Esteem elders and foster solidarity across generations

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Occasionally we hear disturbing stories in the media about young people who perpetrate abuse against the elderly. In a widely reported 2009 story, for example, caretakers at the Quadrangle Assisted Living facility outside Philadelphia were charged in connection with the abuse of an elderly patient named Lois McCallister. Three employees, aged 19, 21 and 22, were caught on a surveillance camera as they taunted, mocked and assaulted a partially naked 78-year-old woman.

She had begun complaining to visiting family members several months prior that someone was hurting her and hitting her. There were also initial signs of bruising on her hand and wrist. After bringing the bruises to the attention of the nursing home’s administrators, the family was informed that the allegations were unfounded, and were told the accusations were simply the result of the patient’s advancing dementia. Family members suspected there was more to it and clandestinely installed a video camera, hidden in a clock in the victim’s room.

After capturing the assailants on tape, they concluded that the abuse suffered by their mother had been ongoing for some time. One of the young women charged in the case told investigators she was working on another floor the night the clock/camera captured the scene in the elderly woman’s room. A family member later told news reporters, “They called the third girl down from another floor and said, ‘Come down, we’re going to start.’”

As a consequence of the abuse, the Department of Public Welfare eventually revoked the license for the facility, and the family filed a civil lawsuit against the parent company.

A tragic event like this leads to intense questioning about how these young people, charged with the special care of the older generation, could end up becoming so callous, inhuman and brutal. What can be done to prevent this kind of “intergenerational disconnect” from occurring in the future? And what can be done to build up unity and respect between generations?

A nearly universal point of reference over the years, and a counsel of incalculable worth, has been the injunction enshrined in the Decalogue: Honor your father and mother. A decision to abide by this commandment invariably serves to strengthen the concern of children for their parents and elders, and helps forge a bond between the generations. The Book of Sirach offers similarly sage advice: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins…”

In a sense, it is precisely the weakness and vulnerability of the elderly that beckons us to manifest a greater respect towards them, and never to mistreat them in the strength of youth. As Pope John Paul II beautifully summed it up in his 1999 Letter to the Elderly: “… the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations…” Compassionately attending to the needs of the elderly draws the generations together and builds solidarity.

When the unique gifts of the elderly are invested and shared with the younger generation, this, too, builds up solidarity. Elderly people help us see human affairs with a sense of perspective tempered by experience, reflection and wisdom. Whenever grandparents contribute to the raising and formation of the grandchildren, even by doing something as simple as teaching them how to pray and think about God, they strengthen intergenerational ties and build family unity.

We can foster intergenerational care and support within our families and communities in other simple ways as well, for example, through conscientious parenting, including small but important steps such as insisting on meal time together as a family (which builds up mutual respect and concern for others in the family); teaching compassion by visiting sick or elderly neighbors together; teaching children to welcome all human life, even when weak or handicapped; praying together as a family, decreasing media time and guarding against violent video games, pornography and other practices that dehumanize people and make them seem like objects to be manipulated.

As we seek to build relational bridges across generations, and work to construct a society that esteems its elders, we simultaneously build up homes and communities that are liberated of the threat of abuse or neglect—places of safety, mutual support and love, even as the hairs on our head turn gray and our strength wanes.

World Day of the Sick 2015 will be recognized Feb. 11. Read Pope Francis’ message for the occasion, based on the verse “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame” (Job 29:15), here.

COMING UP: Father Jan Mucha remembered for his ‘joy and simplicity’

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When Father Marek Ciesla was 11 years old, he encountered a priest in his hometown in northern Poland who was visiting his parish on mission.

“I was impressed,” said Father Ciesla. “A couple of my friends and I were talking about how energetic, how wonderful this priest was. I think in this way he inspired us a little bit to follow the call to the priesthood.”

The priest was Father Jan Mucha, and little did Father Ciesla know that decades later and an ocean away, he would reunite with the man that inspired him and his friend to pursue the priesthood.

In 2010 when Father Mucha was retiring from his role as pastor of St. Joseph Polish Catholic Church in Denver, Father Ciesla was sent from Poland to the Archdiocese of Denver to take his place.

The priests spent two days together, and Father Ciesla was struck by the familiarity of Father Mucha.

“For some reason, the way he was talking and the words he was using, something rang a bell,” he said. “I asked him if he remembers visiting my parish. And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I had it on my list. I remember.’”

Father Ciesla was amazed that the man he was there to replace was the same one who had impacted his life all those years ago.

“God works in mysterious ways,” said Father Ciesla. “I never thought I would meet him again.”

Father Mucha passed away March 21 after serving the archdiocese for 40 years. He was 88 years old.

Father Mucha was born March 16, 1930 in Gron, Poland to parents Kazimierz and Aniela Mucha. He was one of five children. Father Mucha attended high school in Kraków and went on to study philosophy and theology at a seminary in Tarnów.

Father Mucha was ordained December 19, 1954 in Tarnów by Auxiliary Bishop Karol Pękala. He served at St. Theresa Parish in Lublin, Sacred Heart Parish in Florynka and as a Latin teacher at Sacred Heart Novice House in Mszana Dolna.

He was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Denver on April 20, 1978. Before he was granted retirement status in August of 2010, he served at St. Joseph Polish for nearly 40 years.

“Father Mucha was dedicated to his people and there was a joy about him,” said Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, who had known Father Mucha since his own ordination in 1974 and more recently within his former role as Vicar for Clergy.

“I admired his joy and simplicity,” said Msgr. Schmitz. “He seemed to have no guile and what you saw is what you got. He was very proud of his Polish heritage and was unafraid to be Polish.”

Father Mucha’s move to the United States came about after he visited St. Joseph Polish while on vacation. The pastor at the time was sick, and parishioners asked Father Mucha to stay.

After receiving approval from his superiors in Poland and the archbishop in Denver, Father Mucha did stay, and ended up serving the parish for nearly four decades.

“He was happy to serve here,” said Father Ciesla. “All the time, he was a man of faith. He kept his eye on Jesus.”

Msgr. Schmitz believes Father Mucha’s faithfulness and tenacity as a priest will leave a lasting impression on those he served.

“He was dedicated to the priesthood and didn’t want to retire until he was sure his people would be well taken care of,” said Msgr. Schmitz. “He could come across as tough, but really he was a compassionate person [with] a heart open to the Lord’s work.”