By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published September 4, 2022
“In old age they will still bear fruit.” These words of the psalmist are glad tidings, a true ‘gospel’ that we can proclaim to all…” -Pope Francis
Among the gifts that Pope Francis brings to his pontificate are age, experience and wisdom. In December, he will celebrate his 86th birthday. Some might suggest that he is well beyond retirement age, over the hill so to speak. However, he is an excellent example of an elder person who is “still bearing fruit!” He is helping to forge a new paradigm for his fellow elders around the world to live a life of meaning and purpose according to God’s will.
A quote from Bernard Baruch, an American statesman reflects the same point of view, “Age is only a number, a cipher for the records. A man can’t retire his experience. He must use it.”
Pope Francis has witnessed a great deal of change in his lifetime–from World War II to space flight to the rise in secularism and the impact of technology, communications and the internet. He has also developed a strong empathy and understanding for grandparents, the elderly, family life and marriage.
Is it no wonder that he would have a special place in his heart for grandparents and the elderly when he established the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly in 2021. In his opening message he said, “… the Holy Spirit even today stirs up thoughts and words of wisdom in the elderly.” The voice of the elderly “is precious because it sings the praises of God and preserves the roots of the peoples. The elderly remind us that old age is a gift and that grandparents are the link between the different generations, to pass on to the young the experience of life.”
The second annual celebration of World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly was Sunday, July 24. Each subsequent anniversary provides us with an opportunity to recognize and celebrate all grandparents and the elderly for their value and ongoing contributions within their families and the entire body of Christ.
In his message in advance of World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly this year, Pope Francis offered several insights for reflection:
Insight 1: Old age is easily misunderstood
Continuing the message from Pope Francis, “Old age is not a time of life that is easily understood … no one prepares us for old age … the more developed societies expend large sums on this stage of life without really helping to understand and appreciate it; they offer healthcare plans to the elderly but not plans for living this age to the fullest … we are tempted to ward off old age by hiding our wrinkles and pretending to be forever young … we imagine the only thing we can do is bide our time thinking glumly that we cannot ‘still bring forth fruit.’”
Insight 2: Use the experience and wisdom of the elderly
We as a global society must do a much better job of engaging the experience and wisdom of grandparents and the elderly. Instead of putting our elderly on the sideline, how can we find ways to accompany them as circumstances and abilities change? For some, it might be in the vocation of caregiving. For others, it might be the vocation of prayer or redemptive suffering. We should highlight and honor these callings as worthwhile and honorable.
Insight 3: The Lord is present at every stage
The message is to persevere in hope. God continues to give us the gift of life and the promise of eternal life. Growing old is natural and aging is not a condemnation, but a blessing and opportunity to continue to deepen our relationship with Christ and one another.
Insight 4: Care for body and soul
We should take care of our body by endeavoring to be physically active, eating a nourishing diet, keeping hydrated and getting proper sleep. We should care for our soul by regularly reading the Word of God, daily prayer, receiving the sacraments and participating in the liturgy.
Insight 5: Join the revolution of tenderness
We grandparents and the elderly are called to be “artisans of the revolution of tenderness” by showing how we deal with the concerns, thoughts and affections of our neighbors in Christ. We should show affectionate concern for our families, children and grandchildren and the poor and needy. We should strive to continue or become participants rather than bystanders.
Insight 6: Responsibility of the elderly
“We grandparents and the elderly have a great responsibility to teach the women and men of our time to regard others with the same understanding and loving gaze with which we regard our own grandchildren,” the pope wrote. “We have grown in humanity by caring for others, and now we can be teachers of the way of life that is peaceful and attentive to those in greatest need.”
Insight 7: Let us look inward at the elderly’s needs
In the spirit of the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, let us take a fresh look at what we can do in our “revolution of tenderness” for our elderly persons who feel most alone, at home or in elder care facilities. “Visiting the elderly who live alone is a work of mercy in our time,” wrote the pope.
As I read the pope’s reflections, I recalled an experience that strongly influenced my thinking about life and aging. I went to the golf course one day, without a tee time and was paired with a gentleman who turned out to be a skilled golfer. He beat my score by several strokes even though I suspected that he was a good deal older than I was. We had a beer afterward and shared stories about careers and families. I asked if he would feel comfortable telling me how old he was. At the time, I was 60. He said that he was 72 years “young.”
We became close friends and played many rounds of golf together. He taught me a great deal about the meaning of life, including his personal philosophy. He followed two rules: first, the Golden Rule to treat everyone you meet the way you would like to be treated. And, the second and rather interesting rule was, “Never retire your God-given gifts”!” I understood the Golden Rule because it reflects our need to love God and our neighbor, but the second guideline was unusual.
The essence of this philosophy was that everything we do or have in life is a gift from God, especially the gift of life and our accomplishments. He felt that we all have an ongoing opportunity and obligation to share our gifts, whether we retire, slow down or find new ways to continue using our gifts.
Pope Francis offers up this prayer for grandparents and the elderly: “I give thanks to you, Lord, for the blessing of a long life. For those who take refuge in you, grant always that they bear fruit.”
Bill Clarke, former business executive and teacher, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Discipleship. To send thoughts to Bill, email firstname.lastname@example.org.