Pope Francis is amazing for a man of 85 years of age which he turned on December 17, 2021. He keeps a long and busy schedule, meets regularly with people of all levels and backgrounds, writes voluminously, attends frequent seminars and gatherings, gives many public audiences and speeches, and travels outside the Vatican for frequent pastoral visits. He is clear, articulate and has a warm, quick sense of humor. In January of this year, at an audience at the Vatican Paul VI Hall, Pope Francis said that he could not walk along the aisle of the hall to greet people because of an inflammation in his knee. He joked, “Allow me to explain to you that I will not be able to go among you today to greet you, because I have a problem with my right leg; a ligament in my knee is inflamed. But I will come down and greet you there (at the foot of the stage) and you will be able to pass by to say hello. It is a passing thing. They say this only comes to old people, and I don’t know why it has come to me.”
Pope Francis has spoken and written frequently on aging and of the importance of the senior citizens in our midst. In fact, he has just commenced a series of instructions during his Wednesday audiences on “the meaning and value of old age.” In his first talk, the Pope emphasized that old age is one of the most pressing issues facing the human family at this time. He reflected that the dominant culture today has as its model the young adult, a self-made individual who always remains young. Pope Francis stressed, “Youth is beautiful, but eternal youth is a very dangerous illusion. Being old is just as important - and beautiful - as being young. The alliance between generations, which restore all ages of life to the human, is our lost gift and we have to get it back. It must be found, in this culture of waste and in this culture of productivity.”
The elderly are the treasure of our families and our society. They are rightly esteemed in some cultures as living encyclopedias of wisdom and the guardians of an inestimable treasure of human and spiritual experiences. Unfortunately, our society in the United States and in the western world, often fails to recognize the treasure of our senior citizens both in terms of the dignity they possess and in the wisdom they have attained. Becoming elderly is seen as something to be denied as it reminds us of the limitations of life which we will all face. It also reminds us that this life is passing and not our ultimate home. Youth, in our society, is glamorized and the elderly are put in a position that they feel esteem only if they masquerade as youthful. However, being older has an inherent prominence that youth simply does not possess.
Lent is a fitting time to deepen our awareness of the role that the elderly play in our society and in the Church. The journey of Lent does indeed mirror the journey of life and is the most fitting time for all of us to open our hearts to the loving welcome that should always be afforded to the elderly as a blessing from God. Lent is also an appropriate time for us to reflect upon our own growing older and the natural solidarity we have with the elderly. There are so many in our families and in other situations to whom we can reach out and from whom we can learn and benefit. The season of Lent, with its call to conversion and solidarity, leads us to rediscover the mutual enrichment between different generations.
One of the natural spiritual insights that come to people as they age is the importance of a relationship with God. The natural progress and rhythm of life which God has put into us calls for this spiritual impetus as we naturally age. Psychologists confirm this dynamic as a normal and healthy one. The elderly have a particular insight into spiritual life and are aware of our ultimate identity which is union with God in heaven. Saint Pope John Paul II, another extraordinary example of the wisdom of age, wrote, “The greater amount of free time in this stage of life offers the elderly the opportunity to face the issues that perhaps had been previously set aside, due to concerns that were pressing or considered a priority nonetheless. Knowledge of the nearness of the final goal leads the elderly person to focus on what is essential, giving importance to those things that the passing of years do not destroy.”
In his recent catechesis, Pope Francis referred to the words of the prophet Joel, “Your elders shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (3:1). The Pope has frequently referred to these words which were quoted by Saint Peter on Pentecost after the Holy Spirit had descended upon the apostles. The Holy Father movingly reflected, “When … the old communicate their dreams, the young see clearly what they have to do. Young people who no longer question the dreams of the old, aiming headlong at visions that do not go beyond their noses, will struggle to carry their present and bear their future. If grandparents fall back on their melancholies, young people will look even more so to their smartphones. The screen may stay on, but life will die out before it is time. Isn’t the most serious backlash of the pandemic precisely in the loss of the young? The old have resources of life already lived that they can call upon at any moment. Will they stand by and watch young people lose their vision, or will they accompany them by warming their dreams? Faced with the dreams of the old, what will the young do?”
Pope Francis’ ailing knee, caused by aging, brought him some unexpected sacrifice for the first day of Lent on Ash Wednesday. His doctor prescribed a period of more rest for his leg, advising him to not publicly participate in Ash Wednesday. Certainly, the Pope’s wisdom would recognize this as a means of offering himself and his physical limitations more to God as a Lenten practice. The limitations of aging bring a deeper insight into the possibilities that they afford when received with a greater understanding that only the years can bring.
Our Holy Father gives us not only insightful words but lived experience upon them. It is appropriate that Pope Francis continues this catechesis on the meaning of old age during the season of Lent. It is a good time for all of us to appreciate our own aging as well as that of our senior members. Pope Francis concluded his catechesis expressing, “I would like the figure of the elderly person to come up, to understand well that the elderly person is not a waste material: he/she is a blessing for society.” May all of us better appreciate this blessing.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 4, 2022