Youthfulness is a quality that society has always valued, putting great emphasis on the beauty, energy and physical health that the idealised form of youth embodies. As people move into middle age, they start to look back, perhaps wistfully at times, on their younger years and think how all that beauty, energy, health, and maybe even mental acuteness, have been reduced by varying degrees over the intervening decades. For some, this leads to a sense of regret at opportunities lost forever; for others, a more philosophical approach abides, and they will embrace all that comes their way when their younger years have passed.
Of course, veneration of youth and all its qualities can detract from the consideration of the value of those who are no longer in their youth but have moved into middle age and beyond. It is this final group of people, the elderly, that the Church would like us to consider on this inaugural World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. Grandparents are included for our consideration and gratitude on this day. Of course, not all grandparents are elderly, and not all elderly people are grandparents, but both the elderly and grandparents are deserving of some attention, prayer and positive reinforcement. This is most especially so when one considers that both groups, though having much to offer society, are often side-lined or considered to have less worth than people such as parents and those of younger years.
Pope Francis, in his message to mark this day, acknowledges the effect of the pandemic on all people, but most especially the elderly who have been hit harder than most others by death and loneliness. On a positive note, however, and in contrast to an attitude that prevails among many, Pope Francis states that grandparents and the elderly do indeed have a purpose in life, even if they feel they are running low on energy and that their solitude is burden enough. Their vocation is “to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young and to care for the little ones.”
So often today, one sees grandparents acting as surrogate parents. Due to financial pressures, in many cases both parents are having to work and so call upon their own parents to care for their children. Of course, grandparents love spending time with their grandchildren, but acting in loco parentis often puts a significant strain on them physically, emotionally and financially. Such pressures were less of a concern in the past when grandparents connected with their grandchildren simply to revel in the pleasure of being present to them and enjoying their company.
As we acknowledge the importance of the grandparents and the elderly on this day, may we also look to other groups that society often marginalises and undervalues: refugees, minority racial groups, people who belong to a religious or sexual minority, the disabled, and so on. Pope Francis repeatedly highlights the importance of valuing all people, something that Jesus himself modelled for us during his earthly mission. This inaugural World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly is an opportunity to pray for and reflect on the value of just two undervalued yet productive groups who live among us.
Fr Robert Riedling is Dean and Administrator of St Patrick’s Cathedral Parish, Parramatta.