by Sr Constance Veit
During the month of February my thoughts naturally turn to two of my favorite Biblical figures, Simeon and Anna. Simeon is described in St. Luke’s Gospel simply as “a man in Jerusalem,” and Anna as an eighty-four year old “prophetess.” These two elders greet Mary and Joseph as they bring their newborn infant to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. We celebrate this moment in Jesus’ life, referred to as the Presentation in the Temple, on February 2.
Simeon and Anna are not just two pious old people making a fuss over a baby. Each one had been waiting for the coming of the Lord for many years. Their whole lives were defined by their patient, prayerful waiting. When the moment came, they recognized Jesus as the Messiah and testified on his behalf before all the people.
Our Holy Father writes, “When Mary and Joseph reached the temple to fulfill the law, Simeon and Anna jumped to their feet. They were moved by the Holy Spirit. This elderly couple recognized the child and discovered a new inner strength that allowed them to bear witness.”
Simeon and Anna have an important message for our time. They represent the crucial role of older people who “have the courage to dream,” as Pope Francis has written. “Only if our grandparents have the courage to dream, and our young people imagine great things will our society go on,” he writes. Francis believes that older people who dream are able to move forward creatively as they envision a future.
“Without the witness of their elders’ lives, the plans of young people will have neither roots nor wisdom,” he writes. Today more than ever, the future generates anxiety, insecurity, mistrust and fear. Only the testimony of their elders will help young people look above the horizon to see the stars. Just learning that it is worth fighting for something will help young people face the future with hope.”
We Little Sisters are privileged to share our lives with many contemporary successors of Simeon and Anna — older people who have persevered in their faith through the years as they strove for a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
Among them is a woman I know who poured her life-savings into the rehabilitation of a child stuck in the cycle of drug addiction, and who later sacrificed her own comfort to support three generations of her family members who were displaced after a hurricane ravaged their island home.
Another resident, a tiny woman in her mid-eighties, divides her time between helping in our chapel and working in the parish founded by her priest-brother — the only Vietnamese parish in our archdiocese — helping with sundry tasks, and taking holy Communion to the sick.
I recently attended Mass at this Vietnamese parish as part of our annual fund raising appeal and enjoyed seeing our resident in action. While she and many of the women of the parish wore their traditional Vietnamese tunics and flowing pants in bright hues and varied designs, most of the young people came to church in the jeans, yoga pants and baggy sweatshirts typical of American youth. As the liturgy played out completely in Vietnamese, it struck me what a fine line these young people walk — with one foot planted firmly in the land of their parents and grandparents and the other in American pop culture.
I was touched to see that even the young people seemed to venerate our resident. As she scurried around the church attending to a host of details she would give them a quick word of direction in Vietnamese, or a charming smile of encouragement. Presiding over the church and rectory her brother built, though he passed away over a decade ago, she honors his memory and does her part to keep the beautiful Catholic culture of her native people alive in suburban Washington.
Our residents embody Pope Francis’ dream of elders as “a choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.” Although I am not yet a senior it won’t be long before I am, and I am grateful for the example of our residents who, like Simeon and Anna, are teaching me how to assume the mantle of a wise elder in the believing community.