No one would doubt that Pope Francis is a man who has many responsibilities. He is the spiritual head of over 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and oversees the administration of a vast and complex Vatican bureaucracy. But one of the more important tasks the Pope has, and something that is often overlooked in all his meetings with foreign dignitaries and global travels, is to teach. As the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis regularly takes time to instruct the faithful on various aspects of the Catholic faith. One way he carries this out is by offering a series of catecheses on particular topics during his weekly general audiences. He has previously addressed themes related to hope, faith, discernment, and St. Joseph. Just last year, he gave a series of 18 short talks about the meaning and value of old age.
As an admittedly not young man himself, the topic was particularly personal to him, and he noted that we are living in an age when there has never been as many elderly as there are now. He went on to state that even though there are so many elderly people among us, they are not as valued and appreciated as they should be since they are not considered “productive” by societal standards. He asks “But is it true that youth contain the full meaning of life, while old age simply represents its emptying and loss? Is that true? Only youth has the full meaning of life, and old age is the emptying of life, the loss of life?” The wisdom and experience of the elderly is often overlooked and unacknowledged; their opinions are resented by those who feel that they “have had their time already and now need to step out of the way.” This fragmentation between the young and old, Pope Francis says, is contrary to God’s plan for humanity, and does both old and young a grave disservice. Both groups have something important to offer the other: the elderly have wisdom and experience, and the young have enthusiasm and hope.
Pope Francis expresses this imaginatively as he says “the elderly are like the roots of a tree; they have the history there, and the young are like the flowers and the fruit.“ Both are necessary for the tree not to just survive, but to thrive. And for the tree of humanity to thrive, there must be a conversation between the young and old, an ongoing and deep relationship where both are given the time and space to share. If the old stay mired in their ruminations about their idealized past, then the young will simply spend more time looking down at their phones. But when the old and young are brought together, and allow the other to speak from their experience, the separation between the generations can be overcome. The young can reverence the experience of the old, and the old can support the young in their dreams for the future.
Mother Angeline points to her own relationship with her grandfather as the initial inspiration for her vocation to serve the elderly. As a young girl, she was able to recognize and appreciate the great gift that the elderly are to us. Rather than being “throwaway
material”, Mother Angeline wholeheartedly believed “that old people whether they are 65 or 85 or 100, have a great need for individual care.” It is Mother’s guiding philosophy that
the elderly are entitled to spend their final years in a loving, home-like setting that still provides the foundation for the homes that Carmelite Sisters of the Aged and Infirm, and their lay associates administer. May we, as Pope Francis asks us, be able to see the beauty and importance of being old, and follow Mother Angeline’s example seeing the person of Christ in each and every old person.