Wearing a blue suit and a smile, with his proud family in attendance, Ted Roedel was confirmed in the Lutheran church in April.
In many Christian denominations, confirmation follows months of religious preparation by junior high students, culminating in a service when they publicly confirm their faith and become members of their church.
By those standards, Roedel was a most unusual confirmand. The 82-year-old retired lithographer was welcomed by a congregation composed of other residents of the Mount Olivet Careview Home where he lives.
“My faith ties me in to everyone here with my same beliefs. Being with a community is better than being alone,” Roedel said. “And I feel more connected to Jesus since I’ve been confirmed. I know he is listening.”
The ceremony came almost 60 years after Roedel began confirmation classes. For reasons that were never spelled out to him, the supervising minister refused to confirm him. After that, he never felt welcome at worship.
“I had given my heart to Jesus and all I wanted was for Jesus to be on my side. I was the only one in my class of six who was denied confirmation,” Roedel said. “I thought, ‘If this is who God put on Earth to be a pastor, I don’t want any part of it.’ “
His recent confirmation, a reconciliation of sorts, came when his long-suppressed spiritual yearning was heard by an empathetic pastor.
Born in 1939, Roedel was “a runt,” small and sickly, treated for rickets. His parents moved from job to job, working in hotels, laundries, auto repair shops and farms. Roedel describes a hardscrabble childhood punctuated by the pleasures he found in a secondhand bicycle and a beloved dog named Diamond.
He went to a one-room schoolhouse in a Montana town that was so small that it didn’t have a Lutheran church. His family attended Sunday services held at the local Cattlemen’s Association building.
It was there that the “no-good pastor” passed him over for confirmation, opening a wound that never healed. Roedel never acknowledged the pain, even when he was grown and had a family of his own.
“Growing up, I never heard him talk about faith,” said his daughter Tammy Schmitz. “He encouraged Mom to take us kids to go to church, but he would never go. I now understand that he was scarred by the confirmation experience.”
A harsh or rejecting encounter with clergy at a pivotal time of spiritual development is an experience that the Rev. Martha Postlethwaite has heard many times.
“There are too many people who have been made to feel they don’t pass muster, don’t deserve to be part of a community. My ministry has been about apologizing for ways the church has hurt them. They want to hear someone say, ‘We were wrong. You didn’t deserve that,’ ” she said.
An ordained minister and former theology professor, Postlethwaite is now pastor at the Recovery Church: Central Park Methodist in St. Paul, which calls itself “a spiritual community for people in search of growth, healing and recovery.”
“We have woken up to clergy sexual abuse, but not many clergy have been called on spiritual abuse,” she said. “Resolving that is incredibly important to the injured, especially at the end of life.”
Researchers who study aging have affirmed the importance of an active spiritual life in boosting social bonds, well-being and quality of life in older people. Adhering to religious practices has even been found to slow cognitive decline.
A study by the University of Chicago found that belief in God tends to increase with age. And spirituality is often dynamic in later years, according to Roland Martinson, professor emeritus of children, youth and family and pastoral care at Luther Seminary in St. Paul and author of “Elders Rising: The Promise and Perils of Aging.”
Martinson’s research found that older adults tend to rethink profound and existential questions.
“At that age, they have experienced the complexity of sorrow and joy in their lifetime, the depths and the mountaintop. With their final chapter looking them square in the face, they are challenged to weave their wisdom together with their faith practices,” he said. “This season can be a time of powerful spiritual affirmation and growth.”
Shortly after Roedel settled into his fourth-floor apartment at Mount Olivet, the Rev. Dale Peterson, director of spiritual care at the Minneapolis facility, paid him a get-acquainted visit. Roedel shared the story of his thwarted confirmation.
“I could sense a deep, lingering pain in him,” Peterson said. “It aggravates me when people have been rejected and shamed by the church. I feel some responsibility to be a different kind of clergyperson, to be accepting and also open about my own frailties.”
Perhaps Peterson possessed the perfectly calibrated ear to hear Roedel’s tale. The pastor has publicly shared his story of recovery and reliance on Alcoholics Anonymous, an experience that he said allows him to be particularly responsive to those in need of “God’s unconditional love.”
It didn’t take long for Peterson to set up a confirmation service for Roedel in the residence’s chapel. On Palm Sunday, which commemorates the day that Jesus made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Peterson reaffirmed Roedel’s faith, recited the Apostle’s Creed with him and then presented him with a confirmation certificate.
“When I placed my hands on his head and did the blessing, it felt like a weight lifted from him,” Peterson said. “It felt good to preach that God accepts us, loves us and will be present with us, no matter what.”
Roedel’s daughter recognized it, too, noticing a new calmness in her father. At his request, she brought him a devotional book and Christian CDs that he listens to while doing crossword puzzles.
“When my dad decides something is important he puts his whole self in it,” she said. “Being confirmed has been a real blessing.”
Roedel now looks forward to regularly attending chapel services with fellow residents and said he “is lifted” by his daily prayers. Like a line from his favorite hymn, Roedel feels the beneficiary of the amazing grace that inspired one pastor to bridge the chasm caused by another.
“I honor Pastor Dale,” he said. “He heard me.”