By Fr. Limukani Ndlovu
As an older person himself, St. John Paul II (St. JPII) engaged in an empathetic conversation with the elderly through his apostolic letter of 1999. His thoughts were affectionately turned towards the elderly people of all languages and cultures. He applauded the United Nations Organization for dedicating to the elderly that year in which everybody was to direct attention to the situation of all who, because of the burden of their years, often have to face a variety of difficult problems. Thus, St. John Paul II expressed his spiritual closeness to the elderly because of his personal understanding of the phase of adulthood. In spite of the Covid 19 pandemic and its lock down related impacts, Pope Francis has, through his video message published 25 July 2021 as the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly under a pastorally inspiring theme, “I am with you always” (cf. Mt 28:20).
The elderly are people who have made a long journey in life (cf. Wis 4:13) and old age has been referred to as the autumn of life by Cicero. Older people remain active, just in different ways than their younger counterparts. Whereas childhood and youth are the times when the human person is being formed and is completely directed towards the future, and in coming to appreciate his own abilities, makes plans for adulthood, old age is not without its own benefits. As Saint Jerome intimated, with the quieting of the passions, old age increases wisdom, and brings more mature counsels. In Familiaris Consortio (1981, #22), St. John Paul II highlights that the Synod devoted special attention to women, their rights and role within the family and society. Similarly, the Synod on the fellowship of the family deliberated on men as husbands and fathers. Also, the issues about children and the elderly were attended to in the same meeting.
Later on, in the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia Africa (1995, #50), St. John Paul II says that the sons and daughters of Africa love life. It is precisely this love for life that leads them to give such great importance to the veneration of their ancestors. They believe intuitively that the dead continue to live and remain in communion with them and that is in some way a preparation for the belief in the Communion of the Saints. The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born and they rejoice in this life in the spirit of humanism of “I am, because we are”. For Africans, the idea that life can be destroyed is rejected, even when the so-called ‘progressive civilizations’ would like to lead them in this direction. The Synod Fathers were clear that practices hostile to life are usually imposed on African people by means of economic systems which serve the selfishness of the rich. Africans show their respect for human life until its natural end, and keep elderly parents and relatives within the family. As a growing up child, I experienced immense joy, fun, sense of protection and warmth whenever I was in the company of the elderly and grandparents. The same remains true in my pastoral ministry as I interact with elderly.
On the paragraph specifically dedicated to the elderly in Africae Munus (2011, #47), thesaintly Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI states that in Africa, the elderly people are held in particular veneration. They are not banished from families or marginalized as in other cultures. On the contrary, they are esteemed and perfectly integrated within their families, of which they are indeed the pinnacle. This beautiful African appreciation of old age should inspire the Western societies to treat the elderly with greater dignity. As the chief Catechist, Pope Benedict VXI, just like his predecessor and successor makes reference to profound scriptural citations which relate to the elderly. In paragraph #48 he recognizes that the elderly can influence the family in a variety of ways and that their rich experiences that have passed the test of time can bridge the generational gap and also affirm the need for mutual support. Both grandparents and the elderly are an enrichment for all elements of the family, especially for young couples and for children who find in them understanding and love. Not only have the elderly and grandparents given life, but they contribute by their actions to building up their family by their prayer, life of faith and they spiritually enrich every family member as well as that of the community.
Following the footsteps of his predecessors, the Holy Father Pope Francis pays particular attention to the elderly in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013, #53). He addresses the very core of our being by asking: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” and comments that this was a case of exclusion. Two years down the line, in his widely acclaimed document Laudato Si’ (2015), Pope Francis expresses the concern of the elderly who lament that beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.
Amazingly, in 2016 Pope Francis also dedicates some paragraphs on the elderly in the Apostolic letter Amoris Lataetia. He builds on the words by the Psalmist: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Ps 71:9). He is aware that naturally, the elderly fear being forgotten and rejected and insists that God asks us to be his means of hearing the cry of both the poor and the elderly. He warns the world against indifference and contempt towards old age. Therefore, people should reawaken the collective sense of gratitude and hospitality which make the elderly feel like a living part of the community. We cannot deny the fact that our elderly and grandparents came before us on our own road, in our own house, in our daily battle for a worthy life. Hence, His Holiness ardently yearns to see a Church that would challenge the throw-away culture by the overflowing joy of a new embrace between the young and the old.
In Christus Vivit (2019, #16),Pope Francis passionately pleads with the young people that they should accept the authority of those who are older (cf. 1 Pet 5:5). Accordingly, he reiterates that the Word of God always insists that profound respect be shown to the elderly because they have a wealth of experience based on their known successes and failures, life’s joys and afflictions, dreams and disappointments. He says that in the silence of the old people’s hearts is a store of experiences that can teach the young generations not to make mistakes, not to be taken in by false promises and to be self-controlled (cf. Tit 2:6). The Pope stresses that it is unhelpful to buy into the cult of youth or foolishly to dismiss others simply because they are from older generation. A wise young person is open to the future, yet still capable of learning something from the experience of others.
In the same document, the Pope identifies the family as the best setting for learning and applying the culture of forgiveness, peace, justice, love and all other positive values and so they need to cherish the role of authority expressed by parents. He applauds the loving concern by the family members for those who are weaker because of sickness and old age and urges families to forgive, accept each other unconditionally primarily because the family is the first and indispensable teacher of peace. The Pope also notes that because of its central importance, the family should avoid the distortions of the very notion of marriage and family as testified by the elders.
Through the encyclical on fraternity and social friendship Pope Francis teaches that it is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering. If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity (FT, #35). He is deeply pained to see some people readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered to be more privileged and worthy of a carefree existence. In some societies, persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor, disabled and elderly. The Pope finally submits that there is growing indifference to deplorable wastefulness of food and disregard for the elderly and grandparents, (FT, # 18).
In conclusion, old age is one of the inevitable and inescapable life enigmas. It reminds us that indeed time flies irretrievably. For that reason, old age is to be esteemed and valued as we give heed to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (cf. Leviticus 19:34; Mt 7:12) by being present always to the elderly and grandparents.