Old age: A shipwreck
or perhaps a fine wine?
Sister Constance Veit, LSP
The month of September begins and ends with a focus on the elderly. Since 1978 the first Sunday after Labor Day has been celebrated as National Grandparents Day; this year's observance fell on Sept. 7. Later this month, senior citizens will gather in Rome for a special celebration in their honor at the invitation of Pope Francis. The meeting, entitled "The Blessing of a Long Life," will take place in Saint Peter's Square on Sept. 28.
In announcing the event, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, stated, "The day is based on the assumption that old age is not a shipwreck but a vocation." A shipwreck? I suspect what Archbishop Paglia meant was not that advanced age itself is a disaster, but that society's response to this stage of life is sadly adrift. He suggested that neither politics, economics nor culture has developed an adequate approach to the contemporary individual needs of older persons or the growing population of seniors as a whole.
The inadequacy of society's response to the needs and problems of the elderly is nothing new. In 1982, St. John Paul II suggested that society needed to be "jerked into awareness" with regard to the elderly in order to foster "a vision of the old which is genuinely human and Christian, a vision of old age as a gift of God to the individual, the family and society." More than 30 years later, the ship seems to have completely lost direction. Pope Francis has deplored our "throw-away culture" and a "hidden euthanasia" which silences and marginalizes the old. "A nation that does not respect grandparents," he said, "has no future because it has no memory."
Pope Francis often evokes the memory of his own paternal grandmother, whom he visited each day as a child and to whom he credits his early spiritual formation. The pope feels that we live in a time when the elderly do not count. Yet, he asserts, "the elderly pass on history, doctrine, faith and they leave them to us as an inheritance. They are like a fine vintage wine; that is, they have within themselves the power to give us this noble inheritance."
In a homily about the elderly Eleazar, who accepted death rather than give a bad example to the young (Maccabees 6:18-31), our Holy Father related the following story he heard as a young child and never forgot: "There was a father, mother and their many children, and a grandfather lived with them. He was quite old, and when he was at the table eating soup, he would get everything dirty: his mouth, the napkin … it was not a pretty sight. One day the father said that given what was happening to the grandfather, from that day on, he would eat alone. So he bought a little table, and placed it in the kitchen. And so the grandfather ate alone in the kitchen while the family ate in the dining room. After some days, the father returned home from work and found one of his children playing with wood. He asked him, 'What are you doing?' to which the child replied, 'I am playing carpenter.' 'And what are you building?' the father asked. 'A table for you, papa, for when you get old like grandpa.' "
Although each of us alone may be powerless to influence policies or economic decisions regarding the elderly, we can change the culture in our own families. To begin, do not let the month of September pass without pausing to reflect and thank God for the precious legacy you have received from grandparents or other significant elders in your life. And then, be sure to set a place at your table for the elderly, regardless of their limitations. Teach your children to reverence the old and one day you will be considered fine vintage wine in the heart of your own family. You will experience the blessing of a long life!
(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)
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