By Reverend Roger Carr-Jones, Marriage & Family Life Co-ordinator for the Diocese of Westminster
Many years ago, there was a television series, based on the book by Thomas Pakenham titled ‘Meetings with Remarkable Trees’. It was an astonishing collection of stories about trees far beyond a standard book of botany, as it explored the unique character, stories and personalities of each of tree. In a recent survey, the Woodland Trust have identified that there are some two million ancient trees dotted across Britain. Importantly, each of these ancient trees is a precious part of its environment and in their different ways bring richness, diversity and life to the landscape. In his epic tales the writer JRR Tolkien alluded to the importance of trees and in particular how the older specimens play an important role in the health of the forest.
This image of the tree fits well with the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the Second World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly 2022: ‘In old age they will still bear fruit" (Psalm 92:15). The verse continues, ‘they are always green and full of sap’. Just as the trees of the forest are not all the same, the elderly and ancient trees have one thing in common: they have the ability to support younger generations. Now that is something to reflect upon and celebrate.
If biodiversity is essential to the healthy life of the forest, how much more so is the diversity that the elderly bring to the ecosystems of family, society and church life. When we are young everyone seems rather ancient. I recall moving to secondary school, where the giants of the forest in the Sixth Form seemed, if I am to be totally honest, really rather old! Back then I could not conceive of the possibility that one day I would no longer be a simple sapling. Now, my roots and branches have grown to provide shelter, nourishment and support for children and grandchildren.
The roots of an ancient tree spread out on the forest floor bringing water and nutrients to the younger saplings. In the same way this is what grandparents and the elderly do for us. Often that support is simply expressed by providing a listening ear to hear our problems, especially in the teenage years. I recall a priest sharing how, when he was a seminarian, his mother would discretely give him the gift of £20. The value of the gift lay not in its monetary value, but represented a rich fruit of love that fed his heart. No doubt, we too can think of instances where our roots have been refreshed by nourishment from the old.
Like the rings on the tree, we too capture year on year snapshots of our journey from which we can provide nutrients to others, a source of wisdom, understanding and love for others.
As we age, year on year, are we not still conscious that within us how the spirit of youth remains burning brightly? If we recognise this in ourselves then it is but a short step to recognise this truth in others. Pope Francis reminds us that the elderly are a gift from God, a resource for the wider community and that their pastoral care is an important task. Through their stories and witness to faith the elderly bring much needed oxygen and other nutrients into the life of our communities.
The Hebrew Scriptures constantly highlight the importance of the elderly for the well-being of the wider society. How we view age and the gift of growing older changes the narrative, both for us and those whom we encounter. Dame Agatha Christie is quoted as saying ‘I married an archaeologist because the older I grow, the more he appreciates me’.
Trees are happiest in the setting of a forest, though at times we will find some that are now isolated. We have a special responsibility as a Christian community to visit the elderly, especially those who are experiencing isolation. Pope Francis has said 'visiting the elderly who live alone is a work of mercy in our time'. In his book Thomas Packenham sought out, recorded and celebrated some remarkable trees. We need only to step out of our door to encounter the elderly, who are equally remarkable.
As we mark this Second World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, may we take the time to recognise the beauty and complexity of the elderly in our society, rejoice in the gift of grandparents, and recognise that the older generation plays a vital role in our salvation. Those who are young might be the leaves on the tree, but it is the elderly who provide the roots. If the roots rot, then the tree falls, so we all have a responsibility to tend the whole. Pope Francis has invited us to create a ‘civilisation of love’ and this begins by recognising and tending the ancients in our society who inspire in us wonder and awe.
Photo: Annual Mass for Matromony @Marcin