Caritas Westminster hosted a day at Westminster Cathedral Hall on Thursday 20 April in partnership with other CSAN Members, St Vincent de Paul Society and the Irish Chaplaincy as well as Caritas Plymouth. The purpose of the event was to strengthen those accompanying senior members of our parish communities to continue the vital work they are engaging in, and to consider how their services could support greater numbers of those feeling distant from parish life. The impetus for such an event was in part responding to the synodal process which highlighted the need to include older people, as well as affirming dignity in seniority, and the need to generate ideas and (re-)introduce new programmes to parishes.
The day was bookended by prayer, with inputs from +McAleenan (Chairman of the Caritas Westminster Board) and +Mason (Bishop of the Forces). Bishop McAleenan reminded us of the association in the Scriptures of older people and wisdom, and the instances of God using older people to bring about his purposes (Genesis 5:5; Genesis 5:24; Genesis 22; 2 Kings 2:11; Luke 2:25-38). He suggested that old age was conceptualised too stereotypically and challenged listeners to attend to the nuances of this life stage. Rather than assuming old age is characterised by human and social inadequacy, Bishop McAleenan reminded us that the experiences and the lives of older people are as many and as diverse as the number of people themselves. The enemy of appreciation of those in later life stems from a mentality of efficiency which masks the social nature of humanity and as a result, risks harming our relationships with one another.
Bishop Mason concluded by affirming the Church’s distinct mission, which unlike an NGO, relies on the power of God to orient our best efforts to serve our fellow brothers and sisters and not reduce social action to mere ‘do-goodery’. Rather, by engaging in good works, we are responding to the God who loves us and fulfilling our baptismal calling to bring to Christ to others.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Debbie Thrower, Founder and Pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy. Anna Chaplaincy is an accompaniment service that specialises in caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of older citizens. In particular, Debbie stressed the urgency of the attending to the pastoral needs of those in later life in our parishes and local communities where society tends to overlook and explained how Anna Chaplaincy does this. She suggested that many older people are experiencing an identity crisis, resultant from a great reluctance to face our own senescence.
Meriel Woodward, Assistant Director of Caritas Westminster, said:
Collaborating with CSAN and other partners has been a very enriching experience. From feedback received, participants really enjoyed the event; most plan to take the learning back to their parish to either inform their current volunteering, or to help shape new activities or projects. There was an overwhelming desire for more opportunities to network and share ideas. We are really keen to ensure older people are involved in the life of their parishes, and will be circulating a full program of events for the remainder of 2023 shortly.
As Debbie Thrower reminded her audience, attending to the elderly is a blessing, a privilege, and a responsibility.