the parish church.
Deanna V. Sass, director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Care, which sponsored and organized the event, set the tone for the day in her introductory remarks. Sass announced it as “a wonderful life experience” for all those gathered who “are walking the journey and have so much to share with one another.”
“This is a general celebration of all you know, all you have done and all you have left to do,” said Sass. “We’re here to get energized and inspired and we’re so delighted to have you here.”
Indeed, the celebratory air was palpable in the large meeting room as she introduced Dr. Johnson whose upbeat approach to aging with a Christian flair has been widely experienced in a number of parishes throughout the diocese with Maturing Adult (55+) groups.
Johnson, recognized nationally for his pioneering work in maturing adult faith formation and spiritual gerontology, is a popular speaker in parishes, dioceses and religious communities where he offers consultations, workshops, retreats and other education work. Through the webinars offered by the Johnson Institute, he has taught hundreds through the online senior adult ministry.
Noted for his fresh ideas and enthusiasm on the spiritual aspects of adult development and aging, he is widely credited with inspiring many maturing adults to follow their hearts and live more abundantly in Christ.
Dr. Johnson engaged the group right from the beginning on his first keynote address, sharing how he grew up “a Jersey boy” who was born in St. Michael’s Hospital, Newark. He quickly went on to show his affection for the Trenton Diocese, saying, “I’ve been going to a lot of dioceses throughout the United States and Trenton is further ahead than any other diocese in the United States in spiritual gerontology.”
Johnson, a clinical psychologist who holds a doctorate in clinical counseling from the University of Florida, said that Trenton “gets it” when it comes to understanding the importance integrating a spiritual component into programs geared for older adults, especially in a “culture where we are charged up about age … and put too much energy into focusing on ‘how old is she’.”
Johnson delighted the audience when he posted the question “does your age matter to God? Agelessness is an important attitude to cultivate,” he said. With the “medicalized” focus society places on aging, “if you have no faith, aging is slipping into nothingness.”
He urged everyone to “learn how to live better, learn how to live agelessly in the Lord. … Value your relationship with the Lord … think of yourselves on an ageless journey,” where the main factor is whether you are going to benefit from “choosing God or the world. If you think about aging as a number, (you) are not doing what God wants (you) to do.”
Encouraging everyone to “think of these as our ‘illumination years’” Johnson asked those listening intently to “believe with the eyes of Christ” and realize that “all you have experienced is not for nothing.”
“Because of medical aging, we have marginalized and trivialized aging. The world looks at seniors as sees social security. How to you think God looks at aging?” he asked.
Then he answered the question by saying that denominations are beginning to see seniors through God’s eyes. “Churches are beginning to understand the wealth of the illumination years. … (that) you have more wisdom than anyone else.”
Putting that wisdom to good use takes faith and dedication, he said. “Attitudes are the hardest thing to change, but we must change. The purpose of the later years is putting on a new self.” Getting into a relationship with Christ is the best way to embark on this ageless journey, he said.
“Our culture fears aging and suffers from ageism. The gurus of popular culture still think it’s OK to make fun of aging,” we Christians, said Johnson, a devout Catholic, are called to see aging as a force for change and growth.”
While Johnson expressed what many felt was a real understanding of the many losses connected with aging, he stressed that loss is part of the process and “without loss, we don’t grow. It’s not about how we look, but how we look at life, how we grow in Christ.”
He closed the morning session encouraging everyone to “seek love everywhere and seriously consider what kind of world you’d like to live in.”
Between his keynotes and signing many of the 42 books he has written for eager participants, Johnson found time for a brief interview in which he again stressed the importance of focusing on aging as a vital part of life.
“The pace of spiritual gerontology has quickened,” he said, adding that the quickening pace indicates to him that he is on a “God ordained mission. … What I’m hoping to accomplish is that people who come to see (aging) clearly as a process of illumination and the most illuminating time of their lives, feel called to be closer with God.”
Bringing parishes into this equation is vitally important, he said. “This ministry in parishes can be the hands and feet of Christ. So many senior ministries focus on bus trips to casinos. I think Jesus is asking more of us.”
This was a refrain that was emphasized throughout his afternoon presentation on retirement. He urged his listeners to look beyond the old definition of retirement that focuses on “rest, relaxation and purposelessness” and, instead, to envision a “new retirement” that is being fueled with “a sense of purpose and involvement, where the beliefs of a lifetime are re-framed in a way that invigorates thinking and distills the decision making process into one of “purposeful action.”
Ideally, he said, retirement is a time “when ego is edged out. It’s a time of phenomenal opportunity. … At time to think creatively.”
Understanding what retirement can be about and putting it into practice, he said, takes homework. “When we move away from a full time job as our source of full time enjoyment, we often face an identity crisis. It hurts my soul when I see very good people becoming some other person in retirement, saying, ‘well, I’m just here.’ Jesus is asking more of us.”
He explained that in the United States, 13,000 people retire every day, among them, about 4,500 Catholics. “We need to ask, ‘how is the Church responding’ as we are called to disengage,” from what life has been about up til then.”
He asked everyone to recognize that “disengagement” shouldn’t equate to rejection and added, “here’s where the Church comes in.”
“I think every parish needs a retirement ministry” to help people connect with “what this is all about now.” He urged everyone to take “active steps” as they transition to retirement. “Don’t just capitalize on the transition,” Johnson said. “Act on it. … do your retirement homework,” he said. Focus one what “you want to be doing. If that (happens to be) keeping on working, OK. Enough of the day camp stuff!”
Reflecting on the Day
Those who attended the event found it uplifting and rewarding and said they were more than willing to take the ideas shared back to their parishes. The reaction to Dr. Johnson’s presentations was overwhelmingly favorable and many also shared similar impressions on everything from the food to the music to the panel of experts who offered insights on free and affordable services.
Among the 10 parishioners attending from St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, Avon, was Janice Cuttingham (sic) who also moderates Dr. Johnson’s “Twelve Keys to Spirituality” program there.
She called the day “very helpful to get his perspective (in person) and give him a sense of what we did. Some of us felt the panel was very helpful too.”
Cuttingham said the information shared on captioned telephone services, veterans home care, Medicare, hospice care and legal matters pertaining to older adults was very beneficial. “You may not need the information right now,” she said, “but thanks to this program, you have names and information. It was a good education session.”
Deacon Michael Stinsman of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade, who traveled to Hamilton with eight parishioners, said, “I thought it was quite practical. I take care of pastoral care in the parish and with three nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the parish and many seniors, it’s good to have the encouragement we got.”
“I will definitely use some of what I learned – in fact, I used some of it right away,” said Deacon Stinsman who shared information from the panel presentation with a member of the parish. “It’s good to have information about the advocates who are out there. This is definitely needed,” he said, especially for the many seniors who do not have access to computers.
Beth Albanese, a member of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, Berkeley Township, was quick to share the information with her pastor, Father Stephen Piga. She’s hopeful it will play a part in establishing an adult education program for seniors in the parish, which is composed mainly of seniors.
“I thought it was so rewarding,” said Albanese, a retired teacher who is substituting at Catholic Schools. “I believe people need opportunities to hear and share this kind of information. We all have so much to offer one another.
“From the lectures to the Free and Affordable Services Panel, to the quartet to the food, the day was a success.”