Older Friars – Our Reserve of Wisdom

Matthew Pravetz, OFM, & Amy Stewart-Wilmarth, RN Features

Who are you calling old? Ask a dozen people what age they consider someone old or a senior citizen, and there will likely be 12 diverse answers. A six-year-old child would consider a young adult of 18 old, and Baby Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964, which qualifies most for senior discounts – regard themselves as middle-aged.

Seniors have been given a bum rap. For example, the film and television industry typically does little to boost the public persona of older actors. More often than not, seniors are typecast as grumpy or quirky, like Estelle Getty’s role in the TV show “Golden Girls.” This month, however, we are recognizing older people and the role that the elderly play in our world – and we have Pope Francis to thank for this.

Earlier this year, on January 31, the Holy Father announced that he was establishing the “World Day of Prayer for Grandparents and the Elderly” – which he declared would be celebrated annually on the fourth Sunday of July to coincide with the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, Jesus’ grandparents. This worldwide acknowledgment of grandparents and the elderly will happen for the first time on July 25.

Pope Francis reminds us that it was older adults – Simeon and Anna, grandparents – who were among the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Pontiff said that “the Holy Spirit even today stirs up thoughts and words of wisdom in the elderly,” and that the voice of the elderly “is precious because it sings the praises of God and preserves the roots of the peoples.”

In his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis reminds us that no one is saved alone. We must treasure the spiritual and human wealth that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Vittorio Scelzo of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life of the Roman Curia – which is involved with the pastoral care of older adults – says that “the elderly are not saved by themselves” and that they ought to be put “at the center of the life of our communities every day – not only in emergencies, not only when it is too late to realize this.”

Commemorations of milestones, such as this ordination celebration in August 2019, enable friars to recognize their many years of religious life and the wisdom that accompanies age. These jubilarians were honored at St. Catherine of Siena Nursing Home in northern  New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh)

Wisdom of Older Adults
Chronology and convention have always been defining factors. Aging is as inevitable as sunrise and the ocean’s tide. Even though social benefits in the U.S. begin at age 65, most will not consider themselves senior until they are past the age of 70.

Often, we scramble for the most politically correct descriptors: some find senior citizens patronizing; elderly often carries undertones of frailty or poor health; old is often rude; geriatric is simply wrong since it is a branch of medicine centering on aging people. Perhaps the most embracing term should be older adults.

We know – but we often overlook – how much wisdom we can gain by spending time with older adults. Whether relatives, friends, or brothers through our Franciscan fraternities, most give valuable insights, and, conversely, most of us can provide them with much-deserved respect by realizing and recognizing that their lives and experiences are valued.

The Holy Name Province Sick, Aged and Retired Directorate and its subcommittees, along with the Provincial director of health and wellness, explore and deliberate the many pieces that are components of the physical, social, and spiritual wellness of our older friars.

The directorate has developed vehicles to remind older friars that, like grandparents, they have the honor and blessed responsibility of passing down family history and stories. The wisdom of our older friars is being shared during the directorate’s monthly meetings in a segment called “Aging in Place with Grace.” In addition, a series of what we call Friar Vignettes is being filmed – during which our older friars share their accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses in the hope that they will be nurturing for younger friars.

Friar communities across Holy Name Province – in Butler, New Jersey; St. Petersburg, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; and 31st Street in Manhattan – are making plans to recognize older friars in prayer and feast on or around Sunday, July 25.

Matthew Pravetz – a clinician and an academic dean on the faculty of New York Medical College for 38 years is chair of the HNP Sick, Aged and Retired Directorate, and Amy Stewart-Wilmarth, a registered nurse, is the Province’s director of health and wellness.