Friday, July 23, 2021

"Dear Elderly Friends"


This Sunday (the eve of the annual liturgical commemoration of Saints Joachim and Anne, Christ's grandparents) has been designated by Pope Francis as the First World Day for Grandparents and the ElderlyObviously I am not a grandparent, but at 73 I am certainly elderly - like the Pope himself who addressed his Message for this Sunday: Dear Grandfathers and Grandmothers, Dear Elderly Friends. 

That was a particularly nice touch on the Pope's part - to address his Message not just Dear Elderly, but Dear Elderly Friends. As we have increasingly come to appreciate, in our contemporary context of widespread loneliness and isolation, friends are fewer and fewer. For various reasons, fewer people are married, and fewer find much connection to others, thanks to the modern breakdown of traditional mediating social experiences based in churches, neighborhoods, and work. Many report having no close friends at all, a devastatingly burdensome state of affairs for all, but especially for us old folks.

In Giotto's famous fresco, The Dream of Joachim, Pope Francis finds an image "of those many sleepless nights, filled with memories, worries and longings to which many of us [elderly] have become accustomed." In Giotto's fresco, based on an episode in the 2nd-century Protoevangelium of James, the Lord sent an angel to console Joachim and his wife Anne in their elderly loneliness and isolation - feeling, Pope Francis reminds us "that became more acute during the pandemic."

Always interested in inclusion, Pope Francis includes the elderly in the Resurrected Lord's Great Commission to his Church. Jesus' words help us "understand that our vocation is to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones." As I noted, in my comments on the continuing controversies connected with the different forms of the Roman Rite, one of the preeminent challenges the Church faces right now is the increasingly inadequate response to the all-important task of sharing the faith from one generation to the next. What a challenge for us, the old, who long ago received the faith as a free gift from our families and the surrounding society, to pass it on as freely and as fully!

Quoting the prophet Joel, Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will have visions, Francis reminds us how the world's future "depends on this covenant between the old and the young." For Francis, "Keeping memory alive is a true mission for every elderly person: keeping memory alive and sharing it with others." In this atomized, ahistorical world which, I fear, we have lamentably left as our legacy for future generations, memory may no longer be prized. "Without memory, however," Pope Francis warns, "we will never be able to build; without a foundation, we can never build a house. Never. And the foundation of life is memory."

Finally, Francis focuses on prayer. He cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict "a saintly person who continues to pray and work for the Church," who said "the prayer of the elderly can protect the world, helping it perhaps more effectively than the frenetic activity of many others." I recall a now deceased friend, who in his old age, retired from the active priestly ministry he had loved and devoted his entire adult life to, told me he saw his role as spending his newly free time in prayer.

Invoking the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Francis reminds us "how it is possible, even in the solitude of one's own desert, to intercede for the poor of the whole world and to become, in truth, a universal brother or sister."

What a timely treasure is this reminder to all of what the elderly may yet have to offer! And what a challenge to all who are already elderly to respond to our mission in this world for the sake of the world as well as ourselves!

(Image: Giotto, Fresco, The Dream of Joachim, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) 

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