A good friend who has no religious beliefs of any kind (she is not committed enough to describe herself as an “atheist”) has just come back from a fortnight in Perm, Russia. She kindly brought an icon back for me, explaining to her hosts that she had a “religious” friend back home. Her hosts, a young professional couple, are both Orthodox. They have two teenage daughters and the older daughter, like her mother, observes all the Orthodox fasts. These are taken much more seriously than the Lenten fast over here; no meat or daily products twice a week during the year and many days’ fasts before the great feasts such as Christmas and Easter.
Where did their religious faith come from, I wanted to know. My friend says from the wife’s mother, who lives in a small flat just opposite their own flat. Hearing the younger daughter address her grandmother as “Babushka” reminded my friend of the only Russian word she knows. Indeed, we all know the word – partly from Russian fairy tales and partly because it is now well-known that it was the “babushkas” who transmitted the faith (alongside family stability) to their grandchildren during the long years of Soviet Communism. As the former president, Gorbachev, has revealed, he was secretly baptised by his grandmother; doubtless the daughters of President Putin would say the same thing: that their father was secretly baptised by his mother.
According to my friend, this elderly “Babushka” in Perm still works as an engineer, even though she is in her mid-70s and has a small state pension. She does so in order to give material as well as spiritual help to her two daughters and their families – just as grandmothers do all over the world. Pope Francis has spoken of his own paternal grandmother, with whom he spent a lot of time as a child and who helped form his faith.
I thought of this Russian babushka when I read that the Holy Father is to meet up with grandparents and other elderly people from all over the world next Sunday, 28th September. Apparently 40,000 elderly people will be in St Peter’s Square for a meeting entitled “The Blessing of a Long Life”. The Holy Father has often alluded to the importance of the elderly and how important grandparents are for family life, “for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society.”
According to Rome Reports he appealed last year for prayers “for our grandfathers and grandmothers, who so very often have played a heroic role in transmitting the faith, even in times of persecution. When Mom and Dad weren’t home, or when they had a strange belief system that reflected the politics of that time, grandparents were the ones who passed on the faith.”
The Pope is aged 78. According to a recent article by a Doctor Ezekiel Emanuel, former White House adviser on Obamacare, he has already lived three years longer than is useful. Warning that “living too long is also a loss…we are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic”, Emanuel seems to imply that after the age of 75, it is downhill all the way. He himself makes it clear that he does not want to live beyond this age. This is not, of course, public policy, merely a private opinion, but the very fact that a respected public figure in the US can casually put such a stark view across like this, suggests the society at large is warming up to the thought.
I wish I could be in St Peter’s Square next Sunday to join with the 40,000 elderly people who will be there along with Pope Francis, to celebrate how alert, effectual and non-pathetic we are. Perhaps Emanuel should be invited? It might help him discard his own dreary view: that life has no meaning when the energy and vitality of youth is over.
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