Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
St. Joachim and St. Ann are the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their liturgical feast is celebrated every year on July 26th. Their names do not appear in the Bible, we know them through tradition. They were the grandparents of the Lord.
Just as we celebrate Father’s Day or Mother’s Day over here, in many countries with Catholic roots, including Argentina, Grandparents’ Day is celebrated on that day. Pope Francis has expanded that tradition to the universal Church. He has designated the Sunday that is closest to July 26 as a yearly day of prayer for our grandparents and for the elderly.
In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II had already written a beautiful letter to the elderly. In it, among other things he made an urgent appeal to “recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity. And this process of maturing cannot but benefit the larger society of which the elderly person is a part.
Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.
In view of all this, the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations, inasmuch as every person needs others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all.
Here the reflections of a poet dear to me are pertinent: “It is not the future alone which is eternal, not the future alone!… Indeed, the past too is the age of eternity: Nothing which has already happened will come back today as it was… It will return, but as Idea; it will not return as itself”.”
More than 20 years have passed since the Pope wrote that letter and the situation of the elderly has deteriorated considerably. Family life has been eroded and continues to be eroded in our times. The culture of death or, as Pope Francis calls it, throwaway culture has made inroads in the entire world. In many countries, especially in Western Europe, euthanasia is now legal. In other countries, it may not be legal, but is commonly practiced at times covertly and sometimes even overtly.
The pandemic has made the situation of the elderly even more difficult. We have watched astonished how some public officials in some jurisdictions simply refused medical care to the elderly or instead of bringing them to hospitals they would confine them in homes for the elderly where contagion spread disease and death among them.
In the face of this situation, the 84-year-old Pope has instituted this day of prayer for our grandparents and the elderly, to help us cherish our collective memory, which as St. John Paul II taught, is under the custody of our elders.
He does that with a letter and a message in which, addressing the elderly, especially those who are lonely, he tells them: “The whole Church is close to you – to us – and cares about you, loves you and does not want to leave you alone!
I am well aware that this Message comes to you at a difficult time: the pandemic swept down on us like an unexpected and furious storm; it has been a time of trial for everyone, but especially for us elderly persons. Many of us fell ill, others died or experienced the death of spouses or loved ones, while others found themselves isolated and alone for long periods.
The Lord is aware of all that we have been through in this time. He is close to those who felt isolated and alone, feelings that became more acute during the pandemic. Tradition has it that Saint Joachim, the grandfather of Jesus, felt estranged from those around him because he had no children; his life, like that of his wife Anne, was considered useless. So, the Lord sent an angel to console him. While he mused sadly outside the city gates, a messenger from the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joachim, Joachim! The Lord has heard your insistent prayer”. Giotto, in one of his celebrated frescoes, seems to set the scene at night, one of those many sleepless nights, filled with memories, worries and longings to which many of us have come to be accustomed.
Even at the darkest moments, as in these months of pandemic, the Lord continues to send angels to console our loneliness and to remind us: “I am with you always”. He says this to you, and he says it to me. That is the meaning of this Day, which I wanted to celebrate for the first time in this particular year, as a long period of isolation ends, and social life slowly resumes. May every grandfather, every grandmother, every older person, especially those among us who are most alone, receive the visit of an angel!
At times those angels will have the face of our grandchildren, at others, the face of family members, lifelong friends or those we have come to know during these trying times, when we have learned how important hugs and visits are for each of us. How sad it makes me that in some places these are still not possible!
The Lord, however, also sends us messengers through his words, which are always at hand. Let us try to read a page of the Gospel every day, to pray with the psalms, to read the prophets! We will be comforted by the Lord’s faithfulness. The Scriptures will also help us to understand what the Lord is asking of our lives today. For at every hour of the day and in every season of life, he continues to send laborers into his vineyard. I was called to become the Bishop of Rome when I had reached, so to speak, retirement age and thought I would not be doing anything new. The Lord is always – always – close to us. He is close to us with new possibilities, new ideas, new consolations, but always close to us. You know that the Lord is eternal; he never, ever goes into retirement…
It makes no difference how old you are, whether you still work or not, whether you are alone or have a family, whether you became a grandmother or grandfather at a young age or later, whether you are still independent or need assistance. Because there is no retirement age from the work of proclaiming the Gospel and handing down traditions to your grandchildren. You just need to set out and undertake something new…
Given this, I want to tell you that you are needed in order to help build, in fraternity and social friendship, the world of tomorrow: the world in which we, together with our children and grandchildren, will live once the storm has subsided. All of us must “take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies”. Among the pillars that support this new edifice, there are three that you, better than anyone else, can help to set up. Those three pillars are dreams, memory and prayer. The Lord’s closeness will grant to all, even the frailest among us, the strength needed to embark on a new journey along the path of dreams, memory and prayer.
The prophet Joel once promised: “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men will have visions”. The future of the world depends on this covenant between young and old. Who, if not the young, can take the dreams of the elderly and make them come true? Yet for this to happen, it is necessary that we continue to dream. Our dreams of justice, of peace, of solidarity can make it possible for our young people to have new visions; in this way, together, we can build the future. You need to show that it is possible to emerge renewed from an experience of hardship. I am sure that you have had more than one such experience: in your life you have faced any number of troubles and yet were able to pull through. Use those experiences to learn how to pull through now.
Dreams are thus intertwined with memory… Finally, prayer. As my predecessor, Pope Benedict, himself a saintly elderly person who continues to pray and work for the Church, once said: “the prayer of the elderly can protect the world, helping it perhaps more effectively than the frenetic activity of many others.” He spoke those words in 2012, towards the end of his pontificate. There is something beautiful here. Your prayer is a very precious resource: a deep breath that the Church and the world urgently need. Especially in these difficult times for our human family, as we continue to sail in the same boat across the stormy sea of the pandemic, your intercession for the world and for the Church has great value: it inspires in everyone the serene trust that we will soon come to shore.”
Fr. Roberto M. Cid