Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., recently received some unfavorable coverage here at NCR for his reaction to the encyclical on the environment. I thought that op-ed was unfair, seeing the bishop's words in the worst possible light. I make this judgment not because I know Bishop Bransfield well. I do not. I make this judgment because the author of those comments on the encyclical was also recently the author of a pretty wonderful pastoral letter on the elderly. You can find the text here. This is a "smell of the sheep" text.
Bishop Bransfield starts by recalling Simeon and Anna in the Scriptures, both of whom in their old age and with their great faith greeted the arrival of the Savior with joy. He then relates his meetings with the elderly in his diocese to the biblical accounts:
Certainly in my travels throughout this State, I have come across many examples of Simeon and Anna, elders whose lives have been marked by devotion to their faith and their families, preparing even now for that great day when we shall all meet in Christ and enjoy the wonders of His Kingdom. The traditional culture of the mountains has incorporated an appreciation for its senior citizens as models of behavior and transmitters of wisdom. In Listening Sessions held throughout the Diocese in preparation for this Pastoral Letter, recognition of older persons as vibrant and important contributors to the life of the Church community was expressed, celebrating seniors as founts of knowledge and wisdom.
But then, the bishop recounts some of the travails under which the elderly in West Virginia suffer, compiling recent research that shows that many elderly in the state, 45 percent, have a disability, compared to 37 percent nationwide; one-third of the elderly in the state are in poor health; female and African-American seniors are less economically secure than male and Caucasian seniors; one in eight seniors is threatened by hunger. He notes, "A good number of seniors threatened by hunger are actually above the poverty line, itself a dramatic indication of the deficiency of the federally set poverty threshold to describe the real situation in which far too many people -- especially children and senior citizens -- are living." I wonder how many members of Congress, let alone bishops of the Church, know that the appalling numbers regarding poverty are actually premised on a poverty line that is artificially rosy.
Bishop Bransfield then recapitulates some of the moral principles he used in his first pastoral letter on health care. His themes are those of traditional Catholic social teaching, e.g., "The fifth principle reminds us that we, precisely as Christians, respect all human persons, regardless of their personal qualities or circumstances. Rather, we consider all men and women our equals and co-heirs with us to the life of grace because they are children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Christ his Son." Another item reminds readers that the Christian faith calls for solidarity that builds on our interdependence, and that this must balance any cultural notions of "rugged self-reliance." Another notes that the faith community brings physical and monetary resources to help those who are struggling, but also brings "moral resources," and who but the Church would bring those in today's America? What does a "moral resource" look like? Recalling Pope John Paul II's Letter to the Elderly, written when the pope was himself well advanced in years, and the listening sessions conducted around the diocese, +Bransfield writes:
Some of you urged the creation of a "Senior StoryCorps," reminiscent of the American Folklife Center's StoryCorps Initiative, to more effectively share with the community the lessons learned by our older members and encourage a deeper appreciation for the insights to which their experiences have led. Indeed, the older members of our communities have so much more to share with us than a simple nostalgia for the past; rather they are a source of great encouragement, a sign of hope, and a kind of living font of often hard-won wisdom. Our willingness to listen to them and learn from them is itself an invaluable ministry which benefits both young and old. Cicero himself remarked that "the burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young."
Feeling "lighter" and "respected" and "loved" does not put food on the table, but it is the kind of moral resource that our elderly value as much as food. It is food for the soul. It is also, as the bishop notes elsewhere, a foolish society that does not avail itself of the wisdom of its elders, a theme Pope Francis has spoken to time and again.
Here is another example of a "moral resource." After quoting the wonderful story of Ruth and Naomi from the Hebrew Scriptures, +Bransfield writes:
While scarcely pretending that we are linked to each and every elder by strong ties of family and affection, something of the devotion of Ruth to Naomi should be active among the youth and young adults of the Church and should characterize their attitude toward older family members, parishioners, and neighbors. This runs contrary to a culture which exalts youthfulness, health, and beauty to the detriment of old age and which makes an idol of youth in its advertising and entertainment, so much so that the elderly rarely see themselves reflected positively in the social media and advertising.
Here, too, is an example of how the purportedly "value-free" market is far from it, that is to say, those who claim that capitalism is just a tool that can be used well or badly, have to explain how a market, any market, designed to recruit customers, would possibly see value in highlighting the elderly, when they can instead focus on cultivating the consumer loyalty of a young person destined to be a customer for decades.
The letter includes practical information, such as how caregivers can get respite assistance from Catholic Charities, and calls for increased advocacy on behalf of higher wages for direct care workers. He gives a shout out to the AARP for its resources for grandparents raising their grandchildren. And he calls all citizens of his state to give a better account of the way West Virginia cares for its elderly:
Protecting the rights of our senior citizens to healthcare and to economic safeguards, to access to social services and to social media, and to security in their homes and personal safety is a matter of justice, which should engage us all. As Pope Pius XI so clearly taught, "charity will never be true charity unless it takes justice into account [...] Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt himself from the great duties imposed by justice."
Any bishop who quotes the venerable Pius XI gets high marks from me. But as I noted yesterday, such language is not the "language of grievance." It is not Marxism as Rush Limbaugh seems to think. It is Catholic Social Teaching 101, and in this very well done encyclical letter, like +Bransfield's earlier pastoral on poverty, that teaching is applied thoughtfully to the circumstances of his flock. Some may not like the fact that the smell of some of the sheep in West Virginia is the smell of the coal mines. But it seems to me that this is one bishop who is in touch with his people and their needs.