Memory, History, and the Elderly

Pope Francis’s Plan for Saving Society

Author’s note: The following article is expanded from a talk given at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, as part of the symposium entitled: “Pope Francis’s Vision for the Renewal of the Church,” November 10-12, 2016.

Catholic historian Warren H. Carroll, writing at the end of the twentieth century, reflected that “the historian is the guardian of memory. Whatever his personal sympathies, it is his duty to stand watch on the ramparts of time, and rescue the truth–however unwelcome–from oblivion.”1 His point is a valid one. Historians shape our understanding of the past through their recording and interpreting of memories, the historical identity of a people and a society. This is true of secular histories as well as ecclesiastical ones. The historian, if he were to honestly evaluate his craft, might classify history as the record and study of human memory.

Recent popes have reflected on history as memory point. We can see it, for example, in the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Throughout that pontificate, itself one of the most momentous in Church history, our late Holy Father drew repeatedly from the historical wealth of the Church and western civilization. This is, perhaps, most clearly seen in his book-length interview, Memory and Identity, which reflects on recent European history in light of European cultural memory. Such a project is unsurprising, given John Paul II’s personal history, and his fight against the twin twentieth-century terrors of Nazism and Communism. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI frequently referred to past examples of the Christian life, namely the saints, to teach us how to live the Christian life.2 He was also fond of integrating a discussion of a topic’s history, which is unsurprising considering that Benedict’s second doctoral dissertation examined the theology of history in St. Bonaventure.

Pope Francis has followed his predecessors’ historiographical example, and for his part, has added an important dimension to this understanding of historical memory. For Francis, the solution to society’s problems–the corruption, disorder, and hatred too prevalent today–lies in our historical memory. If we access this historical memory, the story of our past, we will find there the solution to modernity’s problems and a key to save our future.

How, then, do we access this historical memory? The answer is simple: through the storytellers. Who are society’s storytellers? Historians are, of course, but more importantly, the elderly. The elderly are the living witnesses of the past, reservoirs of living memory. We encounter the elderly, first and foremost, in our families, especially in our grandparents. Thus, according to Francis, it is a restored respect for grandparents, and all elderly in society, that will reestablish a properly cultured society. In other words, by looking to our past, we can save our future.

History and Memory
For Francis, as for most traditional Christian historians, humanity’s history was transformed by a single, central event: the Incarnation. From the earliest days of the Church, the faithful have seen Christ’s coming as a turning point in the story of humanity; all of human history prior to Christ pointed towards him, and all of history after Christ echoes his coming. St. Paul draws this out in Galatians 4:4 when he declares that Christ’s coming happened “in the fullness of time.” Christian writers—from St. Augustine in the early Church, through modern writers like G. K. Chesterton (in The Everlasting Man), and Warren H. Carroll (who wrote a six-volume history of western civilization)—write from this Christocentric historiography. This history—salvation history—tracks the story of God interacting in our human story, beginning with the Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, turning at the Incarnation, and moving forward towards the Second Coming of Christ. Despite divisions between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, all of Christendom embraced this Christo-centric historical prism.3

So also does Pope Francis. In the Wednesday audience which launched his catechesis on the Family, the Holy Father called the Incarnation “a new beginning in the universal history of man and woman.”4 A new beginning indicates a change, a transformation. The old world, the world before Christ, has passed away, and a new world, one formed through the covenant of Christ and humanity, has arisen. History takes on new importance in light of the Incarnation, since God sanctified history by entering into it. In this way, the world faced “a new beginning,” a new creation.

Because of this theological dimension to history, national and societal history is tied up with piety. Prior to becoming pope, Francis reflected on the role “traditional piety” plays in the history of a people. In his homeland of Latin America, then-Cardinal Bergoglio noted, “traditional piety gives form to historical identity: It is a history of evangelization that integrates, more or less consciously, a multitude of cultural and religious elements from many people, races, and cultures.”5 Today, to fight the destructive anti-culture around us, we need our cultural memory.6 The future pope wrote:

We must call on our wisdom, and on our cultural reserves. We are seeing a real revolution, but one that is internal, and not at all political. A revolution of memory and tenderness, the memory of our founding heroic exploits. And the memory of simple gestures learned in our families. Being faithful to our mission means protecting this ember of memory in our heart, rescuing it from the deceptive ashes of forgetfulness, and from the presumptuousness of believing that our country, our city, and our family have no history, or that they began with us.7

From this, we can see how powerful memory is as a tool, in Francis’s estimation, for transforming the culture. It contains within it the ability to connect the past and present, and in the process, shape the future.

Whenever Pope Francis visits a country, he seeks to “dialogue with” the country’s citizens through their historical identity. Citizens of a country can connect to their nation’s history; just so, Francis speaks through the lens of a national history, reaching out to all citizens. For example, in his recent visit to Poland for World Youth Day, Francis’s remarks to the Polish authorities focused on recent Polish history. Without negating the evil done to Poland by Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, Francis applauded the Polish people’s attempts to heal these historical wounds. This process, led by the ecclesial communities in Poland and Germany, “changed the history of relationships between the two peoples.”8 In discussing a nation’s history, the Holy Father stated, he was following in John Paul II’s footsteps. Francis said, “I was always impressed by Pope John Paul’s vivid sense of history. Whenever he spoke about a people, he started from its history, in order to bring out its wealth of humanity and spirituality.”9

Memory can be used for both good and for evil. In his address to Polish civil authorities, Pope Francis noted:

In the daily life of each individual and society . . . there are two kinds of memory: good and bad, positive and negative. Good memory is what the Bible shows us in the Magnificat, the canticle of Mary, who praises the Lord and his saving works. Negative memory, on the other hand, keeps the mind and heart obsessively fixed on evil, especially the wrongs committed by others.10

Whether we approach the events of our past through good or evil memory will determine how we implement the lessons of that memory in society. During his speech to Polish civil authorities, the Holy Father praised Poland’s ability to utilize “good memory” in their relationship with Germany and Russia, the two countries that oppressed Poland through one of the worst centuries in her history. Rather than fixating on past offenses, the people of Poland sought new ties with both Germany and Russia, guided, Francis was happy to note, by the Polish clergy.11 This “good memory” produces a productive history, one in which the culture of a people thrives.

In his trip to Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis continually examined the history, both early and recent, of both countries. In Cuba, a country with a tumultuous recent history, Pope Francis emphasized hope. Hope, he stated, is “nourished by memory,” and “individuals or peoples who have no memory, and erase their past, risk losing their identity, and destroying their future.”12 In other words, such people have no hope.

In the USA, Francis’s address to the joint session of Congress focused on four figures in American history: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Francis thereby hoped to dialogue through “the historical memory” of the American people.13 At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Francis reflected on the importance of this historical memory. “The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles [of the Declaration of Independence] in social and political life.”14 Later in that same speech, Francis invoked our nation’s historical memory to remind those present of the important role religious institutions play in serving society.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty, and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence, and our irreducible freedom in the face of any claim to absolute power. We need but look at history—we always benefit from looking at history—especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another “earthly paradise” by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles, and denying them any kind of rights.15

It is clear from these, and other remarks made throughout Francis’s pontificate, that memory and history hold a central place in his plan for restoring our society. By reflecting on our history (as individual nations, as international communities, and as a Church), we can realize what benefited mankind, and what harmed it. If we can humble ourselves to learn from the past, we will have a better future.

What plagues society—and Pope Francis is keenly aware of this—is a lack of respect for our history, both personal and cultural. In rejecting the past, in rushing forward towards the next greatest thing, we have abandoned our historical memory, and forgotten who we are as a people. Without understanding our history, we are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). We can only utilize our history and memory if we have a proper understanding of them. In Amoris Laetitia, Francis notes, “The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society … Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth.”16 In other words, we need to first learn our history before we can save our future.

For that, Pope Francis argues, we need the family.

The Home: A School for Memory
The Church’s tradition has long held the family in high esteem. The family is the “Domestic Church,” and the Catechism notes that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (CCC 2223). Pope St. John Paul II famously referred to the family as the “basic cell of society,” that is, the starting point for all other branches of human interaction.17 Pope Benedict XVI likewise noted that “Parents are the first evangelizers of children, a precious gift from the Creator (cf. Gaudium et Spes n. 50), and begin by teaching them to say their first prayers. In this way, a moral universe is built up, rooted in the will of God, where the child grows in the human and Christian values that give life its full meaning.”18

Pope Francis supports this beautiful teaching of the Church. In Amoris Laetitia, he calls the family “the first school of human values.”19 He echoes this teaching throughout his discussion of the family in his 2015 “Wednesday Audiences,” and in his reflections offered at the World Meeting of Families in September of that year. Parents, of course, have an important role to play in family life, as the family would not exist without the union of husband and wife, and it could not grow without that couple’s openness to life, and their dedication in handing down the Faith to their children.

However, Pope Francis frequently draws attention to a too often neglected member of the family, one likewise neglected and rejected in our society. Time and again, he brings up the two most vulnerable in society, the children—who throughout the world are abused and enslaved—and the elderly. In Laudato Si, for example, Francis notes how the modern culture of relativism “leads to the sexual exploitation of children, and abandonment of the elderly, who no longer serve our interests.”20 This abandonment of the elderly and children creates a cultural and spiritual wasteland, even as technological advances propel us forward.21 The radical solution proposed by the Holy Father is to bring together those two neglected sections of the human family, children and the elderly, so that the young might learn from the old, and in doing so, save our civilization.

Francis often speaks of the elderly in the context of grandparents, but his words might also be applied to any elderly person, to aunts and uncles, who share the family’s life.22 His special love for the elderly has a long history of its own, reaching back to the Pope’s youth. The son of immigrants from Italy, the young Jorge Bergoglio spent a lot of time with his grandparents. It was from his grandparents that he learned Italian, specifically his family’s Piedmontese dialect. His grandmother, in particular, helped raise him and his siblings, and from his grandparents, and his father, he learned to appreciate his Italian heritage—the cultural memory of his family.23

Throughout his ministry as bishop, Bergoglio repeatedly pointed to the elderly as a source of moral and cultural education for the family and the world. Reflecting on the important place of the family in the Aparecida Document, the future pope called the elderly “repositories of the collective memory of the nation and the family.”24 He noted that they have “a specific vocation: that of giving common sense and maturity to the younger generations, and of being teachers of prayer, and of generous commitment.”25 It is the responsibility of the family (parents and their children) to take care of the grandparents. Speaking to Catholic businessmen in 1999, just a year before receiving the cardinal’s hat, Bergoglio stated that “A family that neither respects, nor takes care of, its grandparents, who are its living memory, is a family that has come apart,” and “is unworthy of the name” “family.”26

The election of Francis as pope did not diminish his emphasis on the important role of the elderly in society, and in the family. If anything, his catechesis about the elderly, after his election, calls for more respect and attention to our sources of “living memory.” He has met with groups of grandparents, and the elderly, throughout his pontificate, and each time he has echoed the same themes: respect for the elderly, and the important role they provide in teaching and transforming the world. Most recently, during a meeting with the Italian National Association of Senior Workers, Pope Francis urged the grandparents present to converse with their grandchildren, to let the young ask questions of the old. “The future of a people requires” such conversations.27

Francis picked up this thread in his 2015 “Wednesday Audiences” discussing the family. In one Audience, he referred to the elderly as “a wealth not to be ignored,” and said that “this civilization will move forward if it knows how to respect wisdom, the wisdom of the elderly.”28 Francis likewise noted that grandparents, in particular, have a responsibility to present the reality of marital fidelity to the young, “who tire so easily,” and to pray, because “the prayer of grandparents, and the elderly, is a great gift for the Church, it is a treasure!”29 The elderly can transform society through these seemingly simple actions, through living lives of love and fidelity to their spouses, and to God.

During his trip to the United States, in addressing Congress, Pope Francis stated that he wished to “enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek, in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. … They keep working to build up this land.”30 In Philadelphia, at the prayer vigil for the Festival of Families, Francis referred to grandparents again as the “family’s memory” because “they are the ones who gave us the faith, they passed the faith on to us.” To care for grandparents “is a sign of love … because it promises the future.” A people who does not care for their elderly, or their children, are “a people without a future, because it lacks the strength and the memory needed to move forward.”31 Once again, he invokes the importance of memory in shaping our familial and social future.

The climax of Pope Francis’s reflections on history, memory, and the elderly lies in his address at Independence Hall. The entire speech weaves together these various threads. Francis invoked the history of America’s founding, the heroic men who fought for the nation’s independence, and the various movements throughout the country’s first two centuries that “reaffirmed, re-appropriated, and defended” the truths contained within the Declaration of Independence.32

All of us benefit from remembering our past. A people which remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present, and the future. Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever, or whoever, would attempt to dominate it, or to use it for their own interests.33

The challenge today isn’t to examine the past as a dead specimen of human life; rather we must embrace the past, utilizing it in our lives. In particular, Francis referred to the lessons of our elders: “Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.”34

To summarize his teaching about the family, Pope Francis promulgated Amoris Laetitia, in which he devotes a small section to the elderly. He reminds grandparents that they are teachers of children, and that “their words, their affection, or simply their presence help children to realize that history did not begin with them. … Those who would break all ties with the past will surely find it difficult to build stable relationships, and to realize that reality is bigger than they are.”35 Again, Francis notes the importance of the elderly telling stories to the children, since “it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods, and their country.”36 A society without respect and care for the elderly is “torn from its roots.”37 The family, with its interaction between young and old, is the place “where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history.”38

In such a way, through telling tales, and teaching by example, we find the solutions to what puzzles our current age. We find in the past, in our memory, and in our elders, the storehouse of wisdom, the source of our future. For Pope Francis, history, both on a grand scale and in the most intimate reaches of our families, holds the key for transforming our culture. As he said in one of his Wednesday Audiences:

The Church journeys among her people, in the history of men and women, of fathers and mothers, of sons and daughters: this is the history that matters to the Lord. The great events of worldly powers are written in history books, and there they will remain. But the history of human feelings is written directly in the heart of God; and that is the history that will endure for eternity. This is where life and faith are located. The family is the place of our irreplaceable and indelible initiation into this history … into this history of life in its fullness, which will culminate in heaven with the contemplation of God for all eternity, but which begins in the family! And that is why the family is so important.39

It is why grandparents, and the elderly, are so important, too.

  1. Warren H. Carroll, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1995), 591.
  2. For a fuller treatment of this aspect of Benedict’s teaching, see Christopher Blum and Christopher Shannon, Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 2015), Chapter Four.
  3. Carroll, 3.
  4. Francis, “Nazareth,” In On the Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 7.
  5. Pope Francis, “Traditional Piety as Inculturation of the Faith” in Family and Life: Pastoral Reflections (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015), 106-107.
  6. “Anti-culture” here refers to what Pope St. John Paul II termed the “Culture of Death” (Evangelium Vitae, 12) which focuses on destroying rather than building up a society.  It is an “anti-culture” in that a culture is the source of life in a society; to embrace the “Culture of Death” is to embrace destroying what builds up a culture, namely the future of society (children) and our past (the elderly).  It is not surprising that proponents of the “Culture of Death” support, to varying degrees, abortion, euthanasia, and human rights abuses, as well as attacks on traditional marriages.
  7. Pope Francis, “Education and Encounter” in Family and Life, 133.
  8. Francis, “Meeting With The Authorities, The Civil Society And The Diplomatic Corps,” Krakow, Poland (July 27, 2016).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Francis, “Meeting With The Authorities, The Civil Society And The Diplomatic Corps.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. Francis, “Open Hearts and Open Minds” in Pope Francis Speaks to the United States and Cuba (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015), 32-33.
  13. Francis, “Address To Joint Session Of the United States Congress” in Pope Francis Speaks to the United States and Cuba, 80.
  14. Francis, “All Men and Women are Created Equal” in Pope Francis Speaks to the United States and Cuba, 129.
  15. Ibid., 130.
  16. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, (March 19, 2016), 193.
  17. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (November 22, 1981), 46.
  18. Benedict XVI, “Letter To The Participants In The Fifth World Meeting Of Families” (May 17, 2005)
  19. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 274.
  20. Francis, Laudato Si (May 24, 2015), 123.
  21. Francis, “Work” in On the Family, 104.
  22. Francis, “The Elderly” in On the Family, 32.
  23. Andrea Tornielli, Francis: Pope of a New World (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2013), 72-73.
  24. Pope Francis, “The Family in Light of the Aparecida Document” in Family and Life, 45.
  25. Ibid, 46-47.
  26. Pope Francis, “Education and Encounter” in Family and Life, 125.
  27. Francis, “To the members of the Italian National Association of Senior Workers” (Rome, Italy: October 15, 2016).
  28. Francis, “The Elderly” in On the Family, 32, 33.
  29. Francis, “The Grandparents” in On the Family, 37, 38.
  30. Francis, “Address To Joint Session Of the United States Congress, 80.
  31. Francis, “The Family, A Workshop of Hope” in Pope Francis Speaks to the United States and Cuba, 138.
  32. Francis, “All Men and Women are Created Equal,” 129.
  33. Ibid., 130.
  34. Ibid, 133.
  35. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 192.
  36. Ibid., 193.
  37. Francis, “Address at the Meeting with the Elderly” (September 28, 2014), quoted in Amoris Laetitia, 193.
  38. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 193.
  39. Francis, “Community” in On the Family, 114-115.
Matthew B. Rose About Matthew B. Rose

Matthew B. Rose received his BA (History and English) and MA (Systematic Theology) from Christendom College and currently teaches Religion and History at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA. He also runs Quidquid Est, Est!, a Catholic Q & A blog.