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Pope Francis’s Love of Grandparents



James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 03/26/15

The Holy Father has a big role in mind for the elderly

“How beautiful, however, is the encouragement an elderly person manages to pass on to a young person who is seeking the meaning of faith and of life! It is truly the mission of grandparents, the vocation of the elderly. The words of grandparents have special value for the young. And the young know it.”

—Pope Francis, “Poets of Prayer.” General Audience, March 11, 2015.

“Granddad Husted, the favored title for my Great Grandfather, John, and  his son Seth, my grandfather, made only a slim profit—and some years none at all—from their apple enterprise. They stayed in the orchard business because they loved their trees. They loved growing them, harvesting them, and looking at them. From Granddad and Seth, my father learned that the trees themselves meant more than their utility,”

—Anne Husted Burleigh

“I have been reading about Arganthonius of Gades who reigned for eighty years and lived for a hundred and twenty. Even so, I suggest that nothing can be called long if it has an end. For when that end comes, then all that has gone before has vanished. Only one thing remains—the credit you have gained by your good and right actions.”

–Cicero, “On Old Age,” VII.

In his General Audiences, Pope Francis has been reflecting on the various members in a family and their relationship to each other. “In today’s (March 11) catechesis we continue our reflection on grandparents, considering the value and importance of their role in the family.” The Holy Father, of course, is of an age where his cohorts in time are now mostly grandparents and great-grandparents. He often reflects on his own grandparents.

One is very fortunate to have grandparents during at a least the early part of one’s life. My paternal grandfather died several months before I was born. My maternal grandmother died when I was five and my maternal grandfather when I was eight. My paternal grandmother took care of my younger brothers, sister, and me after the death of our mother when I was nine. I always read Cicero’s famous essay “On Old Age” with undergraduate students just to be sure that they were aware of the importance in their lives, one way or another, of their grandparents.

Pope Francis recalls, with some pride, that when he was in the Philippines, he was called “Lolo Kiko”, which evidently means “Grandpa Francis”.

What do the elderly need, above all, to recognize about themselves? “It is true that society tends to discard us, but the Lord definitely does not. The Lord never discards us.” The point Francis makes here is that, whatever we make of the appreciation that society may or may not give us, the important thing is God, whatever society might think or do. We are called to follow God in every period of our lives. “Old age has a grace and a mission too, a true vocation from the Lord. Old age is a vocation. It is not yet time to ‘pull in the oars.’” I presume the “oar” reference means that life is like a voyage on a row boat wherein we keep rowing until we reach our final destination.

Old age is a different time of life. We have to “invent” it for ourselves “because our society is not ready, spiritually and morally, to appreciate the true value of this stage of life.” In past ages, having many elderly around was not so common. We live in a unique age in which we live much longer than human life in previous ages. Even Christianity was “surprised” that it needed to develop a spiritual life for the elderly. Yet, we do have the testimony of many elderly saints, both male and female.

Some time ago, a “Day for the Elderly” had been held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope recalls numerous couples coming up to tell him that they had been married fifty or sixty years. “It is important to present this to young people, who tire so easily: the testimony of the elderly in fidelity is important.”         

We are not sure at what age Joseph died, but in the Gospels with Simeon and Anna in the Temple are elderly. Anna is eighty-four. Both looked for the coming of the Messiah, and saw Him. Simeon says that his “eyes” saw the “salvation” prepared for the Lord’s people (Luke 2:29-32). L’Osservatore Romano reprinted a wonderful painting of Jan van’t Hoff of “Simeon and Anna”. With Simeon holding the Child, the delight shown on their faces is truly remarkable. When they saw the Child, “the burden of age and waiting disappeared.” The Holy Father notes the poetic quality of Simeon’s prayer of thanksgiving that is recited every day in the Breviary at Night Prayer.

Here the Pope offers a short exhortation: “Dear grandparents, dear elderly, let us follow in the footsteps of these extraordinary elders. Let us too become like poets of prayer; let us develop a taste for finding our own words; let us once again grasp those which teach us the word of God.” This may be the first time in the history of the papacy that a pope has urged grandparents to become poets.

Pope Bergoglio then adds these remarkable words: “The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church!” It is to be treasured. It is a great “injection of wisdom for the whole of society.” We live in a very “busy” and “distracted” environment. We do not easily hear the wisdom of the elderly, even though the very point of having a “senate” for the Romans was that such wisdom not only be recognized but required to be heard.

Pope Francis next refers to the example of the retirement of Pope Benedict. What was the purpose of his retirement or its value?  “He chose to spend the final span of his life in prayer and listening to God.” Of this act, Francis simply says, “That is beautiful.”

The Pope next, in confirmation of what he has been saying, cites the French Orthodox theologian, Olivier-Maurice Clement (d. 2009): “A civilization which has no place for prayer is a civilization in which old age has lost all its meaning..” That is a remarkable statement. The Pope makes the same point in his own words: “We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing.”

What is it that this prayer of the elderly can “do”? “We are able to thank the Lord for benefits received and fill the emptiness of ingratitude that surrounds us.” How many of us have really thanked the Lord for the benefits, specific ones, that we have received?

Chesterton often said that the primary act of our faith is gratitude for what we have freely received. This “having received” includes the world itself as well as ourselves within it. We cannot “make” the world, but we can be thankful for it. It is the character of thanksgiving that it is the only real response that we can give to a gift. A gift without thanksgiving, freely given, is incomplete. And the thanksgiving cannot be mandatory.

“We (the elderly) are able to intercede for expectations of the younger generations and give dignity to the memory and sacrifices of past generations. We are able to remind ambitions young people that life without love is a barren ting.” The notion of giving dignity to the sacrifices of others who lived before our time is a noble one.

We stand on the shoulders of those who also labored and suffered, without which we could not exist in the way we do, if we could exist at all. It takes a lifetime to learn that “life without love is a barren thing.” That is the final lesson we need to learn.

The elderly are also able to “teach the young who are overly self-absorbed that there is more joy in giving than in receiving.” I always like to add that it is more difficult to receive than to give. It requires great humility to receive gifts, even gifts of wisdom from our grandparents.

Pope Bergoglio ends with the notion of praise as something that the elderly can do better than most. Yet, “how awful is the cynicism of an elderly person who has lost the meaning of his testimony, who scorns the young and does not communicate the wisdom of life.” This passage reminds us that we die as we lived. If we give no thinks, we announce that we are self-sufficient, when we are not.

“The words of grandparents have special value for the young. And the young know it.” Pope Francis adds: “I still carry with me, always, keep in my breviary, the words my grandmother consigned to me in writing on the day of my priestly ordination. I read them often and they do me good.” Francis does not cite these actual words here. Francis’ grandmother would have no way of knowing the fate of either her words or her grandson.

The final words are these: “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.” Aside from the fact that I have never liked the expression “throw-away culture” as it smacks of stagnation and lacks insight into the positive nature of obsolescence, this is a lovely idea.

The generations have grown apart. Grandparents recall the famous words of Socrates to Cephalus, the old man in the Republic. Socrates said he was delighted to talk to old men because they have been down a path that all of us shall surely follow. Plans for the future are heady things. Death, as Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi, has two aspects in Scripture. It was never intended to happen in the first place. But secondly, that once it happens to each man, hence the judgment, we are created for eternal life, not endless inner-worldly existence. Grandparents, Francis knows, have a sense of this reality. It constitutes their wisdom. The vocation of the elderly is to pray, often that is all they can do.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures  (St. Augustine Press, 2014).

Pope Francis
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