by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
After the reminders on All Saints and All Souls Days of the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, we do well to consider our own mortality throughout the rest of November. As we almost take for granted now, Pope Francis offers inspiring thoughts on this subject.
Called “A Catechesis of Aging”, which began in February of this year, the Holy Father compiles much of what he has written and spoken about regarding this dimension of life’s journey. (Typically, like Catholic Social Teaching, this catechesis remains “a well-kept-secret”.) What is interesting is Francis’ clear intent not only to inspire and encourage today’s elders, but perhaps, even more importantly, to engage younger generations with these reflections. One takeaway here is that aging begins with birth and is never far from anyone’s consciousness.
The content of each reflection sparks our thinking about the various stages of life as they point to the inevitability of old age. What makes this catechesis entirely credible of course is the current moment in Francis’ own life’s journey: an 85-year-old man, now confined to a wheelchair, who speaks frequently about the limitations of his situation – together with his spirit of acceptance and even a certain celebration of the final chapter in his life.
Among the nearly twenty reflections on aging in this series, a few stand out – although in researching for this essay, it became clear that the entire catechesis is a treasure worth studying.
One wonderful dimension of Pope Francis’ reflections are his references to biblical figures whose examples enlighten and underscore the experience of aging. He speaks, for example, of Naomi in the Hebrew book of Ruth and how her story points to “youth restoring enthusiasm to mature age – and where old age discovers it is capable of reopening the future to wounded youth.”
Naturally, the pope finds in the life of Christ events which also teach about aging. For example Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and his insistence that we must be “born again” even in our mature years (Jn 3:8). Another vivid example is the comment by the Lord to Peter about growing old and the limitations he will have to endure: “Someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21:18).
Under the rubric of “Aging, a resource for light-hearted youth”, the Pope has this to say: “Old age is in a good position to grasp the deception of the normalization of a life that is obsessed with enjoyment and empty of an inner reality: a life without thought, without sacrifice, without beauty, without truth, without love…”
Writing about “Farewell and inheritance: memory and testimony,” Francis states that “an older person, one who has lived a long time, and receives the gift of a lucid and passionate testimony of his or her history, is an irreplaceable blessing. Are we capable of recognizing and honoring this gift of the elderly? Only spiritual old age can give this humble and dazzling witness, making it authoritative and exemplary for all.”
The pope also has a challenge for his elderly peers. Speaking about “Fidelity to God’s Visitation for the Next Generation”, he says: “We need an old age that is gifted with lively spiritual senses, capable of recognizing the signs of God, or rather the Sign of God who is Jesus.”
A final quote from this rich and authentic catechesis concludes the series. It is directed principally to the elderly but stands as a guide, vision, and objective for any moment in the unfolding process which we call aging: “The life of the elderly is a very slow but joyful farewell … This is beautiful when an elderly person can say this: ‘I have lived life … I was a sinner but I have also done good’ … and this peace that comes, this is the farewell of the elderly person.”
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.