As I write this, I am eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of my third grandchild. I have been privileged to share many happy times with my granddaughter and grandson; and I look forward to making more memories that include their baby sister. Like my own grandparents, I want to share my life with them; and I want to be included as their lives unfold and blossom.
I learned so much from my own grandparents. With my father’s parents in rural Louisiana, I thumped watermelons in the fields, swam in spring-fed swimming holes, and learned that coffee should be brewed strong. I sat on my grandfather’s lap and steered an old truck down the back roads long before I could reach the pedals. Every meal began with heads bowed in prayer.
From my mother’s parents in South Texas, I learned the expressiveness of the Spanish language, generous hospitality, and the art of bargaining in Mexican markets. I also learned what it means to live with Catholicism pervading every aspect of life. Images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady, and the saints were everywhere; and a Rosary was either in hand or nearby.
I called these images to mind when Pope Francis spoke of grandparents and the elderly in his recent Wednesday General Audience:
The prayer of grandparents and of the elderly is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure! A great injection of wisdom for the whole of human society: above all for one which is too busy, too taken, too distracted. Someone should also sing, for them too, sing of the signs of God, proclaim the signs of God, pray for them!
Too often the elderly, with their diminishing physical and mental capabilities, are viewed only as a burden. While the day eventually comes that Grandmother can no longer bake pies or host the Sunday dinner, she is often still able to pray. This continued faith in face of the challenges of aging is a gift, and should be an inspiration to her children and grandchildren.
There is no question that old age can be brutal. Physical and mental suffering is often unavoidable. Our culture often finds facing the hardships of the elderly repugnant, and seeks to keep them hidden. In the name of a distorted idea of compassion, there are many who advocate assisted suicide or euthanasia to “end the suffering”. But the word compassion means to “suffer with”. There is nothing authentically compassionate about killing the one who suffers so that we do not have to witness pain.
Certainly, there comes a time when further medical intervention is inappropriate. Death comes to each of us. It is an inevitable part of our earthly life. The Church is very clear that one is not under a moral obligation to utilize extraordinary means to prolong life (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2278). But the Church is equally clear that suffering does not diminish the value of human life (ibid., 2279). We do not judge lives and say they are unworthy of medical care. We do judge medical treatments and say that the burdens they impose do not justify the benefits they may offer in a particular situation for a particular patient. It is the treatment that is unworthy, not the patient.
It is actually a beautiful opportunity for virtue when we lovingly care for our elderly. Those who offer the care cultivate patience and generosity. The elderly who allow others to provide assistance cultivate humility. Holiness flourishes in families and in societies that embrace, rather than discard, those who are sick and suffering.
Pope Francis tells the story of a family whose elderly grandfather had difficulty eating and got food all over his face during meals. The father decided to sit the grandfather at a small table away from the family during meals, so that he would no longer disrupt the family dinner. The father came home one day and found one of his sons building another small table. The boy explained, “This is for you Dad, when you are old like Grandpa.” Clearly our actions, more than our words, teach children the value of the elderly.
The Holy Father’s plea for prayers and care for the elderly is one with the rest of his call to strengthen the family. The family transcends generational lines. The foundation of faith is transmitted as an inheritance from one generation to the next. With our mobile society, children often do not get to experience extended families. It is easy to forget about family members who are out of sight. Yet parents are denying their children an invaluable source of faith and love when they do not make the effort to appreciate and strengthen family ties.
One of my favorite painting is by El Greco and depicts the Holy Family, along with Mary’s mother, St. Anne, and his cousin, St. John the Baptist. I love the image of Christ in his humanity, nestled in the love of his extended family. Perhaps, as Lent draws to a close, we can reach out to a parent, grandparent, or other family member who might feel forgotten in his physical, mental, or spiritual suffering. Like Simon of Cyrene (vide Matthew 27:32), we can share the weight of their crosses and ease their burdens. Beginning in our own families, we can nurture authentic compassion and love across the generations.