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‘God Isn’t Finished’: After Retirement, Older Catholics Still Have Much to Give

An elderly woman reacts as she meets Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2017. The pope has chosen the theme “His mercy is from age to age” for World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, to be celebrated July 23. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

WASHINGTON — When Barbara Lee retired as a U.S. magistrate judge, she didn’t start playing bingo and she definitely didn’t get bored. 

The former judge and attorney, who lives in Manhattan, spent the first 16 years of her retirement teaching English primarily to Chinese immigrants at Cabrini Immigration Services, currently in Washington Heights.

Then in her 70s, she felt called to become a spiritual director for older adults, and so she completed a program over three summers at Creighton University’s graduate school of theology in Omaha, Nebraska.

Five years ago, Lee, who is 85, wrote a book published by Loyola Press called: “God Isn’t Finished with Me Yet: Discovering the Spiritual Graces of Later Life.”

Her volunteer work was through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a service organization of Catholic men and women aged 50 and older volunteering in nonprofit groups and charities in 19 regions across the U.S.

Lee currently volunteers with the New York chapter of Ignatian Volunteer Corps, helping with fundraising, recruiting volunteers and service agency partners. She also is a spiritual director to the program’s new volunteers.

She told The Tablet that Pope Francis has “done so much to create awareness that older adults have gifts to share,” overcoming the stereotype that “grandparents are sitting in wheelchairs and knitting!”

Although Lee, who is single, is not a grandparent, she is connected with many grandparents through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and can attest that they have a newfound fulfillment in giving back through teaching or mentoring in the program.

John Lundy, a member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, poses at the entrance to Mercy Center in 2014 where he was mentoring a group of boys and teaching English to adults at the community resource center. (Photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

That’s why she is pleased the pope designated July 23 as World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, bringing renewed focus on the gifts many can share after they have retired from careers or are no longer raising children.

She said amid the decline of vocations, “the Holy Spirit is encouraging new service” with groups like Ignatian Volunteer Corps and others. As far as her own involvement goes, she said she will continue this as long as she is healthy. 

“We must be doing something right,” she said, noting how the group has grown and how those involved with it have so much enthusiasm for what they’re doing and experience many graces from it.

It’s not just spiritually beneficial either. Studies also show that older adults gain physical and mental benefits, including lower rates of depression and anxiety, from volunteering. They also find renewed purpose and build a support system that keeps them from being isolated or lonely.

Pope Francis, who is 86, acknowledges the need to draw attention to older adults and to recognize the wisdom they can impart to a younger generation.

Even the theme of this year’s World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly is connected to the theme of World Youth Day 2023 which takes place in Lisbon, Portugal Aug. 1-6.

When the pope established this day in 2021, he emphasized the link between generations and the need for those who are older to share the experience of life and faith to the young.

This year’s World Youth Day’s theme: “Mary arose and went with haste” is about Mary setting out to find her elderly cousin Elizabeth. In his message for the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, the pope said that this day and World Youth Day “invite us to reflect on the bond that unites young and old.”

“Friendship with an older person can help the young to see life not only in terms of the present and realize that not everything depends on them and their abilities. For the elderly, the presence of a young person in their lives can give them hope that their experience will not be lost and that their dreams can find fulfillment,” he wrote.

The pope also stressed that God’s plan “spans past, present and future; it embraces and connects the generations. It is greater than we are yet includes each of us and calls us at every moment to keep pressing forward.”

For the young, he said, this means they should be “ready to break free from the fleeting present in which virtual reality can entrap us, preventing us from doing something productive. For the elderly, it means not dwelling on the loss of physical strength and thinking with regret about missed opportunities.

“Let us all look ahead! And allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s grace, which from generation to generation frees us from inertia and from dwelling on the past,” he added.

Lee offered a similar message in her book on finding graces later in life. 

“It’s important to strike a balance, “she wrote, “to live in the present and see the graces of the past.”