Three senior citizens were having tea, sharing about the golden years, laughing at each other’s adventures. “The other day, I went to the bathroom and as soon as I opened the door, I stood there wondering whether I was going in or getting out,” one volunteered. The next one countered, “Yesterday, I was on the stairs and in the middle, I stopped and asked myself whether I was going up or going down.” The third one proudly said, “Lucky me, I’m still in full control of my faculties. I really hope I don’t get to that point, knock on wood.” Then after a second’s pause, she stood up and said, “I’ll get the door, someone is knocking!”
Stories about old age abound.
Society does not usually welcome or celebrate the later years of life. This is why at best, we usually joke about it. At worst, we downright ridicule it or ignore it. In January of 2015, Pope Francis made a pastoral visit to the Philippines. Those days left an imprint on the collective consciousness of Filipinos, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Apparently, it also left an imprint on Pope Francis himself. In the Wednesday general audience address he delivered in Rome (March 4 and 11, 2015), months after his January 2015 pastoral visit, Pope Francis fondly recalled the love and reverence Filipinos have for the elderly which he observed during the days of his visit. Particularly, he mentioned Filipinos’ term of endearment for him. The Pope shared, “(w)hen I was in the Philippines, the Filipino people greeted me saying ‘Lolo Kiko’ — meaning Grandpa Francis — ‘Lolo Kiko’, they said!” (11 March 2015).
With the advancement of healthcare, better living conditions, nutrition, and medicine, people now live longer. The modern life span has considerably lengthened. However, the Pope lamented that in many parts of the world, particularly in the West, the elderly are not afforded the importance they deserve, considering that there is a growing trend of aged people outnumbering the young in that part of the world. Listen to the words of the Pope: “The number of elderly has multiplied, but our societies are not organized well enough to make room for them, with proper respect and practical consideration for their frailty and their dignity. While we are young, we are led to ignore old age, as if it were a disease to keep away from; then when we become old, especially if we are poor, if we are sick and alone, we experience the shortcomings of a society programmed for efficiency, which consequently ignores its elderly ” (4 March 2015).
Looking back to his immediate predecessor, Pope Francis shared, “Benedict XVI, visiting a home for the elderly, used clear and prophetic words, saying in this way: ‘The quality of a society, —is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life’.” Then punctuating this observation with his own words, he stressed, “…the elderly are a wealth not to be ignored.” Recent Popes have wisely diagnosed the cause of society’s disregard for the elderly. St. John Paul II in his Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) spoke of a practical materialism. When a society places premium only on physical strength and productivity, when society puts value only on things that are functional, it is no wonder the elderly are marginalized, displaced at the peripheries of life and interaction.
Pope Francis on his part speaks of a throw-away culture, “… a culture of profit insists on casting off the old like a ‘weight’. Not only do they not produce — this culture thinks — but they are a burden: in short, what is the outcome of thinking like this? They are thrown away. It’s brutal to see how the elderly are thrown away, it is a brutal thing, it is a sin! No one dares to say it openly, but it’s done! There is something vile in this adherence to the throw-away culture. But we are accustomed to throwing people away. We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability; but by doing so we increase in the elderly the anxiety of being poorly tolerated and neglected.”
How different is the Biblical worldview! If we plough through Scriptures, the elderly play an indispensable part in salvation history. God first revealed himself and moved salvation history to an old person, Abraham. We are told that Abraham was already 75-years old when the Lord had spoke to him when he departed out of Haran (see Genesis 12:4). In the New Testament, it was also to the old couple Simeon and Anna that the infant Jesus was first revealed in the temple (see Luke 2). In the words of Pope Francis, “(t)hey recognized the Child, and discovered new strength, for a new task: to give thanks for and bear witness to this Sign from God. Simeon improvised a beautiful hymn of jubilation (cf. Lk 2:29-32) — in that moment he was a poet — and Anna became the first woman to preach of Jesus: she ‘spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’” (Lk 2:38).
How can we recover this Biblical word view and rediscover the old age and the elderly as the “treasure” Pope Francis proposed them to be? First, we need to distance ourselves from the culture of profit that Pope Francis spoke of earlier. In plain words, let us remind ourselves that not everything that can be counted counts, and that the things that truly count, cannot be counted. The elderly are living icons of this truth. They possess within them a treasure that is unseen – for they hold within the invaluable wisdom of experience and the collective memory of society. Are there elderly people in your homes, workplace or community? Seek them out and allow them to share their stories. In my early years in the priesthood, I still regularly visited my spiritual director, who is four times my chronological age and more than fifty years ahead of me in the priesthood. The reason is simple and wise: if you want to know what is at the end of the road, ask those who are on their way back. It is such an arrogant mistake and a great loss on our part to ignore the treasure the elderly has to offer later generations.
Secondly, rediscover the paradox of the “productivity” of inactivity. We live in a go culture. We want everything to be moving, to be in a flux. Inactivity scares us. In the process, we tire ourselves to exhaustion and condemn ourselves to mediocre, if not fruitless activity. This productive inactivity comes to full display in the gesture of prayer. In the Scriptures, the infant Jesus was first recognized in the busy temple by old Simeon and Anna, described as always in the temple, praying and awaiting the revelation of God. Yes, we need not fear the inactivity of old age for it affords us the rediscovery of this powerful ministry, the ministry of prayer.
When Pope Benedict XVI retired from the papacy, he noted the physical incapacity to respond to the active demands of the papacy as the main reason. However, he reassured the world that he will continue to be “active”. He dedicated the rest of his life to a ministry of prayer for the Church and for the world. Pope Francis suggested, “Let us look to Benedict XVI, who chose to spend the final span of his life in prayer and listening to God! This is beautiful!
A great believer of the last century, of the Orthodox tradition, Olivier Clément, said: ‘A civilization which has no place for prayer is a civilization in which old age has lost all meaning. And this is terrifying. For, above all, we need old people who pray; prayer is the purpose of old age’. We need old people who pray because this is the very purpose of old age. The prayer of the elderly is a beautiful thing.” The Book Job teaches us, “Those who are older should speak, for wisdom comes with age ” (Job 32:7). Let us look to the elderly in our midst. Let us allow them to speak and let us savor the wisdom hewn by the passage of time.