The privilege of growing old

Elderly have a role in church

Like many people over 50, I find myself reading more and more newspaper obituaries. That’s because more and more people I once knew are featured in this section.

Last week, while paging through the latest issue of the Superior Catholic Herald, where I worked for 14 years, I read about a sister I interviewed around 1993, Sr. Gertrude Provost, who passed away on Jan. 22 at age 91.

Sr. Gertrude was a Medical Mission Sister who served in Pakistan for two decades. Sr. Gertrude’s religious community gave her permission to return home in 1983 to care for her aging parents.

In a reflection that was published with her obituary, Sr. Gertrude spoke about how grateful she was to her community for allowing her to return to Wisconsin to care for her parents. While living in Ashland, she also ministered to other area seniors.

“The humor and the facing of reality of these special seniors has made my own journey easier,” wrote Sr. Gertrude. “Hopefully, it has also given me insights for my own adventures in aging, as well as for ways of reaching out and helping others to grow old joyfully.”

What I remember most about Sr. Gertrude was the love she expressed for her mother as I photographed them in their apartment.

Aging brings joys, just as it brings heartaches. But most of all, as Pope Francis said in an address to participants of the International Congress on the Pastoral Care of the Elderly on Jan. 31, old age is a privilege.

“Life is a gift,” said Pope Francis, “and when it is long, it is a privilege — for oneself and for others. Always, it is always this way.”

Old age has become “one of the distinctive features of humanity” in the 21st century, added Pope Francis, and with a growing elderly population comes a need for appreciating the value of old age and the “irreplaceable role of the elderly.”

The international congress had as its theme “The Richness of Many Years.” Its purpose, according to the pope, was to focus attention on pastoral care for the elderly and to reflect on “the implications of a substantial presence of grandparents in our parishes and societies.”

“We need to change our pastoral habits in order to respond to the presence of so many older people in families and communities,” he said.

At a time when outreach to millennials and other young adults seems to be all the rage in our parishes, the pope reminds us that the elderly need pastoral care, but can also provide pastoral care to younger generations.

“God has a large population of grandparents throughout the world. Nowadays, in secularized societies in many countries, current generations of parents do not have, for the most part, the Christian formation and living faith that grandparents can pass on to their grandchildren,” Pope Francis said. “They are the indispensable link in educating children and young people in the faith.”

When we see our elder sisters and brothers as both providing and needing pastoral care, it demonstrates their intrinsic value and dignity, what God intended for all of us. “They are not only people whom we are called to assist and protect to guard their lives,” Pope Francis reminded us, “but they can be actors in a pastoral evangelizing ministry, privileged witnesses of God’s faithful love.”

For 12 years of religious life, Sr. Gertrude had the honor of caring for her elderly parents, who both lived to be 100 years old. Yet at the same time, they taught her a few lessons about the journey and the sacredness of life, lessons she surely applied in her final years.