In Pope John Paul II's recent Letter to the Elderly, released in October, one might have expected the Holy Father to lament the fact that the rugged outdoorsman he, himself, used to be is but a memory. After all, this Pope has written several Letters (to women, to children, to youth, to families, to artists, to priests) and each has been more direct, more practical and more personal than any other traditional papal documents.
Yet, in this latest correspondence — possibly the most intimate of all, given his current state in life — he declares that he enjoys his old age. Indeed, he genuinely seems to be looking forward to the time of his death.
As a pastor, John Paul wants to reflect on the human experience lived out in its particularity. A good spiritual director does not give generic advice, for there are no generic souls. Rather, each person lives a spiritual life proper to his own particular circumstances. A universal pastor cannot address himself to each person, but the Holy Father attempts in these letters to speak to groups about the particular challenges and blessings that they are experiencing. Like previous letters, the 6,600-word Letter to the Elderly follows a United Nations initiative that declared this the “year of the elderly,” much as it declared 1994 the “year of the family.” But unlike previous letters, this one shows a Holy Father speaking to his peers.
“In this Letter I wish simply to express my spiritual closeness to you as someone who, with the passing of the years, has come to a deeper personal understanding of this phase of life and consequently feels a need for closer contact with other people of his own age, so that we can reflect together on the things we have in common,” writes the Holy Father. “It remains true that the years pass quickly and the gift of life, for all the effort and pain it involves, is too beautiful and precious for us ever to grow tired of it.”
Clearly John Paul, who has devoted so much of his energy to defending life in its earliest stages, wants to underscore that life has great value in its final chapters. Like Mother Teresa, who was fond of remarking that “every child is a gift from God,” the Holy Father encourages his aging contemporaries not “to resign ourselves to an inexorable fate, but rather to make full use of the years we still have before us.”
The Holy Father points out that, in the Bible, older people are called upon to undertake great tasks. He points to Abraham setting out for a new land, Moses leading the chosen people out of Egypt, or Simeon receiving the baby Jesus in the Temple. To Simeon is given the joy of offering the Nunc dimittis prayer: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all the people” (Luke 2:29–30). The Church sings that prayer each night in the Divine Office, choosing an old man's prayer to close each day.
“And what are we to say of Peter in his old age?” asks the Holy Father. “Jesus had once said to him: ‘When you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go’ (John 21:18). These are words which, as the Successor of Peter, touch me personally; they make me feel strongly the need to reach out and grasp the hands of Christ, in obedience to his command: ‘Follow me!’ (John 21:19).”
It is impossible not to hear in these words a personal confession that old age can sometimes be a burden, especially when it is not a period of rest, but rather of continued responsibility. For the Pope himself, looking toward his 80th birthday during the Jubilee Year, the weight of his office unites him to all those elderly people who face not a tranquil retirement, but the burdens of ill health and the obligation of continued work.
The burden of old age can be aggravated “due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. … Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile.” It is in this context that the threat of euthanasia appears, which the Holy Father condemns as an “offense against the dignity of the human person.”
“There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole,” John Paul writes. “The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity.”
St. Ambrose wrote that “Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing,” indicating that only the Gospel can provide the proper perspective on eternity. John Paul builds on this paradigm of old age as the anteroom of eternity — the place where the final preparations are made to leave this world behind. From a worldly perspective, such an outlook might be thought morbid, or at least defeatist. Yet, he points out, this need not be the case for the Christian.
“While the human spirit has some part in the process of bodily aging, in some way it remains ever young if it is constantly turned toward eternity,” writes John Paul. “We are all familiar with examples of elderly people who remain amazingly youthful and vigorous in spirit. Those coming into contact with them find their words an inspiration and their example a source of comfort.”
This “youthful spirit,” which is not incompatible with physical infirmity, needs Christian hope. This turns the mind of the elderly person toward the “threshold of eternity,” moving toward the end of the human pilgrimage.
Thus serenity can give rise to wisdom, and the ability to offer sound judgments from which younger members of society can benefit. The Pope stresses that the elderly ought to live close to their family and members of younger generations. Also, with a clear view of trends in affluent countries, he warns against casting the elderly to the margins of social life, where they are denied contact with those who ought to love and care for them.
Dignity in Dying
John Paul knows that, after 20 years of living in the spotlight, one of his remaining tasks is to show the world how to die. “Even we elderly people find it hard to resign ourselves to the prospect of making this passage,” John Paul writes. “In our human condition, touched by sin, death presents a certain dark side which cannot but bring sadness and fear. How could it be otherwise? Man has been made for life. … It is thus understandable why, when faced with this dark reality, man instinctively rebels. In this regard it is significant that Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), also experienced fear in the face of death: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).
“At the same time, [the saints] remind us that earthly life is not the ultimate value, in such a way that the twilight of life can be seen — from a Christian perspective — as a ‘passage,’ a bridge between one life and another, between the fragile and uncertain joy of this earth to that fullness of joy which the Lord holds in store for his faithful servants: ‘Enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25:21).”
Pope John Paul has spoken about what he believes is his mission, namely, to lead the Church into the third millennium, now imminent. He will greet the new millennium as an old man, suffering from the toll of the years, but still buoyed by his determination to carry out all that God has given him to do.
“Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life,” the Pope confesses. “For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God! At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! And so I often find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: In hora mortis meae voca me, et iube me venire ad te— at the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you. This is the prayer of Christian hope, which in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting the future to God's gracious and loving care.”
In the last years of his life, John Paul invites his contemporaries to “cross the threshold of hope” with him, into the third millennium, and then to hasten to that final threshold, over which they will pass “from life to life.”
Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.