February 25, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Learning from and caring for the elderly
is a blessing

Recently as I visited the sick, especially the elderly, I was particularly reminded of the difficulty of growing old: losing one’s independence and worrying about becoming a burden to those who care for them.

I thought of Pope John Paul II. Whenever the pope’s health is in the news, I am asked whether I think he will resign or, more often, do I think he should resign. Clearly, the Holy Father’s health is poor; he suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is helpless on his own.

Should he resign? No, because he is not chief executive officer of a business. He is successor to Peter, first of the Apostles, a witness to Christ in every experience, and in every stage of his own life—even in his 85th year. We ought not miss the importance of this stage of the pope’s ministry. He personally bears witness that old age—even accompanied by illness—can be rich in meaning and fruitfulness.

I found it intriguing that in his message for this Lent the Holy Father asked us to reflect on the role that the elderly are to play in society and in the Church. He intended this reflection to “prepare our hearts for the loving welcome that should always be reserved to them.” He reminded us that, thanks to science and medicine, “one sees in society today a lengthening of the human life span and a subsequent increase in the number of the elderly. This demands a more specific attention to the world of so-called ‘old’ age, in order to help its members to live their full potential by placing them at the service of the entire community.” He also reminded us that the care of the elderly, above all when they pass through difficult moments, must be of great concern to all of us.

We speak a lot about respect for the dignity of human life. The Holy Father in sickness and old age, and by his words, teaches us that the gift of life is to be loved and defended in every stage of life. Even in the presence of illness and when physical weakness reduces a person’s ability to be self-reliant, life is to be loved as a gift. He wrote: “If growing old, with its inevitable conditions, is accepted serenely in the light of faith, it can become an invaluable opportunity for better comprehending the Mystery of the Cross, which gives full sense to human existence.”

The Holy Father said the elderly need to be understood and helped in embracing this perspective. He said, “I wish, here, to express my appreciation to those who dedicate themselves to fulfilling these needs, and I also call upon other people of good will to take advantage of Lent for making their own personal contribution. This will allow many elderly not to think of themselves as a burden to the community, and sometimes even to their own family, living in a situation of loneliness that leads to the temptation of isolating themselves or becoming discouraged.”

And to the elderly, the pope advised: “The greater amount of free time in this stage of life offers the elderly the opportunity to face the primary issues that perhaps had been previously set aside, due to concerns that were pressing or considered a priority nonetheless. Knowledge of the nearness of the final goal leads the elderly person to focus on that which is essential, giving importance to those things that the passing of years do not destroy.”

A recent experience of mine illustrates the pope’s counsel. I visited a friend who was dying of cancer. He reflected to me his wonderment that all of his successes and challenges in a fruitful life suddenly moved aside—and what remained was facing death. (He has since gone home to God.) As a man of faith (I would say unswerving faith), he was preparing to meet Christ, face to face. And then his wonderment turned to a reflection about how Christ who has loved countless people through all times and in all places, has been with him in life and would be there for him in death. He embraced the mystery with characteristic faith.

My friend had been given the blessing of preparing for a serene death after a very busy life. And his family was there at his side to tend to his needs and to accompany him as he went home to God. In life and in death, my friend was also a blessing for his family and friends.

I echo the Holy Father’s words: “How important it is to rediscover this mutual enrichment between different generations!”

Lent, with its strong call to conversion and solidarity, leads us to focus on our love and esteem for those who grow old. †

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