The Elderly and Laudato Si

In his encyclical released this past week, Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for “justice between generations,” by which he means frank, honest discussion and action about “the kind of world we are leaving to future generations.” This discussion requires a “struggle with … deeper issues,” and the pope raises the issue of how consumer lifestyles are reflected in environmental degradation. He also asks, even more importantly, now this lifestyle affects the moral character of society.

The pope’s words imply an important role for the elderly in wealthy societies. The elderly of today’s industrialized societies have lived in a period of astounding economic growth, and many of them have accumulated substantial wealth. The industries they have built have both increased pollution and have developed powerful means to clean up that pollution. Reflecting upon their lives and historical era, the elderly today must have something to say about the issues raised in Laudato Si and confronting every society in the world today.

For example, what are the most important values? Presuming that financial security is an

St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and a patron saint of the elderly

St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and a patron saint of the elderly

important, but not the most important value, how does a family acquire and manage whatever wealth it has, in order to live both comfortably and generously down the generations of a family line? How do its members enjoy the fruits of God’s providence without becoming blind to the material and spiritual poverty of those in their own society and in other parts of the world? How do they place the needs of the poor before their own desires?

In order to begin reflecting upon their lives, the elderly in industrialized societies today might look at Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to the Elderly” (1999). It is a difficult read in places, so I will point out some of the highlights.

In this letter, John Paul II looked back over his life in order to discern its meaning and place his life’s meaning in relation to God. In the second paragraph of the letter John Paul II writes “in my memory I recall the stages of my life, which is bound up with the history of much of this [the 20th] century, and I see before me the faces of countless people, some particularly dear to me: they remind me of ordinary and extraordinary events, and happy times and of situations touched by suffering” (1). The words “bound up with a history of much of this century” are all the more striking when one considers the pope’s role in world events such as the collapse of communism and in the Church’s response to modern secular culture. At the same time, the pope’s words reflect an investment of the heart in those whom he has touched and the vulnerability to the loss of friends and loneliness. Finally, this recollection becomes an occasion to recognize that his life has been part of God’s plan and to thank God for all his gifts.

The pope points out the advantages of age. Writing in a conversational tone to his fellow elderly people, he notes that their “retrospective gaze makes possible a more serene and objective evaluation of persons and situations we have met along the way. The passage of time helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side ” (2, emphasis added) For this reason the elderly are “guardians of shared memory” and “the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society” (10).

The pope also offers moral and theological principles necessary for grasping the meanings of one’s life and of the history of one’s own time in relation to God’s love and God’s plan. For example, in reviewing one’s life and the history of one’s own time, it is important to look for how God and man bring good from evil: “Like so many other times in history, our own has registered lights and shadows. Not all has been bleak. Many positive aspects have counterbalanced the negative, or have emerged from the negative has a beneficial reaction on the part of the collective consciousness” (3).

The pope acknowledges the hard lessons of the past. For example, he reminds us that “it would be both unjust and dangerous to forget… that unprecedented sufferings have affected the lives of millions and millions of people [as in World War II]” (3). He values the “blunt realism” that comes with age, and is reflected in the biblical proverb “all is vanity” (6; quoting Ecclesiastes 1:2). For him, this blunt realism is part of scripture’s overall “positive vision of the value of life” and its history of great deeds performed by God working through human beings, including the elderly.

Sixteen years after the “Letter to the Elderly,” Pope Francis asks the Church and the world for a dialogue about how to develop an integral ecology that lifts the poor from poverty without destroying the environment. The elderly in industrialized societies, which have both fostered economic growth and attempted to address the environmental problems it has causes, should make a contribution to this dialogue an important part of their legacy.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Aging, Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Focused on Fatherhood

Experts in sociology and family counseling all agree that fatherhood is the most important vocation that a man can have, and that with fatherhood comes an awesome responsibility. They say that a father’s absence, whether physical or emotional or both, is a critical problem in our country, because fathers play such a key role in the development of their children. Currently, more than 27 million children – that’s over 40% of all children in this country – live apart from their father. That statistic is appalling, but our culture has deemed it acceptable, even though research clearly shows that the cost of a father’s absence is astronomically high.

I believe that there is a dire need today for men to rise up, rise up within the home, the job, the community, and the Church. There is a dire need for men to rise up and be leaders, examples, and pursuers of God, – ministers, prayers, teachers and trainers of our children, – loving, compassionate and caring husbands.

Today, God is calling men, husbands, and fathers who are FOCUSED on FATHERHOOD, focused on becoming the fathers that God has called us to be. There is no doubt that our children will model themselves after us, and will model our actions as they have seen them in the childhood years. And this is also true, Dad: A child’s view of God as Heavenly Father will often be based upon their view of us as earthly fathers. It has been said that a child is not likely to find a Father in God, unless he finds something of God in his father.

Recently, a deacon I met while in formation asked the first grade class in his parish school of religion to draw a picture of God. He intended to use the pictures for an illustration in his homily. Nearing the end of the class the kids were excited to show the deacon the pictures that they had drawn. Finally, the deacon’s granddaughter showed him her picture, and it was a man in an alb and a stole. Then she said to the class, “I don’t know what God looks like, so I just drew my Grandpa instead.”

I’ve got two kids. My daughter, Kara, was born a perfect angel and still is. My son, Greg Jr., has been more of a challenge.

OllicksWhen he was 4 years old, he thought I knew everything. Life was a constant barrage of questions and answers. When he was 14, it seemed like he got up one day and was convinced I knew nothing. Thank God, now that he’s pushing 34 and working with me in our family business, I know everything again.

But during the teenage years it seemed like one battle after another, and I couldn’t figure out what happened. Up until then, Greg was always a good kid and an excellent student, but now he seemed to be making all the wrong choices. He was always in trouble, his grades were slipping, there were all sorts of problems, and I just couldn’t get through to him.

One day I learned the most profound lesson of my life when my sister-in-law said, “Don’t you see what’s wrong with Greg? Did you ever think that maybe he’s just trying to get your attention? Could the problem be that you’re not emotionally attentive to the kids anymore? Could it be that Greg is finding poor substitutes for your attention and he just wants you back? He wants to be able to look up to you again. He still wants to be just like you, but you’re just not there for him.”

You see, when the kids were younger we did everything together and we had continuous healthy interaction. But as they got older, I became so intensely involved in the process of building my business that even when I was home, I wasn’t really there. I was preoccupied, even obsessed, with the business. I might as well have been an absent father. I certainly wasn’t focused on fatherhood. I had sacrificed the family on the altar of the bottom line, and I’ll never ever do it again. By the grace of God, I learned a big lesson that day, and that has made all the difference. My son had wanted nothing more than to get my attention and to become just like me.

Our children do want to be just like us, Dads, and our vocation is to help them to be just like Jesus. That can only be done if Jesus is who they see in us.

Gentlemen, we must be focused on fatherhood. We must be completely present in our homes. We must make them homes where Christ resides, homes where Christ is welcome, homes where Jesus is more than a picture on the wall, but a place where his presence is acknowledged, his name is honored, and his word is obeyed. The home doesn’t need a man in the house – it needs a father!

I read an account of a thirteen year old boy who saved his brother’s life by driving him to a hospital in his father’s car. Never having driven before, his explanation was simple: “I just did what I saw my father do.

We have children who are looking to us for guidance and spiritual direction. “I just did what I saw my father do.” If our children are doing what they see us do, if they want to be just like us, then who will they become? It’s up to us, guys.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.