We live in a nervous and worried age when youth increasingly fear the future. The biblical prescription for people in such a time is to look to and respect your elders: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex 20:12).
As St. Paul says, “This is the first commandment with a promise” (Eph 6:2) and the reason is not far to seek: Our elders are the great repositories of experience that have been tested by life and (especially in the 20th century) by great fiery trials.
This is particularly true of our Catholic elders, who have not only succeeded in raising families and surviving into old age, but who have sweetened into sanctity and preserved the Faith for us.
This section profiles four stories of elderly Catholics who share the wisdom they’ve accrued in their physical and spiritual longevity. It also includes the words of Popes Francis and John Paul II on the gifts of the elderly for the Church.
Mary Grayhek was born in the Missouri Ozarks in 1926 and raised without any religious affiliation. She describes her parents as “good, honest, upright people. Farmers.” But church was for funerals and the occasional all-night sing.
She moved to Bremerton, Washington, after high school in 1946, where she met her husband, Roy. He was raised Catholic but had been in the Marines for six years during the thick of World War II and had no chance to go to church much. His mother, however, was very devout. Eventually, they moved to Spokane, Washington, to be closer to his parents.
In 1948, Mary’s mother-in-law asked if a man could come and speak to her about the Church. “I was a truth seeker, and it made sense to me.” So she enrolled in RCIA, they had their marriage blessed in the Church, and she embarked on her journey of faith.
“I am so thankful to God that he brought me to know the Faith,” she said all these years later.
As Mary and Roy participated in sacramental life, they made Christian generosity a way of life.
“Ours was a working-class, blue collar family. Money was always tight, but Mom and Dad faithfully tithed 10 percent to the Church,” said the couple’s daughter, Theresa.
Beyond this was endless volunteer work and service to the Church and parish. And with all this came raising eight children, the last two of whom were twins, including a girl who lived only eight days. It was Mary’s faith that saw her through that loss.
“It’s so easy to say ‘put your faith in God,’” Mary said, “but sometimes I think I disagreed with him.” Then she adds with a chuckle, “Of course, he always wins.”
There were various health and finance issues, “but we always asked God to help, because I knew I couldn’t handle it myself.” And Roy was always supportive until his death — Feb. 11, 2014, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Mary attributes her and her husband’s longevity to simple things both spiritual and physical: “Always looking at the bright side of things and seeking to see that there is good in everything is so important.” In addition, she emphasizes, “We’ve always been active.”
A simple life of faith
Bob and Peggy Geis are cradle Catholics with no memory of ever having a struggle with the Faith. Struggles with money, children and the craziness of the 20th century, sure. But not with the Faith. Bob, 87, was raised on a farm in Indiana, and Peggy, 82, was a city girl from Philadelphia. Both were strong Catholics, immersed in lots of Catholic education and blessed with massive Catholic social support.
| Courtesy photo
“I had 12 years of Catholic school, and I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Catholic,” Peggy said. The result is a faith that was always very important and that she never took for granted.
For his part, Bob went to catechism classes, because there was no Catholic school. But he, too, “never had a thought of not being Catholic.”
Peggy said that even though they were from two different cultures — urban girl and farm boy — “the Catholic Faith united us.”
Bob was drafted in the 1950s, and they married in 1957. Bob became their parish’s first extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Peggy became its first director of religious education and was very active in sacramental preparation and teaching in the parish. In addition, they led Rosaries and Stations of the Cross. As their family (eight kids in all) grew, they all became involved.
“It was a way of life,” Peggy said.
Their sons all served on the altar. Their daughters played music in the liturgy, and the kids were active in youth ministry and at Newman centers in college. All of them have remained Catholic and have been fruitful and multiplied to the tune of 20 grandchildren.
With the rise of legal abortion, they became very active in the pro-life movement, receiving an award from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2000.
Peggy recalled with pride the day her son came home from Franciscan University of Steubenville, saying, “Now I know why you love the Church so much.”
Both Bob and Peggy express their firm conviction that their prayer life and love for the Church and family made their life a success. As to their physical longevity? Peggy laughs and says a nurse once asked Bob, “Are you a farmer?” That was pretty much it: eating properly, exercise, clean living, trying to please God, gardening. Nothing fancy. Just common sense.
|9 Catholic secrets to a long life
|Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock.com, Shuttertock
Trust in God: Life will be filled with blessings but also with challenges, and only through faith in Christ do we have the ability to say, “Thy will be done.”
Be active: Our bodies were given to us by God, and we must treat them with such dignity.
Continue to grow in faith: With age comes wisdom, but only if we strive toward it.
Live frugally: A simple life leaves more room for the things that are truly important.
Pass the Faith onto others: Sharing the love of Christ and his Church is among the greatest gifts one can give.
Pray often: Only when quieting our lives and conversing with God can we hear and follow his call to us.
Eat right: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
Be open to change: New experiences can fill the soul and be the antidote to boredom and loneliness.
Embrace friends and family: Spending time with those who love us most provides an enormous amount of joy.
Encounter sparks conversion of the heart
Jody Mullally, 84, was born in 1931 near Boise, Idaho. Her father was a baptized, nonpracticing Catholic who had become an alcoholic at age 13. Her mother, abandoned at a young age by her own father, was “needy” and so rashly married Jody’s charming, gregarious father in 1929 just as the Great Depression began. Jody had no faith upbringing and was raised during a hardscrabble time, largely neglected by her parents.
| Courtesy photo
“I don’t think my parents knew where I was most of the time. I just sort of wandered around,” she said. Her dominant emotional memory was of feeling “like I didn’t belong.”
She is grateful for her extended family, who took her to Mass. “God did what he could through my family.” Her extended family, while practicing Catholics, were “dutiful, but they had no relationship with Christ.” Still, she was drawn to Christians because, as she got older, the failure of her parents’ marriage made her long for people “who seemed to know how to ‘do life’ better.”
She wound up in Seattle after the war, working in a law firm and going to Seattle University and studying theology in order to learn about her growing faith.
Jody’s conversion was initially an intellectual one: She seized the truth of the Faith with both hands. But God insisted on going deeper with her wounded heart. Marrying her first husband, Bob, in 1959 and having kids, she lived a faithful life but still found herself crying in church in the late 1960s. One day, a strange man came up and put his hand on her shoulder. Disturbed, she brushed him off. But he persisted and asked if he could pray with her for healing of her memories.
It was a life-changing encounter. In the course of the prayer, a memory of a painful moment of childhood trauma and neglect surfaced, and she realized for the first time that Jesus was there with her in that moment.
“It was the clearest experience of the presence of the Lord I have ever had,” she said. Indeed, even as she recounted the story 50 years later, she still choked up. “He gave me a hug — like you would hope your father would do.” It was a moment of deep healing, and it gave her an indelible sense of Christ’s living presence. “Before, it was an intellectual conversion to truth,” she said. “Now, Jesus showed his love.”
Jody’s response was to deepen her faith and love in kind. She and Bob had their marriage blessed, and out of the ashes of her parents’ marriage, she gained the will to strengthen other marriages through apostolates of the Church.
Not that challenges ended. Her husband died, and she remarried, only to lose her second husband a few years ago. Her brother took his own life. But she remains faithful, praying steadfastly for him and for her father, among many others, and drawing consolation and hope from the truth and love she herself has received from Christ.
Staying open to grace
Ed and Caroline Clayport are 87 and 82, respectively (though Ed, a staunch pro-life Catholic fudges that a bit by reckoning his life to have begun at conception, not birth). Ed’s mother and father were baptized but not practicing Catholics. However, when his older brother was challenged by friend to take a Communion preparation class, Ed tagged along at age 8 and wound up receiving first Communion and confession. It was his first “shot of grace” as he calls it.
| Courtesy photo
His second shot of grace came during the Korean War when a man in his unit was shot and killed. “It scared the hell out of me,” Ed said. “It could have been me.” It made him take seriously the Miraculous Medal he received from an aunt in Poland who was a nun, and it sent him back to the Mass and confession.
Later, Ed had his teeth cleaned and, shortly thereafter, ate a bad shrimp. His gums and then blood became infected, and the bacteria reached his heart, resulting in endocarditis and myocarditis. He wound up going to Lourdes for his recovery: the third shot of grace.
The fourth shot was Caroline, whom he met at a Catholic singles group and whom he instantly recognized as “the one.” He went home that night full of a feeling of peace and warmth. “It was just like somebody said to me, ‘This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.’” So he called her. Her thought was, “What took him so long?”
Caroline, raised Catholic, entered a convent after eighth grade, stayed 20 years and left in 1971 for Seattle, where she worked as a school bus driver and went to Seattle University.
The couple married late in life, in 1973, and it was, they agree, “like being born again.”
There were hard times financially. Ed’s work was boom or bust, so they lived frugally. But not long after they were married, Ed and Caroline became serious about tithing and trusting God for his provision. “It changed our outlook to put God first,” Ed said. And God honored it. “We still don’t have a lot, but we have always been provided for,” they said.
“There’s no secret to longevity,” they said. “It’s up to God. His gift is to help you with your problems. It’s all God’s grace, and we just try to remain open.”
|Pope Francis checklist
Pope Francis has a heart for the elderly, as he has made known throughout the past three years. Here are some words of advice and wisdom he has when it comes to caring for that particular age group:
◗ Provide caring homes: “Homes for the elderly should be the ‘lungs’ of humanity in a town, a neighborhood or a parish. They should be the ‘sanctuaries’ of humanity where one who is old and weak is cared for and protected like a big brother or sister” (Sept. 28, 2014, meeting with the elderly).
◗ Offer a listening ear: “Do not oppose the elderly: let them speak, listen to them and go forward” (July 25, 2013, meeting with young people of Argentina during World Youth Day 2013).
◗ Support them in faith: “It is a matter of implementing a special pastoral approach in order to accompany the religious life of elderly patients with serious degenerative diseases in various forms, to ensure that their minds and hearts do not interrupt their dialogue and relationship with God” (Nov. 23, 2013, address to participants in the 28th International Conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers).
◗ Remember that all life is precious: “A society truly welcomes life when it recognizes that it is also precious in old age, in disability, in serious illness ...; when it teaches that the call to human fulfillment does not exclude suffering; ... when it teaches its members to see in the sick and suffering a gift for the entire community” (Feb. 19, 2014, to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life).
◗ Pay attention to them: “The elderly are a wealth not to be ignored” (March 4, 2015, general audience).
◗ Ask them to pray for you: “We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing” (March 11, 2015, general audience).
◗ Learn from them:
“I ask the elderly, the ‘rememberers’ of history, to have the courage to dream, to overcome the ‘throw-away culture’ that is being imposed on us on a global level. We need their dreams, the fonts of inspiration” (July 2016, letter on the bicentennial of independence of the Argentine Republic).