By Sara Knutson
Catholics, like most people, have a tendency to sort themselves by socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic background, and I sometimes lament the homogeneity of race and income level in Catholic parishes.
In focusing on that homogeneity, however, I missed a key area in which parishes are nearly always diverse: age.
Parishes are visibly intergenerational. Everyone gathers together for worship, festivals, and fish fries. Everyone celebrates baptisms and first communions. Growing in Faith Together (GIFT) programs bring everyone together for faith formation.
That kind of intergenerational community is increasingly unusual amid increasing age segregation in America, where sports leagues are split into U-12s and U-14s and “Millennial” has become a defining identity.
While people of different ages do have some different desires and interests, our community suffers when different generations stop interacting with one another.
Indeed, an unexpected blessing of my parish JustFaith program last year was the fact that half of our group was in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Maureen’s life stories were reassuring, Julianna’s sharp concern for the poor was inspiring, and Bruce’s keen desire to learn demonstrated that one’s beliefs need not harden with age.
Our parishes are not diverse in every way, but one thing we’re doing right is being intergenerational. It’s important that we remain that way, and I predict that this will become more difficult.
With society increasingly separating people by age, we need to monitor and, if needed, adjust the ratio of age-segregated to full community programs and events in our parishes.
Take young adult ministry. These programs do great outreach, but they need to ultimately draw young people into full parish life. We will serve young adults better by inviting them into parish-wide ministries than by running parallel service opportunities, socials, and liturgies just for them.
The trick, of course, is that running programs for the full parish community require more planning and care. But they also reap greater rewards.
As an example, our parish cluster celebrated the twin canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II with a “Pope Party.” A half hour of adoration was followed by a talk on the new saints and Pope Francis and then a party featuring appetizers and desserts from each pope’s home country.
And it was a party! All ages mixed together, including a sprinkling of kids who’d made it through the previous hour. The event brought together people from different regular Masses and ministries, and parishioners mingled in the festive setting for over an hour.
These are the sorts of opportunities that integrate and strengthen our church. If we keep our parishes intergenerational, we will keep them vibrant and alive.