I am starting to get excited about the upcoming pilgrimage with over 100 youth and young adults of our diocese to Lourdes and to World Youth Day in Madrid. We celebrated Mass together this past Friday evening and then enjoyed pizza together after the Mass. The enthusiasm was palpable as we prepare to join over a million young Catholics from throughout the world to celebrate our faith with our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in Madrid.
While thinking about spending this time with our young Catholics, I also thought about the joy I experience with our elderly people. This week, I am celebrating Mass at Saint Anne’s Home in Fort Wayne and next week at Provena Sacred Heart Home in Avilla. I am constantly inspired by the faith and example of elderly parishioners I meet on every parish visit. This past Sunday, at Saint Monica’s parish in Mishawaka, one elderly woman, whom I had not previously met, told me that she prays for me every morning. I can’t tell you how much such kindness means to me. I think also of the Widows of Prayer in our diocese who pray for me, our priests, and for the Church. The prayers of so many of our elderly Catholics provide innumerable graces for us and the mission of the Church.
I thank God for the gifts of the elderly in our midst: their faith, their prayer, their example, their guidance, and their wisdom. When I was a child, my maternal grandmother (of Irish descent) lived with my family. She had a profound influence on me and my spiritual growth as a young boy. She suffered from severe arthritis and, therefore, had difficulty getting around. She had to use a walker and was pretty much home-bound. Her name was Sarah Dakes. Her husband, my grandfather, was an immigrant from Greece. He died before I was born.
I will never forget my grandmother’s deep faith. She prayed the holy rosary throughout the day. When I was preparing to become an altar boy, she taught me all about the different parts of the Mass. I loved to sit on her lap or at her feet to hear her stories from the past, her memories, and her wise counsel. Her presence in our home during those formative years of my life was a great blessing to me and my family. She died when I was 12 years old. Grandparents can be such a great example and can be such great teachers for the young. As we just celebrated the patron saints of grandparents, Saints Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus, let us thank the Lord for our grandparents, remember them in prayer, and make sure that we honor them as the Lord commands us.
Grandparents can be great catechists of their grandchildren, helping the parents in this holy task. I learned a lot about my Catholic faith from my grandmother. I learned from her words as well as her example. I think particularly of the example of her witness of suffering that she bore with patient acceptance. I wonder sometimes if I would have become a priest if I had not had her example of faith during my childhood.
When I remember with affection my own grandmother, I also think of all the elderly of our diocese. Some are very healthy and active. Others are struggling with various illnesses, weaknesses, perhaps loneliness or other sufferings. I wish to express my spiritual closeness to all our elderly Catholics. You are such an important part of the life and mission of the Church.
The Sacred Scriptures are full of examples of elderly persons who were an important part of the history of salvation, beginning with Abraham, our father in faith, and his wife Sarah. Then there was Moses. How many know that Moses was an old man when God chose him for the great mission of leading the chosen people out of Egypt? Late in the Old Testament, we read in the second book of Maccabees about Eleazar, an old man who bore witness to his faith with great generosity and strength, dying as a martyr for the faith.
The New Testament begins with the example of an elderly married couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. It was the elderly Elizabeth who said to Mary the beautiful words we say so often in the Hail Mary: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And then there is the great prayer of Zechariah, the canticle prayed every day at Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedictus. Also, in the first pages of the New Testament, we read about the elderly priest, Simeon, who welcomed the child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem and proclaimed the beautiful prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, prayed every day at Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. With Simeon, the widow Anna, 84 years old, welcomed Jesus at the Presentation in the Temple. She was a woman of prayer who went daily to the Temple to pray. All these elderly persons were the ones God chose to have a part in the early life of Jesus, examples of faith and piety, devotion and prayer. Nicodemus is another example. Blessed John Paul II wrote: How reassuring are all these examples! They remind us that at every stage of life the Lord can ask each of us to contribute what talents we have. The service of the Gospel has nothing to do with age!
Saint Paul wrote to Titus: Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in patience. Bid the older women likewise to live in a way appropriate to believers …, they are to teach what is good and so train the young women to love their husbands and children (2:2-5).
In our culture, old age is not always respected and esteemed as it should be. There is an attitude among some that values only youth, physical vigor, usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude is contrary to the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. The elderly must never be marginalized or neglected. The commandment of love includes generous attention to the elderly in our families and communities. We read the following in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
The elderly constitute an important school of life, capable of transmitting values and traditions, and of fostering the growth of younger generations, who thus learn to seek not only their own good but also that of others. If the elderly are in situations where they experience suffering and dependence, not only do they need health care services and appropriate assistance, but — and above all — they need to be treated with love.
Respect for the elderly is an essential part of our faith. It falls within the fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother. Blessed John Paul II wrote: Honouring older people involves a threefold duty: welcoming them, helping them and making good use of their qualities. I see such honor being shown in parishes and families, in institutions and ministries throughout our diocese. We must ensure that such honor is always shown. The Roman philosopher Cicero, centuries ago, said that the burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young.
When praising the esteem for the elderly in Africa, Blessed John Paul spoke of the elderly as living encyclopedias of wisdom, guardians of an inestimable treasure of human and spiritual experiences. How much all of us can learn from our elderly brothers and sisters! Bishop D’Arcy and our elderly and retired priests are great teachers for me and all our younger priests.
The Church needs the wisdom, the example, and the prayers of our elderly brothers and sisters. We are all enriched by their daily witness to the Gospel. May our Lord bless them with His grace and peace! To all the elderly members of the Church, I say thank you for your fidelity, example, and prayers!
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