Saints offer spiritual support to elderly

In his “Letter to the Elderly” in 1999, Pope Blessed John Paul II wrote, “It is natural that, as the years pass, we should increasingly consider our ‘twilight.’ If nothing else, we are reminded of it by the very fact that the ranks of our family members, friends and acquaintances grow ever thinner.” 

St. Anthony of Padua. Shutterstock

The letter from the late pontiff was intended for those who are in the “autumn” of their lives, and the pope noted that the challenges of old age are considerable. They are both physical as well as spiritual, and those of the spirit can be even greater than the ailments and conditions that plague an aging body. 

One of the ways that the Church can offer spiritual support for the elderly is through the saints. Catholic tradition honors one saint in particular as the patron of the elderly: the beloved St. Anthony of Padua (d. 1226).  

There are, however, other saints and blessed who can serve as ideal patrons and models for seniors, including Sts. Jeanne Jugan and Teresa of Jesus Jornet e Ibars, St. Monica and Pope Blessed John Paul II, and even St. Peter.  

Saints for the aged

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), one of the great Franciscan saints, seems at first look an unlikely candidate to be patron of the elderly. He died at the age of 36, was a brilliant preacher and doctor of the Church and a defender of the faith against heresy.  

He is also a famous patron for helping people to find lost objects. His status as a patron of the elderly stems from his abiding compassion for the suffering and the aged, especially in Padua, as well as his own many physical afflictions, enough to last many lifetimes. His feast day is June 30. 

Sts. Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) and Teresa Jesus Jornet e Ibars (1843-1897) were both founders of religious congregations called the Little Sisters of the Poor, and both took as their special concern the care of the elderly, especially the forgotten and the abandoned. They are thus the special friends of the elderly, in particular those suffering from abandonment or loneliness. 

St. Jeanne was born in France and started what became the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1837 when she called together a small community of friends to care for abandoned elderly women. It was said that she gave up her own bed for the first of the elderly women who came under her charge.  

The members initially went door-to-door asking for food and funds to support the women whom they aided, but by the time of St. Jeanne’s death, there were several thousand Little Sisters and houses all over Europe and North and South America.  

She was beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 3, 1982, and canonized on Oct. 11, 2009, by Pope Benedict XVI. Her famous motto was a simple one: “Making the elderly happy, that’s what counts.” Her feast day is Aug. 30. 

St. Teresa Jesus was born in Spain and founded the Little Sisters of the Abandoned Aged (also commonly called the Little Sisters of the Poor) in 1873 with the specific charge of caring for the many isolated and forgotten elderly in the region around Barbastro, in northeastern Spain. By the time of her death from exhaustion, there were 50 houses for the elderly. Pope Pius XII beatified her in 1958, and she was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1974. Her feast day is Aug. 26. 

Saints for the brokenhearted

Where St. Anthony and Sts. Jeanne and Teresa are honored as patrons of the elderly, St. Monica (d. 387) is a great model for seniors who struggle in their relationships with their children. The mother of St. Augustine, St. Monica was a widow who spent many tear-filled years praying that her tortured relationship with her son might end with the reform of his dissolute life and their attaining some happiness together.  

A bishop consoled her, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”  

Her fortitude and ceaseless prayers ended after 17 years with St. Augustine’s baptism by St. Ambrose of Milan only months before her death. St. Monica is the saint to ask for help if you are hoping for reconciliation with your grown children. Her feast day is Aug. 27. 

St. Monica is also a patron for widows and widowers. She is joined by Sts. Paula (347-404) and Frances of Rome (1384-1440).  

A Roman noblewoman, St. Paula was widowed at the age of 36 and devoted most of her remaining years to assisting St. Jerome in his work and building up the Church in the Holy Land. St. Frances was a Roman noblewoman, mother, mystic and source of many charitable initiatives in Rome. She had always wanted to enter the religious life, but she was wed at the age of 13 to a noble and was widowed at the age of 52.  

Both Paula and Frances spent their times as widows dedicating their lives to God, and they are beautiful examples for those who have lost spouses and face loneliness or need direction for their later years. St. Paula’s feast day is Jan. 26, and St. Frances’ is March 9. 

Saints for the suffering

The 25-year pontificate of Blessed John Paul II provided a vivid example of how to grow old with dignity and conform our sufferings to Christ’s cross. The entire world watched him age, deal with his many infirmities and finally go to the Lord’s house. His “Letter to the Elderly” was written from the deep personal experience of aging, and with his beatification in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, the late pontiff is now a great role model for seniors.  

As the pope wrote, “Sadly, struggles and tribulations are very much a part of everyone’s life. Sometimes it is a matter of problems and sufferings which can sorely test our mental and physical resistance, and perhaps even shake our faith. But experience teaches that daily difficulties, by God’s grace, often contribute to people’s growth and to the forging of their character.” His feast day is Oct. 22. 

Finally, for those seeking the blessings of a long life, the traditional patron is St. Peter, who gave his last years to proclaiming the Gospel and leading the Christian community, especially in Rome where he was bishop. It is worth remembering that he suffered persecution and ultimately martyrdom.  

A long life will thus bring its share of loss, but faith and hope will always prepare us for the final time of our lives.  

As the psalms teach us: “God, you have taught me from my youth; to this day I proclaim your wondrous deeds. Now that I am old and gray, do not forsake me, God, that I may proclaim your might to all generations to come” (Ps 71:17-18). 

Matthew Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Answer and the 2012 Catholic Almanac.

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