My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The month of May is officially (traditionally) devoted to our Blessed Mother. The last day of the month, May 31, is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This event, which is recounted in the New Testament, tells us that Mary who was already pregnant with the Lord, Jesus, was informed that her cousin, Elizabeth, was also pregnant in her old age. Mary left her place of home and traveled to Elizabeth’s home, which was not a short journey in those days. Ain Karim is a town five miles from Jerusalem, considered the traditional site since the sixth century. The journey was about 80 to 100 miles and would probably take Mary three to four days.
During my recent trip to the Holy Land in September of 2017, I visited for the first time that wonderful site which is venerated as the place of encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. It was where the words of the Hail Mary came to us and the great prayer of the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise, was first spoken. The lesson of this visit is that Mary went out of her way to make a journey to be with her older cousin Elizabeth. She sacrifices herself for someone. Whenever I pray the mystery of the Rosary, I pray that our families recognize the needs of those who are elderly. It is always my prayer that we can be more attentive to the needs of those who are aging in our society. The fact is, we are living longer and longer and the isolation of old age can be a terrible burden.
In fact, most recently loneliness has been called the “hidden epidemic” in our society and a serious health problem. Research firms have been paid by national health insurers to understand this phenomenon. The results of one survey of over 20,000 Americans ages 18 and older shows the following facts: 46 percent felt alone sometimes or always; 47 percent felt left out; 27 percent rarely or never felt as though they have people who really understand them; 43 percent felt that their relationships were really not meaningful; 43 percent felt isolated from others; 20 percent rarely felt close to people, and 18 percent did not feel that there are other people who they can talk to. Only 53 percent had meaningful, in person and social interactions; such as having extended conversations with friends or spending quality time with family on a daily basis. Most shocking of all is that the loneliest generation of adults, called “Generation Z,” are those between 18 to 22 years of age. How can it be that since we have so many new means of social communication – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat – that so many can feel so isolated.
Communication and relationship are not necessarily the same. Communication can certainly enhance and enable relationships, however, relationships themselves are what is most important. One person must truly reach out to another in some form of personal contact in which emotions are exchanged. This, it seems, is not happening with the impersonal means of communication that have exploded in our own society.
What can we do? What lesson can we learn from the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that we can apply to our own lives and break the cycle of loneliness that seeks to be ever more common? We would imagine that our aging population is lonelier than the youngest population. From the results of this survey, this seems not to be the case. The elderly do, however, experience significant loneliness. Mary’s example of reaching out to her older cousin is certainly something we need to follow. We cannot leave the aged to suffer loneliness without relationships that are so important in life. Telephone calls, personal visits, and even Skype in today’s world, which allows the elderly to visit in a personal way with relatives who live at a distance, are good means of breaking this chronic situation of loneliness. Visiting the aged, especially in institutions, is important.
In our own Bishop Mugavero Residence at the Immaculate Conception Center at Douglaston, we do our best to assist our elderly priests – there are over 40 currently living at the residence – to live together to share their lives with one another, to receive visitors and to continue living their priestly life by their celebration of the Eucharist. Spiritual assistance is provided to them by the Passionist Fathers in the form of days of recollection.
All of the nursing homes in our diocese in Brooklyn and Queens either have chaplains paid for by the diocese or are assisted by local parishes. All of the hospitals in Brooklyn and Queens are covered by our chaplaincy services. These are occasions and places where people can feel lonely. As a Church, we support overcoming these unique situations of loneliness.
As the Blessed Virgin Mary went out of her way in the journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth, thereby putting out into the deep, we too must find ways to exercise that ministry of relationship with one another; be it the elderly or the young. We need to have meaningful relationships and meaningful communication not only using the modern means of communication, but also recognizing that there is no substitute for a handshake or a kiss for someone who feels lonely.