Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., takes to the dance floor with Deanna Sass, director of the diocesan department of Pastoral Care, far left, and older adults during the annual Senior Spirituality Day held July 18 in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. Joe Moore photo
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., takes to the dance floor with Deanna Sass, director of the diocesan department of Pastoral Care, far left, and older adults during the annual Senior Spirituality Day held July 18 in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. Joe Moore photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent 

Memories of the past and hopes for the future came together July 18 as 450 older adults gathered for the annual Senior Spirituality Day that focused on “Passing the Faith to the Next Generation.”

“The younger generation needs to be reminded of God’s unconditional love,” said Msgr. Sam Sirianni, rector of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

Photo Gallery:  Senior Spirituality Day
Video: Bishop O'Connell's homily

“We need to be mindful and never stop being a model of unconditional love. You may think it is falling on deaf ears, but it’s not. They watch you and eventually, they will imitate you,” he said.

Msgr. Sirianni was one of the guest speakers for the day, which drew those 55 and older to St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, for advice on how to connect with younger generations, camaraderie and a lunchtime Doo-wop concert that got participants from around Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties on their feet and dancing, including a few moves with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. The day ended with Mass celebrated by the Bishop.

Warm welcomes were given by diocesan youth director Dan Waddington and Deanna Sass, director of the diocesan department of Pastoral Care, which sponsored the event.

Waddington set the tone for the day by calling attention to its theme and how it references the diocesan Year of Youth decreed June 12 by Bishop O’Connell.

The Year of Youth is aimed specifically at evangelizing the younger generations, reaching out by all means possible, whether it individually or by the parish, public square or social media.

“You are the folks who have already begun to hand on the faith to the young people in your lives,” he said, before leading the crowd in prayer. “We need you to be our ambassadors of our faith. … Please help our young people know that their Church is their spiritual home and that we need them.”

In what would be the first of many family remembrances shared throughout the day, Waddington told how his grandmother influenced his faith by openly living it and encouraged them to evangelize by example.

“The young people in your life owe you a lot for your witness. Whether you realize it or not, you’re inspiring them just by the way you love your God and live your faith,” he said.

Echoing Waddington, Sass shared the story of how her grandmother arrived in America as a young immigrant from Sicily. She managed, Sass said, to communicate her love of the faith to her granddaughter by attending daily Mass, treasuring a thumb-worn cross she brought from Sicily and the affection she showed by preparing Sass’ favorite pizza whenever the youngster visited.

Sharing the Faith

Marilyn Henry, co-founder of the International Catholic Grandparents Association, and Msgr. Sirianni led the morning and afternoon sessions, respectively, with their own family stories on how to pass on the faith.

Henry, a grandmother of 11, punctuated her presentation with quotes from Pope Francis about the importance of inter-generational faith-sharing. “Let us give this wisdom to the youth, like good wine that gets better with age,” she quoted him as saying.

She also drew from the observations of numerous commentaries on “the nones” – the growing number of young people who do not identify with any religion.

Once a mere fragment of the population, she noted, their numbers are now estimated at 25 percent. “It’s as though 99 sheep have gone off the reservation,” she said, “and only one is in the sheep fold. The difference is palpable. The divide has grown so wide. “

Now is the time to “look to the elderly as prophets, unique spokespersons for God,” she said, adding that it is incumbent upon them to fulfill the “biblical mandate to pass on the faith.”

By example, Henry related the memory of her grandmother. “I have never forgotten that she took the time to pray with me.”

She encouraged the crowd to make use of every means possible to “know the story” they need to share, from books such as “The Catholic Grandparents Handbook” to Catholic radio, television and the like.

“Teach the kids about saints,” Henry said. “Celebrate their feast days; send them All Saints Day cards instead of Halloween cards.”

Also key, she said, is making an effort to understand the youth and young adult culture. Noting that Pope Francis has asked elders to talk to their children, Henry pointed out that “they don’t always answer” when the talk is 20th century conventional.

“Talk to them, listen, text. … take the plunge into social media. Pray for your families and pray for each other as we plant the seeds,” she said.

Similarly, Msgr. Sirianni wove his insights about the benefit of good relationships between grandparents and grandchildren into sentimental stories from his own family life, sharing how the sight of his grandmother always attending the 6:30 a.m. Mass when he was an altar server remains a lifelong inspiration.

“In the middle of the week, in the beginning of the week, she was there. I can still always see my grandmother there,” he said.

Setting the same kind of example is just as vital for today’s generation, he said. “Your grandchildren are looking at you, and they are watching” the same way their grandparents are watching them – “with unconditional love.”

“This does not mean that their parents don’t love them,” Msgr. Sirianni said. But by its very nature, parental love is also “filled with expectation, worry about school, working and not working. Sometimes, families are fractured, blended.”

Instead of focusing on these issues, grandparents, aunts and uncles have the gift of being able to “spoil them even when they have done wrong, play with them, spend time with them” as they share the love of God, he said.

By All Means

Bishop O’Connell drew the day to a close with Mass, encouraging all in his homily to regard the Senior Spirituality Day as a “celebration of all the memories of God who gave us all the gifts that have filled our lives.”

He echoed the speakers in encouraging everyone to tell the new generations the stories of the faith they received from their families and parishes as they were growing up.

Remember and share, he said, “the little things we did as Catholics” when they were growing up and becoming aware of God’s presence in their prayers, their homes and their lives. Share the experience with young people, he said, that “God is leading us and guiding us.”

Many of those in attendance said they specifically attended the daylong event seeking ways to share the faith with their grandchildren. Nancy and Jim Ford of St. Dominic Parish, Brick, said Henry’s comments about social media have them thinking twice.

“I’m not into social media,” Nancy Ford said. “But what I heard today made me rethink that, especially when [Henry] said we have to think about [the grandchildren] rather than ourselves. If that is the way to reach them, we have to be more mindful and talk to them that way.”

Jim Ford said it was time to acknowledge that when it comes to communication, “things have changed. I like to talk to people on the phone and hear their expressions.”

The couple agreed, however, that if Facebook will add to their contact with the younger generation, then, “I’m thinking we have to get into it.”

As parents of three young adult sons, including one newlywed, Nancy and Vito Nardelli of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish, Bradley Beach, realize that these days, young people can “go either way” when it comes to being involved in the Church.

“We don’t push them, but we are looking for ways to encourage them,” Nancy Nardelli said.

She noted that recent travel to Europe crystallized the lack of interest there among the young. “Most Catholic churches we visited aren’t churches anymore,” she said. “They are cultural centers. It frightens me.’”

“I had two grandmothers,” she said, relating to the stories shared by the day’s speakers. “You learn by example.”