By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
This is the message from Dr. Christopher Bellitto, one of the panelists on the second day of the ongoing World Meeting of Families (WMOF) holding from 22 – 26 June under the theme “Family love: A vocation and a path to holiness.” The 5-day event taking place in Rome will conclude the “Year of Amoris Laetitia Family,” a celebration of families in honor of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Amoris Laetitia.
Dr. Bellitto is a Church historian and a professor of history at Kean University in New Jersey, USA, where he teaches courses in ancient and medieval history. He is also the author of several publications.
Speaking to Vatican News shortly after giving a discourse on “The young and the elderly on the synodal journey”, Dr. Bellitto stressed the importance of creating a link between the young and the old as the Church continues on the synodal path.
He says that synodality is about “telling stories and listening to stories” – listening first, before telling – in order to bridge the generational gap, especially in a society that tends to devalue elders.
Dr. Bellitto further notes that the act of listening to people who tell us their needs creates a dynamic of “paying it forward,” whereby, the elderly can pay it forward with their experience, while the young people, versed in newer ways, can respond to those needs while gaining from the wisdom of their elders.
Valuing the elderly
Further exploring ways of bridging the generational gap, Dr. Bellitto underscored the importance of valuing the elderly in society in practical ways.
One of the ways he recommends is to keep the elderly living with or close to us, if it is medically possible, so that they are “a part of our lives and not something that happens once a month.”
“The notion that you would kick grandma and grandpa out to a nursing home is an anomaly,” he insists. “And I think we should look at it as an experiment that has failed. We have not served the elderly and we have not served the young people.”
Reflecting on his own childhood, he remembers growing up with his grandmother, his father, his mother and two other siblings. He recalls that this experience of living in a multigenerational family taught him a natural deference to the elderly – an attitude he feels has been lost in modern times.
Putting the elderly at the center
Another way of valuing the elderly according to Dr. Bellitto, is centering them in every parish community.
He imagines the elderly as “the hub of a wheel” around which the entire parish should be revolving, including the youths, because focusing on only young people may generate talk about the future but risks “losing the present and the past.”
This, he explains, is particularly important, as we are an aging population. In fact, according to Dr. Bellitto, one in five people on the planet will be over the age of 65 by 2040.
Care for the elderly from the Bible
Dr. Bellitto’s work in the field of Church history has led him on a quest to find out how past societies treated their elders. In his search for inspiration, he read the Bible to explore how elders were portrayed in different genres and from multiple perspectives. That quest also led him to author a book titled: Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible.
Drawing from the Bible, he highlights the clear focus on giving respect to elders – even when they fail. And even when elders are going through senility and dementia, he stresses that it does not mean that they are no longer useful, rather, it means that they need “a different type of care.”
He notes that even when old people forget what is going on around them, “they always remember the old stories, and those stories are a really precious resource for us.”
Dr. Bellitto concludes by encouraging everyone to look at elders as treasures and “an opportunity for blessing.”