by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
July 24, 2022 — This will be a departure from the usual type of reflection. With a large dose of humility I thought that some lines on aging could be in order, as I celebrated my 90th birthday this week.
Fortuitously, I found that, beginning in February this year, Pope Francis has laid out a lengthy catechesis on this very subject. This octogenarian speaks about old age from his own experience. His teaching about this inevitable human experience, therefore, has the ring of total authenticity.
In no particular order of importance here are some of the insights Pope Francis offers.
He speaks of “a new people” (the aging and aged). “There have never been so many of us in human history,” then he draws the obvious and disturbing conclusion that the risk of older people being discarded is more frequent than ever, that we are often seen as a “burden” and that modern society is uncomfortable with sickness and old age.
Francis states that “old age is a time of life that isn’t understood even by those of us who are already experiencing it.” It seems at times “to take us by surprise.” He affirms that “when you are old, you are no longer in control of your body and that it is a time invariably marked by fragility.” He says that the elderly must choose what to ask of both our bodies and of life itself.
The pope, typically, turns to the positive aspects of aging. He says that old age is a time to rediscover trust in the Lord and that there is a gift in being elderly if one understands it as abandoning oneself to the care of others, starting with God Himself.
He makes a point of insisting that old people are a resource for younger generations – providing they are avoiding the trap of a “throwaway culture.” “For the young the elderly represent the memory of family, of humanity, of the country.”
Francis has always been strong on the need for younger and older generations to be in dialogue with one another. Almost poetically he says: “Old age that has cultivated sensitivity of the soul extinguishes all envy between generations… This is what happens to an elderly person who is open to a young person who in turn is open: the elder bids farewell to life, while, so to speak, handing over life to the new generation.”
The pope fills his catechesis on aging with inspiring thoughts from the Word of God. He cites the example of the two old people in the Gospel of St. Luke, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25 and 36). They lived their old age in expectation of the Messiah and knew that their lives were complete when they saw the child Jesus.
He cites the moment when Jesus entered the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever (Mark 1:29-30). Jesus went with his disciple to teach that care of the elderly is an obligation of the entire community.
In a general audience on June 22, Pope Francis reflected on Jesus’ conversation with Peter after the Resurrection: “When you will be old you will no longer be so much the master of yourself and your life” (John 21:18). Francis makes the point that following Jesus is crucial: “On foot, running, going slowly, in a wheelchair.” Later in the same passage (John 21:21-23), Peter asks Jesus about the young disciple, John. Francis interprets this as Peter wondering if the boy will one day outlive him and occupy his place. Francis says that Jesus is abrupt with Peter and seems to be saying “worry about your own life… and just follow me.”
These lessons from this old/young pope energize a person who became a nonagenarian this week. They may provide a blueprint for all whom God constantly reminds are moving in the same direction.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.