Just Gospel: Pope Francis Prioritizes Future of the Very Young

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December 29, 2019

Franciscan Sister Kathleen Murphy shares a Just Gospel post on Pope Francis’ December prayer intention giving priority to the very young, especially those who are suffering.

December brings with it a focus on the Baby Jesus who grows into childhood. This liturgical focus finds its way into Pope Francis’ intention for the month which is That every country take the measures necessary to prioritize the future of the very young, especially those who are suffering. This is a challenge that we can take to heart as we recall the many images that have littered our newscasts showing us suffering immigrant children at the mercy of our own laws and authorities.

Pope Francis has singled out the very young as the subject of our prayer. Why? Perhaps an art appreciation lesson will lead us to a better understanding.

Hanging in the US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is a series of four paintings by Thomas Cole. The series is called “The Voyage of Life”. Each painting depicts a stage of life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age.

The first painting is of childhood. It shows a mountain with a dark cave at its base and a river flowing out of the cave. A beautiful boat glides out of the cave into a world of flowers in bloom, and a peaceful, gentle surface on the water. Inside the boat is a laughing baby with a Guardian Angel standing right behind. The painting shows childhood as a time of wonder and joy.

The second painting is called “youth”. We see the same boat which has now travelled further downstream. The baby has grown into a teenage boy. He stands in the rear, confidently steering the boat towards a majestic white castle off in the distance. The riverbanks are still lush and green and the Guardian Angel stands on those banks, watching the young man. The painting shows youth as a time of dreaming and absolute self confidence that nothing can hold me back.

When we look at the third painting the scene has changed dramatically. The youth has become a man, the river has become a raging torrent, and the sky has become dark and threatening. The castle of dreams is nowhere to be seen and the boat’s rudder has broken. Up ahead lie treacherous rocks, with white water crashing all around them. With the rudder broken he cannot steer his boat. All he can do is look up to the sky and pray. Meanwhile the Guardian Angel sits hidden in the clouds. Cole is picturing adulthood as a time when the joy and wonder of childhood have been tamed by the difficult and tragic experiences of life, when the confidence and boldness of youth have been swept away by the harsh realities of life.

The final painting is called “Old Age”. The battered and weathered boat has finally reached the ocean. The dark clouds remain but the water is still. The boat’s occupant is now an old man, and his gaze is fixed firmly on the clouds pierced by the glorious light of heaven. For the first time in his life the man sees the Guardian Angel that has accompanied him on his journey and who now prepares him for his journey into heaven.

This beautiful lesson achieved with a paintbrush reminds us of the importance of childhood, of the life of the very young. Without this time of wonder and beauty and security, life does not begin well and thus how can growth, striving and eventually, surrendering go well as life unfolds.

Whether we consider the future life of the Church, of our own nation or of the global community, protection and nurture of our very young is critical. These will be the ones to carry on and defend all that is right and good. These are the helpless ones and though we may not be able to personally feed them, house them or provide for their hygiene and health, we can be aware of those agencies around us that can provide this support. We can pray for their continued devotion to aid for the young. We can be in communication with legislators and other public officials regarding protection of the young, especially those who are poor and/or immigrants. We can pray for these little ones who mirror the exiled Babe of Bethlehem. We pray that they will be brought to safe harbor so that they may grow and develop and one day reach the wisdom of old age.

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