Pope Francis’ reflections on young people, the elderly, and the prophecy of Joel

An elderly woman holds her grandchild up for Pope Francis in Romania. (Vatican Media)

Seven years ago, on July 26, Pope Francis launched an appeal at World Youth Day in Brazil. There, he urged the young and the elderly to engage in dialogue. He has often returned to this theme. It is even more important now as the Covid-19 pandemic forces generations to remain physically distant.

“How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family?”

Pope Francis posed this question in 2013 while looking out from the balcony of the Archbishopric of Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of young people from around the world were listening to him during the recitation of the Angelus. They had come to Brazil for World Youth Day, which was also Pope Francis’s first international Apostolic Journey following his election to the papacy the previous March. The Church was celebrating the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the Virgin Mary’s parents and Jesus’ grandparents.

Pope Francis took the opportunity to emphasize — citing the Aparecida Document on which he had worked so hard as a cardinal — that “children and the elderly build the future of peoples: children because they lead history forward, the elderly because they transmit the experience and wisdom of their lives.”

Mutual dependency

Young people and the elderly, grandparents and grandchildren. This binomial has become a constant feature of his pontificate, expressed with gestures, speeches, audiences, and “unplanned encounters”, especially during apostolic journeys.

The young and the elderly, Pope Francis has noted, are often the first victims of our “throwaway culture”. But, he adds, they together — and only together — can point out paths toward finding space for a better future.

“If the young are called to open new doors,” said the pope at a Mass for consecrated religious in February 2018, “the elderly hold the keys.”

“There is no growth without roots and no flowering without new buds,” he added. “There is never prophecy without memory, or memory without prophecy. And constant encounter.”

Land of dreams

For Pope Francis, the place of encounter between young and old is that of dreams. In some ways, this would seem a nearly improbably, surprising convergence. Yet, as the experience of the pandemic has shown us, it is precisely our dreams, our vision of tomorrow, which have held together grandparents and grandchildren who have suddenly been separated, adding a further weight to the burden of isolation.

Moreover, the pope’s focus on the dimension of dreams has deeply Biblical roots. Pope Francis has often recalled what the prophet Joel teaches: “It shall come to pass: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 3:1).

Who if not the young, the pope asks, can take the dreams of their elders and carry them forward?

Sharing wisdom

Significantly, during the Synod dedicated to young people (October 2018), Pope Francis hosted a special event on dialogue between generations — the meeting “Sharing the Wisdom of Time” — at the Augustinian Patristic Institute. Responding to the questions of the young and elderly on issues facing the Church and the world, Pope Francis urged them “to defend your dreams like children defend themselves,” noting that “closures do not know horizons, but dreams do.”

The pope, elderly himself, entrusted young people with great responsibility.

“You,” he said, ideally addressing every young person, “cannot carry all the elderly on your shoulders, but you can carry their dreams. Carry them forward with you, and they will do you much good.”

He also emphasized the importance of empathy, something which today, in light of the dramatic experience of the pandemic, seems even more necessary.

“It is impossible,” he noted, “to carry on a conversation with a young person without empathy.”

But where can we find this resource which we need to move forward? In closeness. That is the pope’s answer.

Closeness is a precious asset, as we have experienced in these months when this fundamental dimension of our existence was suddenly “suspended” due to the virus.

“Closeness works miracles,” Pope Francis has said, “closeness to those who suffer”, “closeness to the problems of others, and closeness between young and old.” Closeness, he says, immunizes us from the virus of division and mistrust, by nourishing the “culture of hope”.

Young and old

The pope returns to refer to this link in one of his more recent Apostolic Journeys. When in Romania in June 2019, he recalled an unexpected encounter he had with an elderly woman in Iaşi during a meeting with the country’s young people and families.

“In her arms was a grandchild, about two months old, not more,” Pope Francis said. “As I passed by, she showed him to me. She smiled, and smiled with a knowing smile, as if she was saying to me: ‘Look, now I can dream!’ I was very moved in that moment and I didn’t have the courage to go and bring her up here. That’s why I am telling you. Grandparents dream when their grandchildren go forward, and grandchildren have that courage when they take their roots from their grandparents.”

Bud and foliage

Roots and dreams. You can’t have one without the other, because each is at the service of the other. This is certainly true today more than in the past, because we desperately need an “all-encompassing vision” that leaves no one behind.

Pope Francis highlighted this in an interview with the English-language magazines The Tablet and Commonweal, during the darkest moment of the pandemic in Europe. Dwelling on the meaning of what we are experiencing in this dramatic 2020, he said, “this tension between young and old must always be resolved in the encounter with each other.”

Young people, he repeated, are “bud and foliage, but without roots they cannot bear fruit. The elderly are the roots.”

He also recalled the prophecy of Joel, urging the elderly to dare to hope, even as they are frightened by a virus that often devastates those who are advanced in years. The pope encouraged them to dream.

“I know you feel death is close, and you are afraid, but look elsewhere, remember your children, and do not stop dreaming. This is what God asks of you: to dream” (Joel 3:1).

In this difficult moment we are living, caught between fear and suffering, Pope Francis vigorously reminded us that now is “a good time to find the courage to imagine what is possible, with the realism that only the Gospel can offer us.”

Now is the time when the “prophecy of Joel” can become reality.

By Alessandro Gisotti