I can still feel the thick plastic cover over the checkered tablecloths under my fingers, still smell the faint aroma of almond extract mixed with something like mothballs in my nose.
The week leading up to Christmas was the same every year of my childhood. In less than 24 hours, my brother and I made the rounds with my parents to the kitchen tables of every living great-aunt and great-uncle we had in New Jersey, and to the homes of a few “paisanos,” who I later learned were not actually of any blood relation to us.
I remember looking forward to the annual tradition. As soon as we stepped into each successive house, a fresh plate of cookies was placed on the table. I will never forget the anticipation of my mother lifting the standard limit on sweets for a whole day.
Looking back now, I appreciate so much more. It was a dedicated time that my parents set aside for us to learn about our family’s history. It shaped our own sense of identity and what we learned to value as adults.
My relatives would laugh so hard with one another, reminiscing about their own youth. We still tell some of the stories that we heard around those tables, as if we had witnessed the events firsthand.
Looking at the ways in which the church can hear the voices of young people has been the primary focus of this column — but it also worthwhile to turn that question on its head. One such way is through a promotion of intergenerational solidarity. It’s a challenging message for a culture that idolizes youth, and one in which older family members often live independently or in the care of people outside of a family.
One of Pope Francis’ favorite messages to young people has been to remember the elderly, to draw near to them and to learn from them. Earlier this year, Pope Francis pleaded with young people not to keep the elderly “in the closet” and encouraged them to foster intergenerational dialogue and relationships.
It’s for this reason that Pope Francis has very often stressed the importance of grandparents — “Your grandparents have the wisdom, and furthermore, they have the need for you to knock on the door of their hearts to share their wisdom,” he said this September to the Shalom Catholic Community. He himself keeps a note from his grandmother in his breviary that he uses every day.
Yet the pope has also said that young people should go out of their way to encounter and welcome the elderly who are not their family members. This will require proactive measures on our part, perhaps requiring us to go to the peripheries of our churches and communities to find them.
We should also ask our priests and pastoral staff where we can find them. Too often they go unnoticed but are beckoning for company and community.
It will certainly require more listening than it does talking. It may involve awkward silences and patience and walking a little bit slower than usual. But isn’t the whole point of accompaniment to share in someone else’s journey, no matter its current direction or pace?
Pope Francis has reminded us that “the church regards the elderly with affection, gratitude and high esteem. They are an essential part of the Christian community and of society.”
As the 2018 synod on vocational discernment aims to put the realities of young people front and center for the church, we’d also be wise to heed the wisdom of those who have prepared the way ahead of us.
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Italiano is executive director at communications for The Catholic University of America.
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