“He paddled us, all three of us altar boys right there in the sacristy. I’ll never forget it.”
The 72 year-old Italian-American related the events of his childhood mischief. His full head of gray hair bobbed up and down as he spoke with animated gestures. “Our pastor walked in on us right when I had the wine bottle up to my mouth. I didn’t think they would miss any.”
Today, the former altar boy is no longer Catholic. He went from dabbling with alcohol as a youth, to alcoholism and drug abuse, but finally, emotional growth and decades of sobriety. Today, he is a sophisticated, intellectual professional preparing to retire from the health-care field. His memory of the Catholic Church, however, is limited to what he was told to do and the consequences of not obeying the priests and nuns of his youth.
Many other elders have regaled me with countless stories of nuns knocking little fingers with rulers, mothers demanding that children go to confession, and a Latin Mass that had very little meaning for them. Perhaps some pre-conciliar educators and pastors needed a better approach when dealing with children, but the deeper problem was, and remains, the lack of spiritual and moral growth among many members of the Catholic laity.
What is spiritual infancy in old age? This refers to someone with an old biological age (think of grandparents or great grandparents) but who remains a spiritual infant. Paradoxically, and without implying any disrespect, they could be called “infantile elders” to utilize a phrase which may help to identify this phenomenon.
The idea comes from the spiritual writers of the Church. A quote attributed to St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) makes the point clear. It is a mistake, writes the saint, “to measure the soul’s love for its Creator by the delightful feelings it experiences in loving God. This kind of love belongs to those who are still spiritually immature…. On the other hand, the love of those who have left this spiritual infancy behind them is a love which experiences neither taste nor delight in what is called the sensitive part of the soul. We have a sure sign that these people really love God when we observe their readiness to keep God’s holy law….”
The infantile elder was raised in the pre-conciliar Church and had a Catholic pedagogical formation, but never took it to heart. Typically, an event or circumstance several decades ago pushed the then-tepid Catholic out of the Church, such as the implementation of the Novus Ordo Missae, or being told that he could not marry his fiancée because of Church laws, or an interpersonal conflict with a priest or nun. These Catholics did not follow the encouraging exhortation of St. James to consider tribulations a joy, because they perfect us (Jac. 1:2-4).
A single encounter with a spiritually infantile elder will probably not generate a dramatic conversion. The elder usually has already built a lifestyle based on grave matter: for example, living with a non-Catholic second or third spouse, attending a non-Catholic “church,” and so on. The problem goes deeper than the person’s immoral behavior. The elder has rejected the teachings of the Catholic Church. He rejected the God who gave joy to his youth; instead, he formed himself his own way, based on easier theology. This becomes apparent when the elder speaks of being “spiritual but not religious” or completely rejects Purgatory, or very quickly in the conversation accuses others of being “judgmental.”
The infantile elder never seemed to fully accept the truth that the Catholic Faith is grounded in reason, and spirituality is rooted in belief, which should be based on love. In the fourth century, St. Basil thus wrote to St. Gregory Nazianzen an exhortation to join him, “as the day brightens, to betake ourselves, with prayer attending on it throughout, to our labours, and to sweeten our work with hymns…. Pious exercises nourish the soul with divine thoughts.” This is merely one example of the Church’s consistent blending throughout the centuries of practice and belief, both of which animated the daily lives of its members.
Regarding other areas of life, an elderly person today may be logical, clear-headed, intelligent, and practical. In the natural order of things, we owe them our respect and we can seek them out for their advice. Yet, when it comes to religion, the same elderly person may seem to make all his decisions based on emotions rather than reason. He falsely believes that he made an intelligent choice, because he had “twelve years of Catholic schooling” or will justify his apostasy by giving a surface example of some education he received as a child. However, he may say, he grew up and found a way that works for him to connect with God.
If other vulnerable people are within earshot of the elderly’s indiscriminate attack on the Church (for example, your own children), you may have a duty to defend the Church. This should be prudent, concise, and charitable. It could simply be a statement such as, “I certainly wish you well, but my personal faith comes through the same Church you grew up in as coming from Christ Himself. I can’t imagine practicing my spirituality outside of the authority and structure of the Catholic Church.”
This statement alone will throw the elder off guard and will give everyone else something to ponder, as they have probably never heard anyone say this. If you really want to get into an argument, you could use the phrase “one and only true Church” but be prepared to use charity and reason. Relating this truth may invoke outrage. Our Lord is very clear about prudence in genuine evangelization: “Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they trample them under their feet, and turning upon you, they tear you” (Mt. 7:6).
The purpose of contradicting or gently challenging an elder apostate is twofold: one, to plant a seed in their mind; and two, to give reassurance and hope to others who are discouraged by the elder’s anti-Catholic rant and lifestyle. Elderly lapsed Catholics may have a lot of guilt and pain in their hearts, and the closer they get to death the more intense will be their anxiety over the true Church. They may finally repent and reconcile on their deathbed, although waiting this long is gambling with eternal stakes. The fact that you remained faithful may be the catalyst for their acceptance of actual graces from the Holy Ghost.
Instead of encouraging immature adult Catholics to continue growing in the traditional practice of their faith, exhorting them to hope for heaven, and inculcating spiritual love for our Lord, the reformers of Vatican II destroyed these theological virtues in fragile souls by repeated changes in previously unchanged liturgical practices. How, for example, were tepid adult souls supposed to grow closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary when conciliar revolutionaries removed her statues from parish churches?
Immature, worldly Catholics could have continued their worldly path and rejected the Church even without these changes, but they needed stable spiritual practices to at least have hope in an unchanging God. St. John of the Cross noted these dangers 400 years before Vatican II. “A soul that is hard because of self-love grows harder. O good Jesus, if you do not soften it, it will ever continue in its natural hardness” (Sayings of Light and Love, 28).
It falls to us, today’s practitioners of the true Faith, to pick up the pieces and help the aging lapsed Catholic population. Today’s elderly had a decent Catholic formation before the 1960s, but many rejected it in practice; the next generation (my generation) born in the ‘60s and ‘70s are practically clueless about real Catholic doctrine, but they can sing heretical hymns and make them sound appealing. The generation of souls after us seem bewildered as they struggle to put together true and false spirituality, feminism, traditionalism, modernism, and the bits of doctrine that get filtered down to them. If this sounds like a recipe for neuroticism, you have a good understanding of why we need a missionary spirit right here, right now.
Traditional Catholic life is thus truly in your hands. Whether you appreciate this or not, others watch your behavior, your parenting techniques, your spiritual practices, and your language. You represent the one true Church to those who have rejected it either completely or in practice as they pick and choose which moral teachings to accept. To be a Catholic missionary today, all you need to do is continue raising a Catholic family, obey the Ten Commandments, and maintain your devotional practices. This alone makes you a living contradiction to the modern world.
The spiritually infantile elderly will notice your quiet but resolute efforts. Your peers notice. Your family definitely notices. Those whom God chooses to put into your path, whether they admit it or not, are edified by your devout Catholic way of life. Your perseverance is thus a sign of spiritual maturity.