“The Lord never discards the aging population. Old age has a grace and a mission too, a true vocation from the Lord.” — Pope Francis
Pope Francis reminds us that old age offers new possibilities for the people of God. Speaking in St. Peter’s Square March 11, 2015, Francis preached that the elderly, especially grandparents, need to realize that their faith testimony will offer hope to today’s young people.
The signs of the times in this post-pandemic world call for a renewal of hope. Scripture provides many powerful examples for our contemplation. Pope Francis focused on Second Timothy 1:5, pointing out the influence of a grandmother’s faith on her grandson, who was a friend and co-worker of St. Paul. Greeting his companion, Paul wrote to Timothy: “I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother, Eunice, and that I am confident lives also in you.”
Reflecting on St. Luke’s story of Simeon and Anna, Pope Francis reminded us of the unique roles these two elders played in the ancient Jerusalem temple. Simeon and Anna were “awaiting the coming of God every day, with great trust, for many years.” They embraced hope and offered their final years in constant prayer to the Lord. On an unforgettable day, the Holy Spirit moved them to recognize Mary and Joseph, who presented Jesus in the Jerusalem temple.
Francis commented that the elderly ones “recognized the Child, and discovered new strength, for a new task: to give thanks for and bear witness to this sign from God.” Francis refers to Anna as “the first woman to preach of Jesus.” Arising out of that day in the temple, Anna’s preaching reached groups of seekers who had gathered with hope for the Lord’s redemption of Jerusalem.
In his 2015 prophetic vision, Pope Francis offered encouragement to the elderly faithful: “We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing.”
Young people today are living in times that often disrupt their practice of the faith. An elder’s prayers of gratitude can offer a powerful witness against the brash attitudes of the entitled, the selfish and the cynics whose words and actions rob youth of joy and undermine values of generosity and love. Pope Francis calls upon the elderly to become “poets of prayer” and points out that prayers of the older generation continue as a “great gift for the church.”
As a grandmother, I noticed that the pandemic year brought times of anxiety and fear to some of our grandchildren. In early summer, our daughter’s family left their shelter-at-home protocol and drove to the Midwest for a family reunion. They stopped in Lexington, Nebraska, for a quick visit at the Heartland Military Museum, where they discovered a hands-on, kid-friendly display. We received texts and pictures of our three young grandsons climbing aboard WWII tanks, staring at historic Army uniforms and checking out various artifacts from the war.
As they explored the museum, the boys chatted back and forth about their great-grandfather Charles, an infantryman, who at age 19 served as a bazooka gunner in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. The grandsons returned home from their trip excited to share what they had discovered at the museum exhibit. They knew bits of the family lore about Charles, but now they seemed eager for more stories.
It was the perfect time to share family tales. The boys learned about their ancestor’s courage, faith and hope during combat. My husband told them about the near-fatal wounds Charles suffered on Christmas Eve, and shared the miraculous story of his survival, rescue and evacuation back to the United States. This was a tale of hope, and the boys learned more about their great-grandfather’s long and colorful life after surviving the battle.
I thought about Pope Francis’ preaching: “We are able to say to young people who are afraid, that anxiety about the future can be overcome.” Surely the pope was speaking prophetically. In these extraordinary times, grandparents and the elderly need to speak to young people about sacrifices preceding generations made, and point out times of hope when God’s grace was very mysterious and powerful within family history.
“Prayer unceasingly purifies the heart,” Pope Francis tells us. Harsh, unhappy older people who rail against the young, and sweep them into unjust stereotypes, miss opportunities to pass along wisdom elders have gleaned from life experiences.
Grandparents and the elderly can build special relationships with the young. As elders, we are unique catechists, called to share our beautiful faith, pray with grandchildren and tell uplifting family tales as witnesses to encounters with the love of Jesus.
Pope Francis describes grandparents as “a great chorus” where songs and special intentions “form an enduring chorus of a spiritual sanctuary.” He offers his prayer of hope: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old! This is what I ask of the Lord, today, this embrace!”
World Day for Grandparents and Elderly July 25 — instituted by the pope as an annual observance to be held the fourth Sunday of July — is a wonderful time to share stories about these valuable members of our families.