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Visit an Elder (without waiting to be asked!)

Text of our Advent video series, Week 2

I’d like to begin with a story I heard from Pope Francis.

“I remember, when I was visiting a retirement home, I spoke with each person and I frequently heard this: ‘How are you? And your children? Well, well. How many do you have? Many. And do they come to visit you? Oh sure, yes, … they come. When was the last time they came?’ I remember an elderly woman who said to me: ‘Mmm, for Christmas.’ It was August! Eight months without being visited by her children, abandoned for eight months! This is called mortal sin, understand?”

Our Holy Father doesn’t mince any words! Neither does the Catechism when talking about our duty toward our elders: “The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother …. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors.”

But let’s look at visiting our elders not in terms of a commandment, but as an imperative of love. In St. Luke’s Gospel the Virgin Mary goes in haste to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth who is with child. Mary goes without waiting to be asked; personifies the eagerness of love.

Despite her own perplexing situation, Mary was not self-absorbed. She was open to the needs of another.

The Visitation also demonstrates the power of reciprocity. It was admirable of Mary to assist her elderly cousin through her pregnancy, but in their encounter we also see how profoundly Elizabeth helped Mary by affirming her experience of the Annunciation and her unique vocation.

Keeping Mary and Elizabeth in mind, let’s consider the unique gifts the elderly can share with us if we are willing to visit them:

  • First, unconditional love: Older people often have more time on their hands and they are able to offer the patient, unconditional love that gives without counting the cost or seeking anything in return. While we sometimes become impatient listening to their stories, they seldom tire of listening to ours. Saint John Paul II told elders that they are a natural bridge between generations; their nurturing bonds with grandchildren are irreplaceable in the heart of the family.
  • Second, the elderly are the bearers of memory. The memories of the elderly help us to sink our roots in the rich soil of a collective history. So many people today want to deepen their sense of self and their personal history by researching their genealogy; the best place to start is with our living elders.
  • Third, the elderly offer us experience and wisdom on many levels, from managing a household and raising kids to finding our place in the working world; from nurturing marital and family bonds to dealing with personal loss and weathering life’s inevitable twists and turns.
  • Finally, elders can share with us a more complete vision of life. Older people understand the difference between passing fads and lasting ideals. They understand that no man is an island. Elders know the value of faith, prayer and perseverance. They are more in touch with our ultimate destiny as children of God. In short, the elderly can help us to slow down and keep things in perspective.

To conclude this week’s reflection I’d like to point you toward a lovely poem called A Cup of Christmas Tea. I’ve included the YouTube link with this video. It’s a story about a young man who doesn’t want to visit his old aunt because he’s afraid she’ll depress him. But she shares with him many of the gifts I’ve just mentioned. Take a few minutes to watch it and then decide who you need to visit this Advent.

Then go, take your kids with you if possible — but don’t wait to be asked!