A priest friend of mine used to be chaplain in a secular convalescent home. His daily rounds would bring him to the front lobby. There a group of several residents would sit facing the door, anxious looks on their faces. Nearly every day, at least one would tell him:
My children are coming to see me today.
“They never came,” the priest told me with obvious sadness in his voice. “They hadn’t come for years, even for Christmas — and even though they lived in the same city.”
Sound familiar? Most of us either have at least one elderly relative who’s living in a nursing home or at home, alone, with only a visiting nursing service for company.
If we don’t regularly visit, we’re the poorer for keeping our distance. For we have as much to gain from their wisdom, gentleness and reliance on others as they do from our mobility, energy and independence.
Our aging relatives who are faithful Catholics can sometimes provide spiritual perspective on our problems that is theirs alone to offer.
And then there are the graces to which we open ourselves when we perform corporal acts of mercy and teach our children to do the same — especially during Lent.
“The parents, grandparents and senior citizens in our community are vastly underused as a faith-building and character-building resource for our younger persons,” says Dr. Thomas Lickona, Catholic psychologist and author of Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.
Father John Girotti, a young priest who’s not yet in his 30s but is already pastor of three parishes around rural Tigerton, Wis., points to Scripture. “The crown of old men is wide experience; their glory, the fear of the Lord,” he says, quoting Sirach 25:6.
The elderly have unique wisdom earned over the course of their long experience, he adds.
Father Girotti says that, when facing some particular pastoral issue, he doesn’t hesitate to seek out the counsel of an older person, whether lay or clerical.
“In my parishes, I’ve often set out to do something only to find it’s not working very well,” he explains. “It has failed to catch on. I’ve discovered that, at those times, if I’ll just consult with people who’ve been in that parish a lot longer than I have, someone will have the answer as to why and what needs to be done next.”
Asked for an example, he cites the launch of a youth-ministry program he undertook. Before even beginning, he turned to lifelong parishioners. They drew from their decades of experience in explaining the character of their area’s young people.
“I was able to build off of that and not reinvent the wheel,” says Father Girotti. The result was one vibrant, well-attended youth program.
Father Girotti also seeks the insight and wisdom of his friend Father Arthur Danks, who was ordained in 1943.
“He’s a real giant of a priest who has seen it all,” says Father Girotti. “In talking to him, I am less concerned about the present. I can see that human nature remains the same, history repeats itself and that Christ is still guiding his Church.”
Meanwhile, what goes around comes around — and gets passed down. When Father Girotti celebrates Mass at a nearby nursing home, families accompany him. The children help push residents to their rooms.
“It’s important for children to see this is part of life,” says the priest, “and to ask the elderly questions about history and what life was like when they were their age. You can learn great things by talking with those who have lived long.”
The psalmist says that the just “shall bear fruit even in old age, always vigorous and sturdy” (Psalm 92:15).
Those words come to mind when you talk to Thelma Coyne of St. Augustine, Fla. For the past six years, this 88-year-old has coordinated the homebound ministry for the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine, overseeing nine extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
“It’s a privilege for us to carry the Body of Christ into the homes of the homebound,” says Coyne. She and her charges also drive the elderly to doctors’ appointments and other rounds.
“For special occasions like a holy day or birthday, we visit, bring flowers and make special foods,” she explains.
Lickona suggests practical ways schools and religious-education programs can tap into the reservoir of life experiences elders can offer.
Children might interview older persons in the parish community, asking, for example: “How has your faith helped you in your life? How does having a good character help a person? Who had the most influence on your faith and your character? How did they influence you? What advice or tips would you give to young people today who want to develop a strong faith and character?”
Kids write up the interview, explain three valuable things they learned and then make a plan for how they’ll apply this learning in their life.
“That would be a structured strategy to get kids to connect on a personal level with an older person in the Church or the community,” says Lickona. From there, it can be easy, he adds, “to integrate those life lessons into their own life and behavior.”
Handing on the wisdom of lived experience is key for Mary Ann Presberg, 70, a mother of 12 in Lake Forest, Ill.
“You have to believe that you have something to offer because of the faith you’ve been given and because of the unique era that you lived in,” she says.
Projecting such confidence encourages younger people to tap into what you know, she adds.
Presberg hints at her own role models. “Our Lord is very approachable, Pope John Paul II was very approachable, and now Benedict XVI is very approachable,” she says. “He’s a grandfatherly type.”
In an age that sorely needs the wisdom of grandparents — and the graces that come from spending time with hem — hers is an observation to act on.
Joseph Pronechen writes from