In the lead-up to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to the U.S., we are launching #FrancisontheFamily, a Diocesan-wide campaign that focuses on the catechesis of #PopeFrancis pertaining to family life. We have chosen to highlight some of Francis’ most repeated challenges to us – encounter, accompany, witness, and welcome – as a way of sharing the joy of family life.
By: Sr. Clare Hunter, F.S.E.
This was the response from a college student when I suggested the idea of volunteering at a nursing home. There were a number of reasons, but it boiled down to two main facts: the student had never had any substantial relationship with the elderly, and he was afraid of what made him uncomfortable. On November 19, 2013, Pope Francis gave a homily about the gift of grandparents and the elderly. How true Pope Francis’ words are for our world:
“We live in a time when the elderly do not count. It’s awful to say, but they are discarded. Because they are a nuisance to us.”
My young fearful friend is simply the natural product of generations who discard and discount the gift of the elderly and the inclusion of them in daily family life. Quite frankly, I found his fear irrational and lacking in reality — the logical outcome of a culture that rejects the reality of human life beginning at conception, has created a fluid definition to marriage and has determined elimination to be the solution for dealing with the fears of aging and dependence.
Though I can be afraid of that which is uncomfortable, I could not imagine my life without the influence of our esteemed elders. How blessed was I to have my great-grandparents, immigrants from Poland, attend “Grandparent Day” when I was in grammar school. My father is a nursing home administrator, and it was a great treat to go with him to work on days off from school. My favorite residents taught me how to latch-hook, (attempt to) crochet, told me stories and shared their candy.
I am sure that the seeds of my vocation were planted as Sr. Marcia, a social worker, took me with her on home visits to her elderly clients where they were able to have a young child around the house, and I learned the value of helping others and visiting the lonely. In my early teens I would sit with Helen, a woman silenced and crippled by a stroke, for a few hours so that her sister Nellie, her caregiver, could run errands. Elisabeth, a German Army nurse who saw the unspeakable, caring for the men at the front during World War II, would come for dinner and bring with her rich tales, foods and books to entertain my family. My parents always took us with them to wakes and funerals, instilling in us the reverence for the body and burial of the dead so beautifully held in the traditions of our Catholic faith. How sad I became for my college friend, who had no experience of what Pope Francis’ reminded us:
“The elderly are those who carry history, that carry doctrine, that carry the faith and give it to us as an inheritance. They are like a good vintage wine who have this strength from within to give us a noble heritage.”
It was not always easy. I saw too the frustrations, the pain, the confusion, the failing bodies, the dementia and the loss of a sense of self, and the dependence that is terrifying, making it very hard to know how to relate to these men and women. It is especially difficult when it is a loved one you knew as so strong, capable and central to your life. It is natural to become frustrated, angry or impatient and to want to stay away, or worse, to make them go away. Yet, unless we die young, we will all know the realities of aging minds and bodies, and the need for loved ones to care for us with the love and dignity each person deserves.
During that same homily, Pope Francis then recalled a story he was told as a young child:
“There was a father, mother and their many children, and a grandfather lived with them. He was quite old, and when he was at table eating soup, he would get everything dirty: his mouth, the serviette … it was not a pretty sight! One day the father said that, given what was happening to the grandfather, from that day forward he would eat alone. And 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’.”
In closing his homily, Pope Francis teaches us our Catechism:
“The fourth commandment: it is the only one that promises something in return. It is the commandment of mercy — to be merciful with our ancestors…let us ask for the grace to take care of, to listen and venerate our ancestors, our grandparents.”
I asked my young college friend to consider this homily, to reflect on the aching emptiness he knows in his life and to make the decision to do something about his desire to be more fully alive in his faith. I hope he goes to the nursing home, and finds life.
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