When Pope Francis opens his breviary to pray each day, a letter from his grandma Rosa greets him. It was written on the day of his ordination to the priesthood in 1969.
After all these years, she still inspires him with these words: “May these my grandchildren, to whom I have given the best of my heart, have a long and happy life, but if on some painful day, sickness or the loss of a loved one fills you with grief, remember that a sigh before the Tabernacle, where the greatest and most august martyr resides, and a gaze at Mary at the foot of the Cross, can make a drop of balm fall on the deepest and most painful wounds.”
Francis hopes that we all honor our elders and cherish their wisdom while taking care of them at the end of their lives. It has been a consistent topic for him, even if it has not garnered much attention.
What’s especially interesting is that he often pairs comments about the elderly, especially grandparents like his beloved Rosa, with words about young people.
Pope Francis speaks of the elderly in loving terms, as when he said in September 2014, “The elderly who have faith are like trees that continue to bear fruit.” His particular point seems to be not only that older men and women deserve our praise, but that they have much left to give.
“The elderly pass on history, doctrine, faith and they leave them to us as inheritance,” he preached in November 2013. “The wisdom of our grandparents is the inheritance we ought to receive. A people that does not care for its grandparents, that does not respect its grandparents, has no future since it has lost its memory.”
For grandparents, then, old age is not simply a time to reap, but to keep sowing.
At this moment in world history, it’s time to spend more attention to our elders and the lessons they sow. Demographic statistics show that we’re experiencing an unprecedented worldwide growth in our population over 40, about the start of modernity’s middle age. In 2011, the first American baby boomers reached 65. Every single day until 2030, about 10,000 Americans will turn 65. In a few decades, 1 in 5 Americans will be over 65.
The implications for ministry are staggering.
Moreover, people are living more productively in their later years, with life spans longer and healthier than they have ever been in history. Across the globe, the population over 65 will double in the lifetime of our children — from 7 percent of the population in 2008, to 14 percent in 2040. Because we’re living longer but having fewer kids, by 2020 little ones under the age of 5 will be outnumbered by senior citizens over 65 all over the world, a disparity that has never occurred before in human history.
Francis has often pointed to the wisdom of the elderly as a guide to the young, and to the great role that older folks can play in our throwaway culture. He struck this theme just two days after he was elected pope in March 2013 when he told the cardinals, many in their late 60s and 70s, “Like good wine that improves with age, let us give the youth the wisdom of our lives.”
Flying home from his first trip abroad to World Youth Day in Brazil a few months later, he turned conventional wisdom on its head by declaring young and old must be bound together and not isolated because “the elderly are also the future of a people.”
Francis elaborated on this point in a homily on the Feast of the Presentation in February 2014, declaring, “It’s good for the elderly to communicate their wisdom to the young; and it is good for the young people to gather this wealth of experience and wisdom, and to carry it forward, not so as to store it in a museum, but to bring it forward addressing the challenges of life.”
He devoted several paragraphs to the elderly in Amoris Laetitia (nos. 191-93). After calling for a sense of gratitude and inclusion toward the elderly as “a living part of the community,” Francis quoted St. John Paul II to identify the role older men and women play in “the continuity of the generations” by their “charism of bridging the gap.”
Francis then picked up on that connecting theme himself: “Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country.”
What might this two-way generational street look like? Let’s turn to the Bible for two examples.
The first comes from the book of Ruth, whose star is not the young woman of the title but the elderly Naomi. She had two adult sons who died and was close to her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi doesn’t want to be a burden: she tries to dismiss her daughters-in-law, seeing herself as someone who has fallen out of favor with God. But Ruth honors her mother-in-law. She isn’t going anywhere, famously telling Naomi, “Where you go, I will go.”
From this low point Naomi’s prospects pick up, and she’s wise enough to recognize a potential change in fortune. Naomi notices that a man named Boaz, a relative of her late husband, has taken a liking to Ruth, sending Naomi into Yente-the-Matchmaker mode.
Naomi gives Ruth advice on attracting Boaz’s attention because, as the older woman tells Ruth, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” Boaz is quite impressed with Ruth’s character, especially her devotion to the older Naomi. Ruth and Boaz marry and have a son they call Obed.
When Naomi’s friends hear of Obed’s birth, they shout with joy. “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin.” They even proclaim, “A son has been born to Naomi,” instead of to Ruth, the boy’s biological mother.
We imagine Naomi delighting in her role, late in life, as Grandma. Moreover, her impact on Obed is considerable and historic. Obed will be the father of Jesse, whose son is David, making Naomi the great-great-grandmother-in-law of one of the greatest Hebrew heroes in the Bible.
Our second Biblical example returns to Pope Francis’s February 2014 sermon on the Presentation. There he vividly painted the scene of the young Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple, where they are met by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38).
Simeon is waiting for his death, which God told him wouldn’t occur until he’d seen the messiah. Luke describes Simeon as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the holy spirit rested on him.” On that day, the spirit led Simeon to the Temple, where he saw Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
As soon as Simeon caught sight of them, he realized that Jesus was the promised messiah. In a beautiful scene repeated in homes and maternity wards around the world, this old man cuddled that tiny baby in his arms. “Master,” Simeon told God, “now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.”
Nearby stood Anna, a woman “of a great age” (84, as it turns out), who was revered as a prophet. She fasted and prayed in the Temple all the time, like so many men and women who find themselves spending more time at prayer or community service in their retirements today. Anna overheard the righteous and devout Simeon speaking with Jesus’s parents.
“At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Pope Francis played with the idea of old and young when preaching about this Biblical story: “It is a meeting between young people who are full of joy in observing the Law of the Lord, and the elderly who are filled with joy for the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a unique encounter between observance and prophecy, where young people are the observers and the elderly are prophetic!”
Simeon and Anna are among the first to proclaim the belief in Jesus as the messiah—wise senior citizens still looking ahead.