At the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 27 April, Pope Francis continued his series of catecheses on the meaning and value of old age, reflecting on the Book of Ruth. “If the young open themselves to gratitude for what they have received, and the elderly take the initiative of relaunching their future”, he underscored, “then nothing will be able to stop the flourishing of God’s blessings among peoples”. The following is a translation of the Pope’s catechesis which he shared in Italian with the faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Square.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Good morning and welcome!
Today we will continue to reflect on the elderly, on grandparents, on old age — the word seems ugly but no, the elderly are great, they are beautiful! And today we will let ourselves be inspired by the splendid Book of Ruth, a jewel of the Bible. The parable of Ruth sheds light on the beauty of family bonds: generated by the relationship of a couple, but that go beyond the bond of the couple. Bonds of love capable of being equally strong, in which the perfection of that polyhedron of fundamental affections that make up the family grammar of love, shines. This grammar brings vital lymph and generative wisdom to the set of relationships that build up the community. With regard to the Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles), the Book of Ruth is like the other panel in the diptych of nuptial love. Just as important, just as essential, it indeed celebrates the power and the poetry that must inhabit the bonds of generation, kinship, devotion and fidelity that involve the entire family constellation. And which even become capable, in the dramatic circumstances of the life of a couple, of bringing an unimaginable power of love, capable of reviving hope and the future.
We know that clichés about the bonds of kinship created by marriage, especially that of the mother-in-law, the relationship between mother — and daughter-in-law, speak against this perspective. But, precisely for this reason, the Word of God becomes precious. The inspiration of faith can open up a horizon of witness that counteracts the most common prejudices, a horizon that is precious for the entire human community. I invite you to rediscover the Book of Ruth! Especially in the meditation on love and in catechesis on the family.
This short book also contains valuable teachings on the alliance of the generations: where youth reveals itself to be capable of restoring enthusiasm to mature age — this is essential: when youth restores enthusiasm to the elderly — and where old age discovers it is capable of reopening the future to wounded youth. At the beginning, the elderly Naomi, although moved by the affection of her daughters-in-law, widowed by her two sons, is pessimistic with regard to their destiny among a people that is not their own. She therefore affectionately encourages the young women to return to their families to rebuild their lives — these widows were young. She says, “I can do nothing for you”. This already appears to be an act of love: the elderly woman, without a husband and without her sons, insists that her daughters-in-law abandon her. However, it is also a sort of resignation: there is no possible future for the foreign widows, without the protection of a husband. Ruth knows this, and resists this generous offer — she does not want to go to her home. The bond established between mother and daughter-in-law was blessed by God: Naomi cannot ask to be abandoned. At first, Naomi appears more resigned than happy about this offer: perhaps she thinks that this strange bond will aggravate the risk for both of them. In some cases, the tendency of the elderly towards pessimism needs to be counteracted by the affectionate pressure of the young.
Indeed, moved by Ruth’s devotion, Naomi will emerge from her pessimism and even take the initiative, paving the way toward a new future for Ruth. She instructs and encourages Ruth, her son’s widow, to find a new husband in Israel. Boaz, the candidate, shows his nobility, defending Ruth from the men in his employ. Unfortunately, this is a risk that still exists today.
Ruth’s new marriage is celebrated and the worlds are again pacified. The women of Israel tell Naomi that Ruth, the foreigner, is worth “more than seven sons” and that the marriage will be a “blessing of the Lord”. Naomi, who was full of bitterness and even said that her name was bitterness, in her old age, will know the joy of having a part in the generation of a new birth. See how many “miracles” accompany the conversion of this elderly woman! She converts to the commitment of making herself available, with love, for the future of a generation wounded by loss and at risk of abandonment. The points of reconstruction are those that, on the basis of the probability drawn by commonplace prejudices, ought to generate insurmountable rifts. Instead, faith and love enable them to be overcome: the mother-in-law overcomes her jealousy for her own son, loving Ruth’s new bond; the women of Israel overcome their distrust of the foreigner (and if women will do it, everyone will); the vulnerability of the lone girl, faced with male power, is reconciled with a bond full of love and respect.
And all this because the young Ruth persisted in her fidelity to a bond exposed to ethnic and religious prejudice. And I return to what I said at the beginning — today the mother-in-law is a mythical figure: I will not say that we think of mothers-in-law as the devil, but they are always thought of as unpleasant figures. But the mother-in-law is the mother of your husband, she is the mother of your wife. Let us think today about this rather widespread feeling that the farther away the mother-in-law is, the better. No! She is a mother, she is elderly. One of the most beautiful things about grandmothers is seeing the grandchildren — when their children have children of their own, they come alive again. Look closely at the relationship you have with your mothers-in-law: at times they are a bit special, but they have been the mother to your spouse, they have given you everything. We should at least make them happy, so that they may go forth into their old age with joy. And if they have some fault, we should help them to correct it. And to you too, mothers-in-law, I say: be careful with your tongue, because its misuse is one of the worst sins of mothers-in-law. Be careful.
And in this book, Ruth accepts her mother-in-law and makes her come alive again, and the elderly Naomi takes the initiative of reopening the future for Ruth, instead of limiting herself to enjoying her support. If the young open themselves to gratitude for what they have received, and the elderly take the initiative of relaunching their future, then nothing will be able to stop the flourishing of God’s blessings among peoples! Do not forget, may young people speak with their grandparents, may the young speak with the old, may the old speak with the young. We must rebuild this bridge in a strong way — there is a current of salvation, of happiness there. May the Lord help us, by doing this, to grow in harmony with families, that constructive harmony that goes from the oldest to the youngest, that beautiful bridge that we must protect and safeguard.
I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially those from England, Denmark and the United States of America. In the joy of the Risen Christ, I invoke upon you and your families the loving mercy of God our Father. May the Lord bless you!
Lastly, as usual, my thoughts turn to the elderly, to the sick, to young people and to newlyweds. During this Easter period which invites us to meditate on the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ, may the Lord’s glory be for each of you a wellspring of renewed energy in the journey towards salvation. May it help you young people to faithfully follow the Gospel; support you elderly and the sick to go forth with confidence and hope; and guide you newlyweds to establish solid families as a sign of evangelical truth.
I would like to tell you something. I apologize for being seated while greeting you because this knee has yet to heal and I cannot stand for long periods of time. Pardon me for this. Thank you.