Bishop: Canoeing with Grandparents & Co.

by Bishop Joensen | September 15, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

These summer days are far from lazy and hazy for most folks, including our farmers who are still playing catch-up due to a delayed growing season.  But even apart from official holidays, it is a good to claim a wide-angle view, to look at and listen to the splendor of nature growing ever more verdant, fruitful.  One Saturday provided me with two panoramic vistas:  a bike ride on the High Trestle Trail bridge overlooking the Des Moines River basin from 13 stories up, and a car ride west near sunset on U.S. 34 through Lucas, Clarke, and Union Counties following Confirmation Mass at Sacred Heart, Chariton.  It was at that latter moment I not only exclaimed to myself and God with the words of our Native American predecessors, “Iowa—a truly beautiful land,” but “Ah, the Des Moines Diocese—how blessed am I to call it home.”

Yet for all its natural beauty, our Holy Father Pope Francis has identified Sunday, July 24, as a day when we do well to behold an even richer storehouse of human beauty and blessings among us.  He has called us to annually observe the fourth Sunday of July as the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly since it falls close to the Feast day of Saints Anne and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus.  In establishing this occasion, the Pope does not sugarcoat or idealize old age; clearly, it is a phase of life where vulnerability increases and natural powers diminish at some point—and he knows this well himself as his joint problems continue to be acutely debilitating.

There is, nonetheless, an opportunity amid the mysterious fluctuation of personal capacities for seniors to be “poets of prayer” and “artisans of a revolution of tenderness” in our communities, our world.  There is the mutual invitation for younger and older persons to be present to one another, to set aside the tendency to wallow in melancholy, to refuse to be a removed spectator glumly sitting on the back porch, or to fix one’s gaze solely upon the devices that of themselves cannot dispel loneliness.  We can simply be together, punctuated by periods of conversation.  We can cultivate the endurance to listen with love, even if that means that stories are sometimes repeated, or that in cases of dementia even basic facial recognition is a graced exception.

My own experiences for two years as chaplain at the largest senior care facility in Iowa, and for nine years as monthly confessor to roughly 30 retired BVM Sisters in their “last stop” residence, Marian Hall, certainly stretched my capacity to listen, to be patient as I “moved about the cabin” and began to trust and let conversation flow as the Spirit provided. The sisters’ and residents’ grief was induced by the need to let go of previous proficiencies, relationships, and surroundings, and the sense that both the horizon of life and death, and the object of personal hopes and dreams, were no longer off in the sunset but fast approaching. Still, in retrospect, these challenges help transform those venues into places of encounter bearing the marks of a “great spiritual sanctuary,” as Pope Francis describes.

I reject the claims of those who compare listening to religious sisters’ confessions to like being assaulted by popcorn. For I learned that if I could pause and suspend my internal timeclock, let go of the sense of haste which “puts us in a blender that that throws us away like confetti,” and be conscious of God’s enduring mercy available to both the penitent and myself, the drama of a human story with lines still to be written, to be grafted into the narrative of God’s saving love for each and every one of us, usually unfolded.  Confession aside, the women and the men in both venues no longer had to be “on,” to “perform”; they experienced the liberating effect of simply being cherished in themselves, worthy of attention and affection.  To be sure, there was crankiness stemming from chronic pain, or the loss of inhibitions against saying what they really felt and thought that was not always graceful or pleasant. But how often might there be a certain softening of demeanor, a newfound rhythm of prayer and spiritual sensitivity that allowed folks to be more gentle with themselves (extending to themselves and other persons the same tenderness they bear for their grandchildren). And frequently, folks become more able to laugh at the ebb-and-flow of memory and mind that by God’s grace will soften life’s wounds and intensify love for the persons and priorities that really matter. 

As Pope Francis cautions, the elderly are to be defined not so much by care plans but by projects of life that encircle death, that extend the roots of their insights, their faith, hope, and wisdom about what life is all about.  They can be prophets, pointing us away from the propensity to repeat past conflicts, or the unhealthy tendency to simply steer clear of the messiness of life.  For in this messiness, the creativity of the heavenly Father, the involvement of his Son who finds our families and faith communities so attractive he can’t stay away, and the Spirit-welder who sparks the desire for healing and unites our wills, are to be found.  

The bond of generations is intended by God to span streams that flow in both directions between young and old. In his message several years ago, “Christ is Alive!,” Francis invokes the image of the Church as a canoe, “in which the elderly help to keep on course by judging the position of the stars, while the young keep rowing, imagining what waits for them ahead.”  For this to happen, young people cannot write off the elderly as representatives of a meaningless past, and senior adults cannot spend time grousing about how youth should act. Together, anxieties about the future can be dispelled, frailty and wisdom can mingle, and life lessons can be shared in a non-preachy manner that broadens perspective and frees us from brooding self-preoccupation.

Well, maybe by now you’re well past your attention span when it comes to my waxing in lofty terms about the honor, presence, and blessings we owe to grandparents and the elderly. So let’s get back to practical details about World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly—which is officially designated for July 24, but could well be enacted on any given Sunday or even multiple occasions. Here are some suggestions directly from the “Laity, Family and Life” branch of the Vatican:

  • The elderly are the focus of the day and all that surrounds it. A specific Sunday Mass should be identified for the celebration. We know that participation by many seniors in Sunday Mass has declined, in part due to fear of contagion and lockdowns. For many in our region, the health emergency has ended. This can be an opportunity to invite them to regain the habit of attending Mass, which may also require the need to coordinate transportation.
  • The Holy Father’s message can be shared by young people with grandparents and the elderly at the celebration itself:
  • If seniors remain at home or in other residences, it is a gesture of closeness and consolation to visit them—especially those who are most isolated—to communicate love and to deliver the Holy Father’s message, along with a gift, flowers, etc. The encounter itself and the deepening of relation and friendship is itself a great fruit that may result. But there’s an added blessing:
  • Visiting a lonely elderly person in the days preceding and following July 24 has been recognized by the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See as a work of mercy that enables persons to obtain a Plenary Indulgence, which is the remission of temporal punishment associated with sin already forgiven. Elderly persons who are able to attend Mass, or who, if unable, who take part in Mass through television, radio, or the web, may likewise obtain this Plenary Indulgence. 
  • The collection from the Day’s Masses can be dedicated to support projects in favor of poor elderly people in one’s community. 
  • And, of course, any associated social gathering, and the posting of images and comments connected with the day on social media, can highlight the joy and blessings that come from being together in the same “canoe,” the Church, where the dignity of every season of life and the beauty that shines forth amid the bond of generations can be featured.
Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.