In the Catholic vision of Pope Francis, the elderly should not be seen and treated as expendable, but should have a place of honor.
World days multiply like rabbits. No wonder, then, that Pope Francis dedicates the fourth Sunday in July (July 25, 2021) every year to World Grandparents and Seniors Day.
Those of us who live in the affluent West will of course be amazed to see grandparents associated with the elderly. Many grandparents are in their 50s and have barely more than half of their expected résumé behind them.
Bringing grandparents and the elderly together, however, could lead us to appreciate two of Pope Francis’ constant concerns. Because he is so firmly convinced that everyone is valuable in God’s eyes and part of a community that should prioritize their needs, he is concerned that the elderly are often neglected and treated as expendable. The neglect and restrictions imposed on them during the pandemic, the government’s lack of attention to people living in retirement homes, and the revelations that physical and financial abuse of the elderly is clearly widespread should give us all food for thought .
In Pope Francis’ Catholic vision, the ancients should not be viewed and treated as expendable, like relics or damaged goods that have passed their expiration date. You have pride of place for yourself. Your life is a gift of which nothing good is lost in God’s eyes, nor should it be in our eyes. Their worth does not depend on what they contribute to society, much less on what they have contributed, but on who they are. And of course, they have a precious place in society because of all the relationships they have been involved in – with families, with jobs, with friends, with neighbors, with the parks, where they went for walks and swam on the beaches, to the books they read and the music they listened to. Pope Francis often speaks of the ecology of human life – relationships with the world and with the people who shape us. We are of infinite worth as individuals and for the gift we give and receive to others.
Pope Francis’ dedication to Grandparents on World Day also reflects his emphasis on the complexity and gift of our relationships. It expands our vision of the nuclear family beyond the nuclear family and its economic contribution by reminding us of the great gifts grandparents and grandchildren are and how much they offer one another. These are irreplaceable gifts. At best, these relationships are a boon to themselves and their families. They provide variety, affection, and enrichment for the relationships that shape a family. They may not be recognized when people make dire reports about families in purely economic terms, but they are priceless. They are symbols of love without expectation, a rare gift.
Like so many symbols by Pope Francis, his dedication on the fourth Sunday of July to the elders and grandparents indicates the importance and preciousness of ordinary relationships that we often overlook.
As with other such symbols, it invites us to constantly look at our society through the lens of people who are intrinsically valuable to us and who are bound to us in complex and delicate relationships. When we look at society through its eyes, we can appreciate the simple gift of every human life and the love that binds us.
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial advisor to Jesuit Communications