By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published October 4, 2022
“… the Church’s efforts to evangelize, catechize, transmit and explain her faith certainly takes place with the aid of books, films and other resources, yet nothing can replace the direct person-to-person testimony of a life-long experience of closeness to God in faith.” -Pope Francis
Calling old age one of the most urgent issues facing the human family at this time, Pope Francis recently devoted a series of homilies on the meaning and value of old age. The series was scheduled to end on the Second World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, on July 26, but the pope had more wisdom to impart and continued his teachings!
Pope Francis, who will celebrate his 86th birthday on Dec. 17, has done a masterful job of summarizing both the plight as well as the tremendous opportunity for older adults to use their experience and wisdom for greater good. I found his insights and enthusiasm in preaching about old age to be genuine and insightful because he has experienced the things he writes and preaches about. These homilies are a catechetical journey that seeks inspiration in the Word of God on the meaning and value of old age.
The pope suggests that the current reality of old age is due to changing demographics that have created a new category or classification within our population that he calls the “new people.” There has never been so many older people in human history. In the United States, the number of adults ages 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, and the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise from 16 percent to 23 percent. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
The trend is similar throughout the world. With this, comes an opportunity for new relationships among the generations and a renewed appreciation for the contribution older adults can make to a just and fraternal society.
Increased longevity an opportunity
Increased longevity and the growing numbers of older persons is both a “symbol and opportunity,” according to the pope. Our “throwaway” society often exalts youthfulness and even dismisses the elderly as an unwanted burden. The pope laments the particular toll taken on the elderly during the pandemic as representative of a harmful cultural shift that needs to be addressed and reversed. He stresses the importance of taking care to consider and value the spiritual fruitfulness that this time of life can bring to older people themselves, as well as the gifts that they can offer to their families and the communities of which they are an integral part.
In this sense, we need to rediscover the “covenant” that unites the generations in looking to the future of our human family. In these days of pandemic, we have come to see once more how important it is to offer our young people wise guidance, hope and enthusiasm as they look to the future. Who better to counsel younger generations than the elderly who have already lived through the same stages of life?
Pope Francis suggests that the creation of a “new people” requires a simultaneous change of hearts and minds for those who fail to see the true value of the elderly. Here again, the covenant of the generations is indispensable. A society in which the elderly do not speak with the young and the young do not speak with the elderly is a sterile society without a future. May God help us find the right music to create a harmonious relationship among all age segments.
The new vocation of the elderly
The pope expressed this thought, “This ‘passing along’ of the experience of faith is the essence of the living tradition of the Catholic Church. The efforts to evangelize, catechize, transmit and explain her faith certainly takes place with the aid of many resources, yet nothing can replace the direct person-to-person testimony of a life-long experience with the closeness to God in faith.”
Pope Francis reflects on a world that at times seeks to cancel aspects of history and culture, or replace truth with confusion and corruption. We greatly need the model of older generations to help future generations know the church from the inside, to live lives of fidelity to God’s word, to persevere in hope amid trials and to show compassionate love for all our brothers and sisters. He encourages older people to embrace this precious vocation and guard against the temptations of the world that seek to undermine as well as undervalue our hopeful witness.
How can older adults fulfill the vocation to engage in the direct person-to-person testimony of a life-long encounter with God? How can we participate in the evangelical mission? Perhaps it begins with our own interior knowledge that we are deeply loved by God no matter our weaknesses, frailties, or level of productivity by worldly measures. In fact, the Pope believes our slower pace can open up space for gaining fresh meaning and perspective. In turn, we can share these insights with younger generations who are often caught up in a frenetic pace of life.
Throughout the series on old age, Pope Francis tells impactful stories of biblical figures, many advanced in years. Noah, Simeon, Naomi, Judith, Eleazar and Moses are a few of the older people who played a vital role in salvation history. Their virtuous later lives serve as lessons of the plans God still has for us. Their relationships with younger generations often speak to the love and mutual support necessary to enrich families and grow a society that respects the dignity of all members, young and old.
So, perhaps, we can start with the power of stories. I encourage you to read the “Catechesis on Old Age,” paying particular attention to the stories Pope Francis tells. Can you relate to the people and situations? Are there insights that offer you inspiration, guidance, or a new way of looking at old age as God—not the world—sees these years?
Each homily is about a page long and provides a beautiful overview of the experience and wisdom that Pope Francis and fellow older adults share about faith. Find the homilies at www.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html under “Audiences.”
As you read the homilies, it is possible that you might hear an inner voice, much like I experienced, in which God was asking me to use my experience and wisdom to evangelize and catechize within my own family and church community. Much of our catechesis can take place through our life stories. Recollections of where we experienced joys, how we persevered through trials and how we came to know Christ’s mercy are our spiritual legacies. Our shared stories bond us together and create new memories, as we laugh, cry and just be together.
Reflecting on the homilies gave me pause to question my priorities. I asked myself if God had positioned me at this place and time to embrace this vocational call in my aging years—a vocational call that allows me to address the primary mission of all Catholics to go and make disciples!
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.