Today’s General Audience address by Pope Francis brought tears to my eyes.
It was the second installment of his Catechesis on Old Age. The title of this week’s teaching was “Longevity: symbol and opportunity,” and he spoke about why he chose to establish the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly in January of last year. He explained that “The alliance between the two extreme generations of life – children and the elderly – also helps the other two – young people and adults – to bond with each other so as to make everyone’s existence richer in humanity.”
This is certainly something to which I can attest in my own life. I was fortunate that I was close to all four of my grandparents. They all lived into their 80s and 90s and I was able to get to know each of them through the eyes of a young adult. None of them was perfect, but each of them played an important role in my formation and helped make me the person I am today. My maternal grandfather was a brilliant storyteller and a voracious reader. He had been a baseball player in his youth and was also a staunch Catholic, although he was not a fan of the Second Vatican Council. It was from him that I developed my love of history and sports, as well as my interest in Church affairs, doctrine, and literature. My maternal grandmother was a model of warmth, compassion, and unconditional love. My paternal grandfather was a brilliant engineer, carpenter, and handyman. He was also an outdoorsman and I have fond memories of our hikes and our time spent fishing. He also modeled a strong work ethic that I can only hope to emulate. My paternal grandmother was as kind and welcoming a family matriarch as you can imagine. She loved nothing more than to plan for a big family gathering, and she had a knack for encountering all kinds of people. My grandfather used to say, “She’s never lost a friend.” Her phone book and Christmas card list included everyone from people she grew up with in rural Georgia in the 1920s and 1930s, to old neighbors she’d befriended when she and my grandfather lived in a tiny house near the University of Maryland as newlyweds after the Second World War, to a family from Iran who had briefly lived down the street a decade or so before.
The love and security I had during my upbringing, simply by having my grandparents always there, was surely one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. The words by Pope Francis today resonated with me, but also caused some heartache and grief. He said, “Think: a young person who is not bonded to his or her roots, which are the grandparents, does not receive the strength, like the tree, the strength of the roots, and grows up badly, grows up ailing, grows up without points of reference. Therefore, it is necessary to seek, as a human need, dialogue between generations. And this dialogue is important between grandparents and grandchildren, who are the two extremes.”
I mourn for my children who lost two grandparents long before they were able to know them at a deeper level. I feel heartache because I know I was extremely blessed. Not all families benefit from supportive relationships with grandparents—sometimes out of necessity, sometimes due to geography or other reasons beyond our control. Sadly, my parents both passed away while my children were still young. My father died before my youngest, who is now five years old, was even born. Fortunately, they are close to their other two grandparents—my in-laws, who are in good health—and that is a blessing.
Still, when I think of the time spent with all of my grandmas and grandads, I mourn for all those who are not able to spend priceless time with loving grandparents as I did. This includes my own children, who will not benefit from my dad’s devotion and wisdom or my mom’s sense of humor, love of music, and breadth of knowledge—except in what I can share with them.
Today has been a reflective Ash Wednesday. I’ve been thinking about how I want to foster stronger relationships between my children and their great aunts and uncles. I’ve also thought about children who don’t even have a relationship with one of their parents, let alone their grandparents. And there are many older people who don’t have a connection to the younger generations. Pope Francis explains why this is necessary and fruitful for the young:
The rhythms of old age are an indispensable resource for grasping the meaning of life marked by time. The elderly have their rhythms, but they are rhythms that help us. Thanks to this mediation, the destination of life to the encounter with God becomes more credible: a design that is hidden in the creation of the human being “in his image and likeness” and is sealed in the Son of God becoming man.
This Lent, I will be uniting my prayer with all those who mourn human connections that have been interrupted by death or other factors. I pray that we work to heal and strengthen our relationships, and that we are open to welcoming new people, young and old, into the rhythms of our lives.
Image: Pixabay. By colormesunny.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.