CIESIELSKI: Pope Francis and the blessings of old age
May 24, 2022
An elderly woman becomes emotional as Pope Francis greets her as he arrives for a May 2014 weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Pope Francis wanted the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly on July 25 to be inaugurated as the world seeks to recover from a deadly pandemic, calling for the faithful to be "angels," who care, console and caress. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
How do you view old age? Do you look through the lens of weakness and fragility where elders are a burden to others, or do you see people whose wisdom and life experiences are a gift to the community?
Recently, Pope Francis began his weekly Wednesday general audiences focused on old age, calling us to embrace this latter understanding of aging. The Holy Father frames this perspective within the Scriptural passage of the Prophet Joel 3:1, “Your elders shall dream dreams, your young shall see visions.”
Pope Francis uses the symbol of a tree to help us see the Body of Christ. The new branches and fruit represent the young, but the essence of their vitality flows from its strong and resilient root system: the elders. It is necessary for the Christian community to attend to the ongoing care of its roots to keep the strength, vigor and integrity of its branches.
“Old age is a gift of maturity and wisdom for every stage of life,” Pope Francis said. “Old age is just as important as the flower of being young.”
My personal identity as a Catholic growing up was rooted in and nurtured by my four Catholic grandparents who lived nearby. Their relationship with me was one that was never in haste. They took time to listen non-judgmentally to my struggles and reassure me that all would work out if I put my trust in Jesus.
Having endured hardships of the Great Depression and personal losses, my grandparents had the wisdom and resiliency contained in the long view of life — with a gratitude and trust grounded in God’s faithful care. Their honesty and transparency in sharing life’s failures and regrets, as well as their successes, brought hope and encouragement as I dreamed my life’s dreams. I knew that, whether I succeeded or failed, I would still be loved by them and by God.
Many young people do not enjoy a relationship with their grandparents. We read in the news of schools with young people overwhelmed by emotional and behavioral problems. There are simply not enough counselors to address the multitude of such needs.
Imagine the possibilities of healing by fostering supportive encounters between the young and old. These interactions can help to stabilize and enrich each other’s lives with their visions and dreams. Ideally, these personal encounters are face-to-face, but technology has opened the door to the use of cell phones and e-mail. Of course, there’s nothing like a good-old-fashioned letter/note that expresses: “I am thinking and praying for you.”
Pope Francis named the last Sunday of July as Grandparents Day. Let us consider how we can begin to refresh our parish communities by combining the enthusiasm and creativity of youth with the wisdom and encouragement of our older adults. This is the formula for a meaningful life — to share our visions and dreams from the beginning of life to death.
To read the official text for Pope Francis’ catechesis on old age, visit www.vatican.va. †
Mark Ciesielski is the director of the Office of Aging.