National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Catholic Education
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

-- abz

Catechesis for Boomers in AARP land


As Baby Boomers move into the Land of AARP, we’re searching for ways to broaden our childhood education according to the Baltimore Catechism, that whalebone girdle of Catholic education. But in so doing we find ourselves the object of a catechetical assumption -- not altogether pervasive but widespread enough -- that older Catholics already “have it” and no longer “need it.” This theory neglects both the poverty and potency of pre-Vatican II formation at work in 21st-century Catholics.

As every generation does, Catholics born in the decade or so following World War II face unique catechetical challenges. As Vietnam veterans and former flower children, we are no longer young but we are not yet old. We are the bulging middle. And often we feel invisible. A typical parish Sunday bulletin offers basic catechesis for students and activities designed for Depression-era and World War II generations. Hence, we find ourselves caught between Teen Life Masses and Perpetual Adoration Hours, CYO retreats and Legion of Mary Rosaries, or Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus. These are worthy undertakings, but they don’t always fit the needs of Baby Boomer Catholics.

And as all generations do, Baby Boomers have our own language and culture. To use a prosaic example: Many of us would have to think thrice about the meaning of the word “snood.” Older folks would recognize “snood” as a net to hold a woman’s hair tidily on the nape of her neck. Young people know that “Snood” is a shareware computer game. Many Baby Boomers missed both meanings. We’re much more likely to recall the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, sing the lyrics to “Hair,” and drum the rhythm of “Inagoddadavida” on the car steering wheel. Depending on our activities during the 1960s, some of us can do those three things at the same time.

Most of us came of age in the 1960s, a time of dying -- John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the age of innocence, our pre-Vatican II childhoods. As a group, we are not likely to sit passively listening to a talking head. We’re apt to take responsibility for our own learning and spiritual growth, and we search for ways to integrate that learning and growth in our everyday lives. Classroom lectures have their place, but we’re more likely to respond to an interactive, supportive atmosphere. We’re interested in music and art, reading and writing, movies and a little mayhem now and then. Some of us might like to see and discuss Mel Gibson’s movie. Or not.

As Baby Boomers, we need a means of spiritual growth to support our ever-expanding understanding of and relationship to God as we understand God. Such a catechesis is perhaps not useful to older Catholics with different worldviews and faith expressions, or younger Catholics for whom Vatican II and Vietnam are ancient (and irrelevant) history.

Baby Boomers have spiritual needs that, while not strictly limited to our age cohort, certainly affect us in large proportion. For instance, what can Catholicism teach us about being single at 55? Catholic Young Adult groups are prevalent, but seldom does one encounter a group of Middle-Aged Catholic Singles. Our CYO dances took place 35 years ago, and nobody then told us how to be single now. (Since we didn’t trust anyone over 30, we wouldn’t have listened anyway.)

Baby Boomers also need new opportunities for ministry. We’re entering the life stage of wisdom, becoming sages and crones -- storytellers. Unlike younger people, our sense of church history is not rolled up tightly into a papal package called John Paul II. We have experiences that put church teachings into real-life contexts.

Just war theory? We marched against and fought in Vietnam. Contraception? Abortion? Euthanasia? Cloning? We came of age in the 1960s, began our families in the 1970s, began caring for aging parents in the 1980s, and followed the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. What generation could be more qualified to address the real-life applications of these teachings?

We are bearers of tradition and agents of change. If Baby Boomers are entering the realm of wisdom, it’s not only because we’ve been there and done that, but what is more important, we are witnessing our own coming of age as Catholics. We have learned that becoming Catholic cannot be accomplished only from a book, a class, a parent or a teacher. It requires living and learning that life contextualizes faith.

Because adult Catholics can take responsibility for their own education and growth, there is no reason why all of their learning has to take place on parish grounds, although the parish can serve as a “home base” for information and educational materials. Notoriously independent creatures that we are, Baby Boomers can learn from and nurture each other. Many of us can’t make it to the parish hall every Monday night, but we might welcome gathering for coffee to meet the faces behind the names in our virtual study groups and e-mail discussions.

Many Baby Boomers hunger for knowledge reaching far beyond their childhood Catholic educations. We want to learn church history, explore Renaissance art, debate papal privilege, acquaint ourselves with the formation of doctrine and dogma, study the centuries-long development of the seven sacraments, and a thousand other things. There is much we want to learn and do, in ways meaningful to our generation.

Like all Catholics, we have a nagging sense that no matter our age or life story, our faith is waiting to give us something just out of reach. Individual stories differ, but with much the same result. Some childhood formation was solid and inspiring, laying a foundation for lifelong faith. In some cases, childhood catechesis was adequate but never progressed beyond eighth grade, leaving an underdeveloped view of Catholic teaching. Other childhood experiences were inadequate, with huge classes taught by overworked nuns. Still others were somehow damaged, creating memories that soured and caused pain. Many of us left the church -- in fact or in spirit -- and now need a freshened perspective before we can return.

Catechesis for Baby Boomers is an opportunity to deepen -- renew, remediate, repair -- the faith experiences of a huge population of Catholics, and to help ensure that they’re listed on parish rosters as frequently as on the AARP membership list.

Deborah Halter is a lecturer in World Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: