The Catholic Identity of a Retirement Community

Because a retirement community has a more or less captive audience, it has to strike a delicate balance between the duty to witness explicitly and fully to Christ; and the respect for the freedom, autonomy, and self-determination of the residents.

(This article was produced as a white paper for the board of directors of Milwaukee Catholic Home, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)

The Catholic Identity of an Institution
As diverse as Catholicism is, there is something distinctive about a Catholic institution, which English author G.K. Chesterton called “The Catholic Thing” 1 and German theologian Karl Adam called “The Spirit of Catholicism.” 2  One certainly cannot spend time at a Catholic institution and escape the Catholic Difference that marks its life. The physical environment itself contains frequent reminders of the Catholic nature of the institution. There is a chapel. There are crucifixes and statues. Priests and consecrated religious can be seen on the campus. The administration, staff, and residents participate in the Mass. Catholicism, however, is not only about chapels and statues; it is also about what goes on in all aspects of institutional life and in the hearts of all who participate. The entire institution is sustained by and challenged by the Catholic vision and mission.

A Catholic institution is one that consciously and explicitly makes Christ present in a specifically Catholic mode so that his mission can permeate the mission of the institution.  Its administration organizes activities and policies to make, more likely, a saving and sanctifying encounter between Christ and all who participate in the organization. An institution that calls itself Catholic therefore wishes to integrate its mission with that of the Catholic Church. 3

The Catholic identity of an institution can manifest itself in many aspects of institutional life—ethical, cultural, and spiritual. It can be gauged by the official activity of the institution and by the culture that exists on campus. It can be manifest in both explicit and implicit expressions.

The Mission of the Church
Since the Catholic institution seeks to integrate its mission with the mission of the Church, it is important, first, to clarify the mission of the Church. Fortunately, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was dedicated to the clarification of her mission. Fundamentally, the Church’s mission is to extend the Christ’s mission to the whole world, to make his light shine before all nations. 4 Christ’s mission is to lead and draw all people, and all creation, through all obstacles, into the divine life of love existing eternally in the Holy Trinity. The two specific aspects of the mission of the Church, emphasized by the Second Vatican Council, are the promotion of the dignity of the human person—made in the image and likeness of God and destined for eternal life—and the unity of the human race. 5  This mission is accomplished through its exercise in the world by the people of God—lay and clerical, of the priestly, 6 prophetic, 7 and kingly 8 offices of Christ—through the power of the Holy Spirit. 9

There are two phases in the mission of Christ (the activity of grace): healing and elevation. In our fallen condition, there are many things, both interior and exterior, which make it more difficult for people to recognize and respond to God’s invitation to share in his life. These things need to be addressed by the healing mission of the Church. Jesus’s healing mission went further than caring only for physical affliction. He touched people at the deepest level of their existence; he sought their physical, mental, and spiritual healing (Jn 6:35, 11:25-27). He “‘came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly’ (Jn 10:10).” 10 The elevating mission of Christ is manifest in an increased love of God and neighbor, resulting in an increased unity among peoples.

The Mission of a Catholic Retirement Community
The mission of a Catholic retirement community is shaped by the nature of its clientele.  Because the residents are older, whether they are in independent living, assisted living, or skilled nursing, they are beginning to experience some limitations which result in particular needs. A Catholic retirement community is not just an apartment building that provides medical care. It also promotes a fully human way of life that maximizes the residents’ ability to live as fully free persons in the context of their limitations. It fosters a community of charity in the grace of Christ with and among the residents. Moreover, it helps residents to negotiate their limitations and possible approaching death in light of their sufferings, the self-offering of Christ, and their eternal destiny.

The Explicit Presence of the Church
The presence of Christ is fostered at a Catholic retirement community, first, through the explicit, visible presence of the Catholic Church.  One can think of the presence of the Church in terms of the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices of Christ exercised by its official ministers.

The priestly office of Christ is demonstrated especially in the administration of the sacraments. This includes, first of all, the Eucharist, celebrated and preserved. The other sacraments are also celebrated, such as penance and the anointing of the sick. One can conceive of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy matrimony being celebrated at a retirement community. There are also opportunities for participation in approved devotions, such as the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. The importance of the sacramental and prayer life of the community is affirmed by the erection of a prominent, well-appointed chapel.

The prophetic office of Christ is expressed through the proclamation of the Word of God. The most important proclamation of the Word are those words of mercy spoken to residents in the pastoral care of the Church. It can also involve faith formation, retreats, bible studies, lectures, and discussion groups.

A more informal manner for the proclamation of the Word is the cultivation of an explicit Catholic culture.  Part of the responsibility of a Catholic institution is to preserve and transmit the true, good, and beautiful expressions of Catholicism from the past and present. Milwaukee Catholic Home, for instance, recently hosted a talk and book signing by Bob Dolan, author of the book, Life Lessons, From My Life with My Brother, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. The residence can also observe the liturgical year—including, the great Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter; Marian feasts; and Advent and Lent—in a way that represents ethnic and cultural heritage. Catholic reading materials, television, and radio are also provided.

The kingly office of Christ is expressed, first, by the governing activity of the official ministers of the Church—the bishop and his assistant priests and deacons—as well as by appointed lay ministers:

As pastor, the diocesan bishop is in a unique position to encourage the faithful to greater responsibility in the healing ministry of the Church. As teacher, the diocesan bishop ensures the moral and religious identity of the health care ministry in whatever setting it is carried out in the diocese. As priest, the diocesan bishop oversees the sacramental care of the sick. 11

The governance by the Church takes the form of encyclicals and other documents of the Holy See, and other governing directives, such as the Code of Canon Law, and Ethics and Religious Directives. Sometimes a delegated institution, such as a diocesan ethics committee, carries out this function. More central, however, is the pastoral “governance of the soul,” performed in pastoral care by the Church’s ministers.

Since a Catholic health care institution is a community of healing and compassion, the care offered is not limited to the treatment of a disease or bodily ailment, but embraces the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions of the human person. The medical expertise offered through Catholic health care is combined with other forms of care to promote health and relieve human suffering. For this reason, Catholic health care extends to the spiritual nature of the person. 12

For residents that are not profoundly affected by physical disability, the primary goal of pastoral care is to enhance the capacity of the residents to be free and active subjects of their lives, engaging in fruitful participation in their civic and familial communities. The life of the institution should be organized so that residents can remain subjects of their lives, not merely consumers of services provided by the institution. They may be retired from the workplace, but not from life. They will, to the extent possible, remain actively involved in family, community, cultural, economic, and political life. The institution honors and promotes the residents’ already established relationships. There are also opportunities for service, both on campus, and in the broader community.

As residents become more extensively affected by old age, the institution not only treats physical ailments, but helps them deal with suffering, and to prepare for death, when appropriate, in light of the offer of healing and elevation by Jesus Christ.

Directed to spiritual needs that are often appreciated more deeply during times of illness, pastoral care is an integral part of Catholic health care. Pastoral care encompasses the full range of spiritual services, including a listening presence; help in dealing with powerlessness, pain, and alienation; and assistance in recognizing and responding to God’s will with greater joy and peace. 13

Some residents are at a point in life where they need an integrated approach to preparing for the life to come, to see “death, transformed by the resurrection, as an opportunity for a final act of communion with Christ.” 14 Pastoral care is personalized and adapted to the unique situation of each resident, reflecting the biblical teaching that God calls each of us by name.

The Implicit Presence of the Church
The presence of Christ is also fostered at a Catholic retirement community through the implicit presence of the Church, oriented towards institutional life as a whole, reflecting Gospel values in a variety of aspects. The kingly office of Christ is not limited to official ministers in the Church. In fact, all lay people promote the kingdom of God in the way they transform their secular activity in light of the demands of the Gospel. “{T}he laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” 15

The most important evidence for the implicit presence of Christ is the cultivation of a cloud of witnesses, who live out the divine life in charity and justice in their interaction with the residents, and with all people. The presence of Christ is connected to the mission, most importantly, through the loving concern of individuals for the dignity and destiny of the residents. The personal witness of individuals, who display genuine Christian love, is more important than anything. In fact, bad personal witness can cancel the positive effect of even the best institutional implementation of Catholic identity:

We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. 16

The primary witness of the Church is not proselytism, but love. Because a retirement community has a more or less captive audience, it has to strike a delicate balance between the duty to witness explicitly and fully to Christ; and the respect for the freedom, autonomy, and self-determination of the residents:

Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends…. Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. 17

Ethics. Catholic ethics is ordered to the dignity of each human person, made in the image and likeness of God. This dignity is not erased by external factors, such as race, nationality, ethnic group, or gender. Nor is it diminished by internal factors, such as error or sin. All members of the community are treated with respect, and treasured as icons of God—residents, workers, faculty, visitors, and administrators.

It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve “the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.” 18

The medical ethics for a Catholic institution should follow the Ethics and Religious Directives of the USCCB. These directives insure that moral solutions are provided to end-of-life care issues. “Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.” 19 A Catholic retirement community not only maintains an ethics consultant, but takes advantage of the diocesan medical ethics committee. It also actively seeks to educate and assist residents in the ethical dimensions of advance directives, health care power of attorney, and living wills.

A Catholic institution also operates on the principle of justice in the workplace. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), initiated modern Catholic reflection on social justice. Social justice consciousness permeates all aspects of life, beginning with administrative decisions made with respect to the dignity of the human person, and with an emphasis on the preferential option for the poor. The guiding principle of Catholic social teaching is that no one should ever be merely “used” even for a good purpose. The administration has a duty to consciously consider the potential impact of decisions about compensation and working conditions for the full, human flourishing of its employees. All decisions made that involve a person should at least indirectly take into account the particular human needs of that person. The market forces, and profit motive, are inadequate criteria for determining the proper economic relationship between employer and employee.

Professionalism. The administration and staff should display a high level of competence in giving greater glory to God, and promoting the Gospel in the world, more effectively through the performance of their particular professions. That is why staff excellence is such a high priority in hiring, and why the institution supports professional development activities.

Community. As the Milwaukee Catholic Home webpage notes, it is important to cultivate “wholesome community relationships.” Residential life on campus is structured to allow residents the maximum opportunity to make wise personal choices regarding their human dignity, Catholic morality, and spiritual life. They will, to the extent possible, participate in decisions that affect the common life of the community.

There are many residents who are active agents in the life of the Church because they themselves are consciously trying to make the presence of Christ animate their lives.  They can be a crucial element of a Catholic retirement community’s efforts to further Christ’s explicitly Catholic presence in the development of communities of charity, and in pastoral care for those who are suffering and dying.

Culture. A Catholic institution will display beauty and encourage culture. It is Catholic to acknowledge, celebrate, and encourage all that is genuinely human, whether it has an explicitly Catholic inspiration or not.  Beauty evangelizes. As St. Augustine said of the beautiful things of creation: “{T}hey cried out with a loud voice, ‘He made us.’” 20 As Dostoyevsky said: “Beauty will save the world.” A Catholic institution promotes natural beauty and the arts through in-house, cultural opportunities, and group trips to concerts, museums, talks, and ethnic festivals.

Leadership in a Catholic Institution
Implementing the Catholic identity of the institution is the responsibility of a sufficient number of strategically placed Catholics who consciously seek to be guided and animated by their relationship to Christ in the Church, especially on the board, and in executive administration. This task has been explicitly given to lay people in the world (not religious or priests) by the Second Vatican Council.  We are to be as “religious” as religious, but in a lay mode:

{Lay people} are called {into the world} by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer. 21

“Strategic Catholics” are responsible, under the oversight of the local bishop, 22 for discerning whether the activity of the rest of the administration, staff, etc., is, in fact, contributing to the implementation of the implicit and explicit presence of Christ in the mission of the retirement community.

There are several important qualities of “strategically placed Catholic” leaders. They will be:

  1. People of faith: This means, first of all, that they are people who have a trust in the loving concern of God. They are people of prayer who ask for guidance and intercede for the institution and its members. They are also people who know and accept their faith in its fullness and integrity and are guided by the Church:The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by his obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God. 23
  2. People of ethical integrity: Not only in their professions, but in their personal lives.
  3. People of charity: Who show sacrificial concern for residents, for other employees, and in their own lives.
  4. People of joy.

These qualities are the ideal, especially in key players. Other members of the organization will exhibit them to the extent that they can. Many people who are not Catholic are animated and guided by the Gospel, or at least invisibly and unknowingly moved by the Spirit of Christ. The leadership will make sure that no one undermines the basic Catholic mission of the place.

Besides making the mission clear in hiring, there are other ways to promote the “Catholic” quality of a retirement community.  For instance, there can be ongoing formation of employees and staff on the Catholic identity and mission in health care, the Ethics and Religious Directives, and current medical and scientific topics in ethics.

Thus, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart.” They need to be led to that encounter with God, in Christ, which awakens their love, and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed from without, so to speak, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6). 24

Christ seeks to gather all people to himself, so as to present them to the Father.  The Catholic Church is dedicated and empowered to extend Christ’s mission to all the ends of the earth, at all times.  One “end of the earth” is a Catholic retirement community. The retirement community makes the Church present both through her explicit, official activity, and through the implicit promotion of Gospel values, beginning with the heartfelt, personal, loving concern for residents.

  1. G.K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am Catholic (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1930).
  2. Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1929).
  3. The Church’s understanding of the meaning of the Catholic identity of an institution can be gleaned from two distinct sources: from the tradition of Catholic social service, health care, charitable, and educational activities and from the guidance and directives of the teaching and governing Church, especially as expressed in Church documents, such as Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est (2005); United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ethics and Religious Directives (ERD), fifth edition (2009); John Paul II, Ex corde ecclesiae (1990), The Code of Canon Law (1983).
  4. The first two words of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, refer to the “light of the nations,” which is Christ.
  5. cf. esp. Lumen Gentium (LG) and The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World Today, Gaudium et spes (GS).
  6. cf. The Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium (SC).
  7. cf. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum (DV).
  8. cf. Gaudium et spes (GS).
  9. LG §2-4.
  10. Ethics and Religious Directives (ERD), Intro.
  11. ERD Intro.
  12. ERD Pt. II: Quoting United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Health and Health Care: A Pastoral Letter of the American Catholic Bishops (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1981.
  13. Ibid.
  14. ERD Intro.
  15. LG §31.
  16. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (DCE) §31.
  17. DCE §31.
  18. ECE §18.
  19. ERD Pt. I.
  20. Confessions 10.6.9.
  21. LG §31.
  22. The root meaning of “bishop,” or episcopos, is “overseer” in Greek.
  23. LG §31.
  24. DCE §31.
Dr. Robert Gotcher About Dr. Robert Gotcher

Dr. Robert F. Gotcher is associate professor of systematic studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corner, Wisconsin. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2002. He teaches introduction to theology, mystery of God, theological anthropology, life principles and human sexuality to seminarians at Sacred Heart. His publications focus on family issues, lay spirituality and the Second Vatican Council. He is involved in the secular Franciscan order, home schooling, and pro-life activities.


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