By Sister Constance Veit, L.S.P.
For American Catholics, October is Respect Life Month, and this year’s theme is “Christ Our Hope: In Every Season of Life.” In his letter introducing this theme, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chairman of the USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) Committee on Pro-Life Activities, suggests that although attacks against human life seem to be growing more numerous and more callous by the day, “through our Christian hope in the Resurrection, we are given the grace to persevere in faith.”
Persevering in faith through good times and bad, in season and out of season, is something the elderly can teach us a lot about. In what has become a trademark of his pontificate wherever he goes, Pope Francis shares his desire for an alliance between the young and the old — he believes the very future of society depends on it.
“Today more than ever, the future generates anxiety, insecurity, mistrust and fear. Only the testimony of their elders will help young people look above the horizon to see the stars,” he recently wrote. “Just learning that it was worth fighting for something will help young people face the future with hope.”
Contemporary society tends to marginalize our elders, and in doing so, the pope says, we lose the chance to learn the secret that has allowed them to navigate their way through life’s ups and downs. We miss out on the wisdom of people who have stayed the course over time.
But even as he tells young people to respect their elders, the pope adds that they don’t have to agree with everything older people say. He tells them they should have a critical spirit, accepting only what is good in the words and example of their elders. “Pay attention to your elders … They are our roots,” he recently told a gathering of young people in Mozambique.
But then he added, “Older generations have much to tell you and offer you. True, sometimes we elderly people can be overbearing and nagging, or we can try to make you act, speak and live the same way we do. That is wrong. You will have to find your own way, but by listening to and appreciating those who have gone before you.”
The pope’s words to youth in Mozambique are refreshingly honest, and they give me pause as I realize that I am closer to my own golden years than to the days of my youth. Our Holy Father expects a lot of us. He is calling upon elders — and I include those well on their way to becoming the elder generation — to rise up and teach young people how to set their gaze above the horizon and to persevere in faith.
To do this, we must be truly wise. But here is the catch: Wisdom — the realization that we come from God and are going to God — does not come automatically with age. The experiences of a lifetime sow the seeds of wisdom, but they must be cultivated by prayer and reflection on those experiences in light of the Gospel.
So, for those of us soon-to-be-seniors, let’s ask ourselves, while we still have time, if we seek wisdom and eternal values. Let’s ask ourselves if we believe that anxiety about the future can be overcome. Let’s ask ourselves if we are more focused on others than ourselves, if we believe that there is more joy in giving than in receiving, and if we try to show love not only in words but in actions. These are the lessons that millennials and Gen Z are waiting for us to teach them even if they don’t know it.
While we still have time, let’s follow the advice of Pope Francis: “Growing older means preserving and cherishing the most precious things about our youth, but it also involves having to purify those things that are not good and receiving new gifts from God so that we can develop the things that really matter.”
This is how we will teach the young to face the future with hope.
Sister Constance Veit, L.S.P., is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.