Morning sunlight streamed through the office window of Rev. John Murray, S.J.,’76, assistant director of the Murphy Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Fairfield University, as he welcomed his “Aging With Grace” class participants onto their Zoom call the week after Easter last year.
The two dozen or so retirees in attendance ranged in age from 65 to 87 years old. Most, but not all, were Catholic. A few, like Bob Laska ’69, were Fairfield alumni. Many, like Joan Bolger, have been a part of the “Aging With Grace” community since the program began in 2018.
“Aging with Grace” is a semester-long course that meets twice a month for an hour and a half. Offered through the Murphy Center and rooted firmly in Ignatian tradition, the online class is open to retirees of all faiths who seek to deepen their relationship with God and enrich their daily lives. Using prayer, assigned readings, and personal reflection, Fr. Murray guides participants through an exploration of the spiritual dynamics of growing older.
“When Fr. Murray first offered this class, I was immediately intrigued by the name” said Bolger. “Certainly we can’t deny that we are aging, and to think we could do it gracefully was consoling.”
During this particular session, Bolger shared a story about a stranger in the supermarket parking lot who had witnessed her shopping list whisked out of her hand by a gust of wind; the gentleman ran to chase the little piece of paper, stopped it with his foot, and returned it to her. “For some reason, that touched me tremendously,” she said, vowing to pay the gesture forward. “We can’t fix [large issues like] Ukraine, but we can live in the world that I’m so grateful to be in, and pass on some form of kindness whenever possible.”
Finding God in all things – especially the little things – is the order of the day in “Aging With Grace”. With assigned readings by authors who have an Ignatian bent or background, Fr. Murray described the course as “kind of a book club, and also an invitation for individuals to look at the readings in a reflective prayer context – not just an intellectual context.”
The class originally met on campus, in person, but at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fr. Murray switched to Zoom, where the group still meets today. With a mix of local and out-of-state attendees, conducting the program virtually allows Fr. Murray to meet all of the participants wherever they are.
“The class has evolved into a community of like-minded people sharing very deeply their own spiritual journeys and feelings,” said Fr. Murray. “They’re not all Catholic, but all men and women searching for a relationship with God as they conceive God to be, which is a wonderful thing.”
Look around a church on any given Sunday, and you’re bound to notice that the “regulars” in the pews are mostly older adults. Yet, pick up a parish bulletin and you’ll see it’s filled with religious education classes for children. Rarely are there programs designed to help senior citizens deepen their spiritual lives. This is where “Aging With Grace” comes in.
“Each person’s spiritual journey is unique and in the uniqueness, of course, is a developing relationship with Jesus that grows, depending on a person’s willingness to explore it deeper,” Fr. Murray said. “That can be as true for 20-year-olds as for an 80-year-old.”
Participants in the program are at a point in their lives when the path forward is shorter than the roads they’ve traveled. As retirees, they are free from the demands of a job and the pressure to succeed, but grapple with the health issues and limitations of growing older. As family elders, they rejoice at weddings and the births of grandchildren, but also mourn the loss of spouses, loved ones, and peers. As senior citizens, they’re grateful for the wisdom afforded them by age, but fearful of the specter of isolation in this chapter of their lives.
As noted by one class member on a springtime Zoom session, the assigned readings and class discussions in “Aging With Grace” encourage participants to balance fear with hope, offset guilt with gratitude, and soothe feelings of uncertainty and helplessness. As a result, members of the program have bonded into a tightknit community.
“The people in this group have become family for me,” said participant Jill Gecker. “They are good faith-filled people and with that comes a sense of comfort and trust. In this group, we can be vulnerable; there is no judgment at all. I don’t usually share much, but we can simply ‘be,’ and that’s okay, too.”
“We’ve all become such good listeners,” agreed classmate Barbara Kiernan. “Fr. John doesn’t comment after every person takes a turn to speak; he usually just says, ‘thank you.’ It’s so respectful – and such a good example to us of how the very act of listening opens up space for God.”
Members of the “Aging With Grace” community are heeding the call of 86-year-old Pope Francis, who has implored his peers: “Dear grandparents, dear elderly persons, we are called to be artisans of the revolution of tenderness in our world! Let us do so by learning to make ever more frequent and better use of the most valuable instrument at our disposal and, indeed, the one best suited to our age: prayer.”
Echoing his assertion of the importance of community in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope continued: “Many of us have come to a sage and humble realization of what our world very much needs: the recognition that we are not saved alone, and that happiness is a bread we break together.”
The pope’s words were part of his message for the Church’s second annual World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, which took place last summer on July 24, close to the feast day of Saints Anne and Joachim, grandparents of Jesus. The theme for the day was taken from Psalm 92:15: “In old age they will still bear fruit.”
Back on Fairfield’s campus on that sunny springtime morning, Fr. Murray reflected on the gifts he’s received through the “Aging With Grace” program. “It has enriched me in my own spiritual journey,” he said, “and it has allowed me to get to know a variety of people that I never would have gotten to know. In some ways, it’s like an online parish.”
The Murphy Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Fairfield University offers spiritual direction and promotes vibrant expressions of Ignatian spirituality at individual and group levels, both on campus and in parishes across the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT. For more information about the “Aging With Grace” program, please visit the Murphy Center’s webpage at fairfield.edu/mcis or e-mail email@example.com. (This article is re-published with permission from Fairfield University; click here to view the original version online.)
By Jeannine (Carolan) Graf, Fairfield University ’87