The Catholic Church Remembers the Elderly and Their Valued Place in the World

COMMENTARY: An aging world needs models of happiness and holiness in old age, like Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth II, Sister André and Juan Vincente.

Pope Francis meets with Queen Elizabeth II in Vatican City during April 2014.
Pope Francis meets with Queen Elizabeth II in Vatican City during April 2014. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano / Vatican Media)

In a world of prominent geriatric leaders — Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth II, President Joe Biden — the second World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly offers prominent models of how to grow old. 

Pope Francis, 85, established the special day in 2021, to be held on the Sunday closest to July 26, the feast day of Sts. Joachim and Anne, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and thus grandparents of Jesus. 

This year on the World Day for the Elderly, Pope Francis travels to Canada to meet with Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Their culture honors the elders, and they have a special veneration for St. Anne. The Holy Father will join their annual to pilgrimage to Lac St. Anne near Edmonton on Tuesday and visit the famous shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec on Thursday.

With Pope Francis now older than St. John Paul II was when he died, and with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 95, a decade older than that, Catholic leaders offer an example that very old age can remain fruitful, either active or in quiet retirement. The head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth II, 96, is another religious leader of advanced age, having marked her Platinum Jubilee this year. Likewise, last year, Benedict celebrated 70 years as a priest.

There are also Catholic models who are not prominent personages. In fact, both the oldest man and the oldest woman in the world are devout Catholics — perhaps suggesting that a faithful and devout life may deliver the biblical blessing of length of days — and then some!

The oldest person in the world is a French nun, Sister André. Born Lucile Randon in 1904, she is now 118 years old. Blind and partially deaf, she lives in a nursing home. While news reports of Sister André focused on her delight in chocolate and a daily glass of wine, a Guinness World Records video shows how she continues her life of prayer. Those who care for her get her up and dressed in her habit and blue veil. She is the world’s oldest nun, having entered religious life in 1944. Her sense of humor intact, she has said that she is open to retirement but that religious life doesn’t really allow for that.

Men tend to live shorter lives, so the oldest man in the world is only 113 years old. Juan Vicente Pérez Mora was born in Venezuela in 1909. His faith is at the center of his life, praying the Rosary twice every day. 

Elderly people are often asked the secret to their longevity. His “secret” is simple: “Work hard, rest on holidays, go to bed early, drink a glass of aguardiente (a strong liquor made from sugarcane) every day, love God, and always carry him in your heart.”

Advances in nutrition and health care mean that vast numbers of people are now living well past their biblical “three score and ten, or eighty for those who are strong” (Psalm 90:10).

As Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth demonstrate, old age means accepting limitations, as both of them have had to cancel numerous public appearances of late. The Holy Father was not able to celebrate the Holy Mass for the Easter vigil or Pentecost Sunday, the two most important feasts of the year. The queen was not able to attend her Platinum Jubilee “Service of Thanksgiving” at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. 

While the queen now uses a cane in public, she evidently refuses to use a wheelchair, which would enable her to participate in public ceremonies that require, for example, traversing the length of a cathedral. 

For his part, Pope Francis has accepted the use of a wheelchair in public, but has thus far refused the accommodations built for St. John Paul II, which permitted him to offer the Holy Mass in St. Peter’s after he was no longer able to walk or stand at the altar.

The Pope and queen no doubt frustrate those around them who wish they would use what is available — just as millions of adult children are frustrated by their parents’ refusal to use a walker or a wheelchair.

At the same time, that feisty spirit of resisting accommodations likely contributes to longevity itself. Resignation to diminishment may invite, on some level, more of the same.

Whether resigned or resolute, an aging world needs models of happiness and holiness in old age, like the Holy Father and Queen Elizabeth, Sister André and Juan Vincente.

Pope Leo XIII died in office at 93 years of age, the oldest ever in office. At his 90th birthday, a toast was offered wishing him another 10 years so that he would see 100. Leo impishly replied, “Why limit God’s providence?”

Providence is apparently decreeing that many more will complete the century mark or at least draw close. The new World Day of the Elderly reminds us of that — and their valued place in the world and the Church.