As Popes grow older and face their own frailty, they speak of the burdens and graces of old age. In 1999, St John Paul II penned a prophetic letter of encouragement ‘To my elderly brothers and sisters.’
‘Despite the limitations brought on by age,’ he noted, ‘I continue to enjoy life … it is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God.’
Some of the last words spoken by Benedict XVI, as he renounced the papacy in these days eight years ago, point to the reality of an end for us all, no matter who we are: “I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church … I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.”
In the last weeks, Pope Francis has called us to remember the value of those grown old with age in two ways. First, he has established an annual World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly on the fourth Sunday of July, close to the Memorial of Ss Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus. “The Holy Spirit still stirs up thoughts and words of wisdom in the elderly today,” the 84-year-old Pontiff said. “Their voice is precious … old age is a gift.” Second, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has published a document, “Old age: our future. The elderly after the pandemic.”
The document is striking in three ways. First, it is not afraid to confront the fact that coronavirus has hit the elderly more than others. “They did not have to die that way,” Pope Francis says. “We are all in the same storm, but it is increasingly evident that we are on different boats, and that the least seaworthy boats are sinking every day.”
Second, the document points to the “unimaginable tragedy” of institutions for the elderly, where “death struck disproportionately.” An arbitrary institutionalisation of the elderly is part of what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture,” where, from the person just conceived to the person near death, in words expressed by the Roman playwright Terence more than two millennia go, “Senectus ipsa et morbus” – “Old age is itself a disease.” The weak and vulnerable are to be eliminated through a hidden euthanasia.
The document is clear: “The family, one’s own home, one’s neighbourhood, is the best choice for every ageing man and woman.” It calls for a “social, civil, cultural, and moral conversion” to make the home and family environment possible for the frail elderly person.
Third, in calling for a Copernican revolution of closeness to and not discarding the elderly, the Holy See’s document uses a theological term to help us understand why they are a gift of God to society. The precious witness that the ageing person bears with his or her frailty is a “magisterium, that is, a real teaching.” The one who, when grown old and frail, must “stretch out” (John 21:18) his or her hands for help teaches dependence on others and abandonment to God.
At the same time, the “wealth of years” is an irreplaceable vehicle of faith and wisdom to teach the young.
My own Mother in Watford has become that ‘magisterium’ for me. As she grows weaker with age and her mind fails with Alzheimer’s, her serenity in God’s will and her simple faith teach me “to number my days aright, that I may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 90:12).
Thanks to the Holy See and my archbishop, I am able to spend time each month caring for mum, assisting night and day. I have a doctorate in theology, but this is the most challenging, yet best learning experience that I am receiving on the core of the Gospel: ‘Love one another, just as I have loved you’ (John 13:34).
My parents did that for me when they defended my life from the first moment of conception. It was the mid-1960s, a time when the drug thalidomide was being prescribed to help mothers sleep during pregnancy. But thalidomide left many new-borns with shortened limbs. My mother’s doctors, knowing that I was to be born with some disability, counselled my parents to have an abortion. “How is it possible to care for a child whom you know will be handicapped? The burden, the time, the suffering …” On the day of my ordination to the priesthood, mum and dad recounted that advice to me for the first time and the answer that they gave: “If God has willed this child, then surely He has a marvellous plan!”
The pronouncements from Rome remind us of God’s ‘marvellous plan’ for grandparents and the elderly, too: ‘Still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green, they proclaim, “The Lord is just; He is my rock. In Him, there is no wickedness” ‘ (Psalm 92:14-15).
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo has served in various capacities at the Vatican and as a Spiritual Director for over 20 years.
He is a regular guest analyst of Church affairs for media networks throughout the world.
Picture: Pope Francis anoints Mgr Figueiredo’s mother in his residence at Domus Sanctae Marthae.