St. Pope John Paul II once wrote to the elderly: “As an older person myself, I have felt the desire to engage in a conversation with you. I do so first of all by thanking God for the gifts and the opportunities which he has abundantly bestowed upon me up to now. In my memory I recall the stages of my life, which is bound up with the history of much of this century, and I see before me the faces of countless people, some particularly dear to me: they remind me of ordinary and extraordinary events, of happy times and of situations touched by suffering. Above all else, though, I see outstretched the provident and merciful hand of God the Father, who ‘cares in the best way possible for all that exists’ and who ‘hears us whenever we ask for anything according to his will’ (1 John 5:14).” It’s only right that towards the end of life we look back and assess it as a whole, with gratitude for the good things that come to us, unmerited.
But as the growing numbers of aging baby boomers are going to need to learn, we always can and should look forward, right up until the end. In this, St. JPII is also a wise guide: “Human experience, although subject to time, is set by Christ against the horizon of immortality. He ‘became a man among men, in order to join the beginning to the end, man to God’.” Jesus Christ is the mysterious fullness of humanity, the one to whom we are joined by Baptism and hopefully we are going where he is. This means that there is much more to come. Life now is only the palest hint of what is to come, namely, eternal life with God. Right now we are merely in the revolving door to the great edifice of eternity or more poetically as the hymn puts it, we now live in the “storms of time.”
The modern cult of youth, however, would have us believe that older people, even retirees, should live like teenagers, always having fun, partying, taking risks, falling in and out of love. Even the old Greek and Roman pagans would have thought that utter foolishness. But our shallow, agnostic culture wants us to be shallow and agnostic right to the end.
There are material things to consider, of course, taking care of one’s loved ones – things, by the way, that should not be simply pushed off to the tender mercies of the modern state, which will soon be asking us if we want some help committing suicide in order to make room for the young and spare the cost of caring for older people.
But far more important is the very real task of caring for our spiritual lives. This starts with realizing that, at three score years and ten, your existence has barely started. This is where the faith comes in as nowhere else in your life. If my understanding of Catholicism has not developed from when I was five, then I now have the greatest incentive to realize that just saying some prayers and doing good occasionally just is not enough.
And getting older is a great cure for the idea of being a solo Christian, which is not really Christian at all. We are all part of a vast “corporation” known as the Body of Christ. This is vital truth for everyone, but especially for the elderly. As Vatican II formulated it: “all of us are made members of His Body, ‘but severally members one of another’. . . .Giving the body unity through Himself and through His power and inner joining of the members, this same Spirit produces and urges love among the believers. From all this it follows that if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”
It’s never too late to find this kind of society – or to build it. There are many lonely retired people who would love to be part of a regular gathering to support each other, to pray, and to study Scripture. Pope Benedict XVI particularly recommended Scripture study: “Listening together to the word of God, engaging in biblical lectio divina, letting ourselves be struck by the inexhaustible freshness of God’s word which never grows old, overcoming our deafness to those words that do not fit our own opinions or prejudices, listening and studying within the communion of the believers of every age: all these things represent a way of coming to unity in faith as a response to hearing the word of God.”(Verbum Domini)
Most retirees today have not had this kind of experience. The Divine Word has been speaking and we have become deaf to it because our culture, even much of our Catholic “culture” today, has lost touch with its Biblical roots. By the way, Pope Benedict gives a wonderful explanation of how to do lectio divina – the slow and prayerful reading of Scripture – in the text cited above.
Discovering the riches of God’s Word best occurs in a group, a faithful community seeking Christian brotherhood and sisterhood under one common Father. As Joseph Ratzinger, then a humble professor, explained: “for Jesus, those whom he called brothers (and sisters) are those united with him in the common acceptance of the will of God.” The elderly, especially retirees, have time and an overwhelming reason for discovering and living Christian brotherhood and getting ready for “God’s dwelling. . .with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God].”(Revelation 21:3)