On 1 October 1998, the Pontifical Council for the Laity published The Dignity of Older People and their Mission in the Church and in the World. The document is of interest to the Secular Franciscan Order, many of whose members are “older people”, as defined by the document.
Instead of regretting this fact, the SFO would do well to reach out to those men and women, aged between 65 and 75, who have much to offer the Church and the world, and their local Fraternity.
The full text of the document is available on the Internet. Excerpts relevant to the SFO are given here.
Scientific advances and the consequent progress of medicine have made a decisive contribution in recent decades to prolonging the average duration of human life. The term “third age” now embraces a large segment of the world's population: people who have retired from active employment, yet who still have great inner resources and are still able to contribute to the common good. To this huge throng of “young old” (as they are called by the new categories of old age defined by demographers, i.e. those aged between 65 and 70) is added a so-called fourth age, that of the “oldest old” (those over 75), whose ranks are likewise destined to become ever more numerous. (1) ...
The Church's attention and commitment to older people are nothing new. She has directed her mission and pastoral care to older people in the most varied circumstances over the centuries. Christian “caritas” has embraced their needs; it has given rise to the most varied forms of apostolate at the service of older people, especially thanks to the initiative and concern of religious congregations and lay associations. The Church's teaching, far from considering the question as a mere problem of assistance and charity, has always reaffirmed the primary importance of recognising and fostering the intrinsic value of persons of all ages. She has continued to remind everyone of the need to ensure that the human and spiritual riches, the reserves of experience and wisdom accumulated in the course of entire lives, be not lost.
In confirmation of this, Pope John Paul II, addressing about 8,000 older people received in audience on 23 March 1984, said: “Do not be surprised by the temptation of interior solitude. Notwithstanding the complexity of your problems [...], and the forces which gradually wear you down, and despite the inadequacies of social organizations, the delays of official legislation and a selfish society's failure to understand, you are not and must not consider yourselves to be on the margins of the life of the Church, passive elements in a world in excessive motion, but active subjects of a period in human existence which is rich in spirituality and humanity. You still have a mission to fulfil and a contribution to make”. (4)
However, it has to be recognised that the current situation is unprecedented in many respects. It urges the Church to revise her approach to the pastoral care of older people in the third and fourth ages. New forms and methods, more consonant with the needs and spiritual aspirations of older people, need to be sought; new pastoral plans rooted in the defence of life, of its meaning and destiny, need to be formulated. These are essential conditions for encouraging older people to make their own contribution to the mission of the Church and helping them to derive particular spiritual enrichment from their active participation in the life of the ecclesial community....
... The contribution that older people, by their experience, can make to the process of making our society and culture more human is particularly valuable. It needs to be encouraged by fostering what might be termed the charisms proper to old age, namely:
Disinterestedness. The prevailing culture of our time measures the value of our actions according to criteria of efficiency and material success, which ignore the dimension of disinterestedness: of giving something, or giving ourselves, without any thought of a return. Older people, who have time on their hands, may recall the attention of an over-busy society to the need to break down the barriers of an indifference that debases, discourages and stifles altruistic impulses.
Memory. The younger generations are losing a sense of history and consequently the sense of their own identity. A society that minimises the sense of history fails in its responsibility to educate young people. A society that ignores the past more easily runs the risk of repeating its errors. The loss of an historical sense is also attributable to a system of life that has marginalized and isolated older people, and that hampers dialogue between the generations.
Experience. Today we live in a world in which the responses of science and technology seem to have supplanted the value of the experience accumulated by older people in the course of their whole lives. This kind of cultural barrier should not discourage people of the third and fourth ages, since they still have a lot to say to the young generations and to share with them.
Interdependence. No man is an island. But growing individualism and self-seeking are obscuring this truth. Older people, in their search for companionship, challenge a society in which the weaker are often abandoned; they draw attention to the social nature of man and to the need to repair the fabric of interpersonal and social relationships.
A more complete vision of life. Our life is dominated by haste, by agitation, and frequently by neurosis. It is a distracted life, a life in which the fundamental questions about the vocation, dignity and destiny of man are forgotten. The third age is also the age of simplicity and contemplation. The affective, moral and religious values embodied by older people are an indispensable resource for fostering the harmony of society, of the family and of the individual. These values include a sense of responsibility, faith in God, friendship, disinterest in power, prudence, patience, wisdom, and a deep inner conviction of the need to respect the creation and foster peace. Older people understand the superiority of “being” over “having”. Human societies would be better if they learnt to benefit from the charisms of old age.
To grasp in full the sense and value of old age we need to open the Bible. Only the light of the Word of God, in fact, enables us fully to fathom the spiritual, moral and theological dimension of this stage of life. The following biblical passages are presented with the aim of prompting a reconsideration of the meaning of the third and fourth ages. They are accompanied with observations and reflections on the challenges that older people face in contemporary society....
In you, Yahweh, I take refuge, I shall never be put to shame (Ps 71:1)
This psalm, striking for its beauty, is only one of the many prayers of older people that we find in the Bible and that testify to the religious feelings felt by the soul in the presence of the Lord. Prayer is the principal means for a spiritual understanding of life proper to older people. Prayer is a service. It is a ministry that older people may perform for the good of the whole Church and the world. Even the most infirm and handicapped of them can pray. Prayer is their strength, it is their life. Through prayer they can break down the walls of isolation, emerge from their condition of helplessness, and share in the joys and sorrows of others.
Prayer is of central importance. It also touches on the question how an older person can become contemplative in spirit. An older person, confined to bed and reduced to the end of his or her physical strength, can, by praying, become like a monk, a hermit. And through prayer he or she can embrace the whole world. It seems impossible that a person, who has always lived an active life, can become contemplative. Yet there are moments in life when a frame of mind receptive to contemplation is developed that can benefit the whole of the human community. And prayer is the means par excellence to this end, because “there is no renewal, not even social, which does not begin from contemplation. The encounter with God in prayer introduces into the course of history a power [...] which touches hearts, leads them to conversion and renewal, and so becomes a powerful historical force transforming social structures”. (6)
It is an established fact that older people, if they are given the opportunity, do participate actively in the life of the community, both at the civil and at the cultural and associational levels. This is confirmed by the numerous positions of responsibility held by older persons, for example in the field of the volunteer services, and by their far from negligible political influence. Steps must be taken to correct the lack of representation of older people, and to remove the prejudices and misconceptions that have damaged their image in our time.
Older people must be enabled to influence the policies that concern their life, but also those that concern society in general. They must be helped to do so through specific organizations, and through appropriate forms of political and trade-union representation. The creation of associations for older people must therefore be encouraged, and those already existing be supported. Such associations, as John Paul II has stressed, “must be recognised by the authorities in society as a legitimate expression of the voice of older people, and especially of those older people who are most dispossessed”. (7)
To stem the culture of indifference, rampant individualism, competitiveness and utilitarianism which are now threatening all areas of society, and to remove any form of segregation between the generations, a new mentality, a new attitude, a new mode of being, a new culture need to be developed. A form of prosperity and of social justice needs to be pursued that is compatible with the objective of defending the centrality of the human person and his dignity.
“The life of older people [...] helps to cast light on the scale of human values; to reveal the continuity of the generations and wonderfully to demonstrate the interdependence of the People of God”. (8) It is notably in the Church that this interdependence is expressed: it is there that the various generations are called to share in the plan of God's love by reciprocally exchanging the gifts with which each person is enriched by grace of the Holy Spirit. To this exchange of gifts older people bring religious and moral values that represent a rich spiritual endowment for the life of Christian communities, families and the world.
Religious practice occupies a key place in the life of older persons. The third age seems particularly conducive to transcendental values. Confirmation of this is given, among other things, by the frequent and numerous participation of older people in liturgical celebrations, by the unexpected return of many of them to the Church after long years of absence, and by the important role played by prayer in their lives. Prayer represents in fact an inestimable contribution to the spiritual resources of devotion and sacrifice, from which the Church copiously draws and which need to be fostered both within Christian communities and within families....
It is the duty of the Church to give older people the chance to encounter Christ. She must help them to rediscover the significance of their Baptism, by means of which they were buried together with Christ and joined him in death, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glorious power, [they] too should begin living a new life” (Rom 6:4) and find in him the meaning of their present and future life. For hope is rooted in faith in this presence of the Spirit of God, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” and who will also give life to our own mortal bodies (cf. ibid. 8:11). Consciousness of rebirth in Baptism enables older people to preserve in their hearts a childlike awe before the mystery of the love of God revealed in the creation and redemption.
It is the duty of the Church to instil older people with a deep awareness of the task they too have of transmitting the Gospel of Christ to the world, and revealing to everyone the mystery of his abiding presence in history. It is also her duty to make them aware of their responsibility as privileged witnesses, who can testify—both before human society and before the Christian community—to God's fidelity: he always keeps the promises he has made to man.
The pastoral task of evangelizing or re-evangelizing older members of the community must aim at fostering the spirituality that is peculiar to this age of life: i.e. a spirituality based on the continual rebirth that Jesus himself recommended to the elderly Nicodemus. Jesus urged Nicodemus not to let old age stand in the way of rebirth. To be reborn to a life that is ever new and full of hope, we don't need to go back to our mother's womb: we need to be “born from above”, by opening ourselves up to the gift of the Spirit; for “what is born of human nature is human; what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6).
Christ's call to holiness is addressed to all his disciples, in every phase of human life: “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his” (Mt 5:48). In spite of the passing of years, which risks dampening enthusiasm and draining away energy, older people must therefore feel themselves more than ever called to persevere in the search for Christian holiness: Christians must never let apathy or tiredness impede their spiritual journey.
This pastoral task involves the need to train priests, assistants and volunteers—young people, adults, older people themselves—for service to older people; pastoral workers who are imbued with humanity and spirituality, and who have the ability to enter into rapport with people in the third and fourth ages, and to respond to their often very individualized human, social, cultural and spiritual needs.
The needs of older people must also be addressed by the various branches of specialized pastoral care. These include the family apostolate, which cannot ignore the bonds between older people and their family, not only at the level of social services, but also at that of religious life; the various forms of social ministry; and the apostolate of health-care workers.
The contribution that older people themselves can make is also indispensable to this pastoral work. From their rich endowment of faith and of experience they can draw things old and new to the advantage not only of themselves, but also of the whole community. Far from being the passive recipients of the Church's pastoral care, older people are irreplaceable apostles, especially among their own age group, because no one is more familiar than they with the problems and the feelings of this phase of life.
Particular importance is being given today, moreover, to the apostolate of older people among people of their own age group in the form of witness of life. As Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, modern man “listens more willingly to witness than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”. (no. 41). So it is not of secondary importance to be able to show, in concrete terms, that this season of life, when lived in a Christian way, has a value of its own, enriched by the profound significance that it acquires through the whole course of human existence. No less important is the direct preaching of the Word of God by one older person to another, or to the up-and-coming generations of children and grandchildren.
By word and by prayer, and also by the renunciations and sufferings that advanced age brings with it, older people have always been eloquent witnesses and apostles of the faith in Christian communities and in families—sometimes in conditions of persecution, as was the case, for example, under the atheist totalitarian regimes of the Communist bloc in the 20th century....
An important role in promoting the active participation of older people in the work of evangelization is now played by the Church-based associations and the ecclesial movements, “one of the gifts of the Spirit [to the Church] of our time”. (9) Many older people have already found an extremely fertile field for their formation, commitment and apostolate in the various associations present in our parishes. They have become real protagonists within the Christian community. Nor is there any lack of other groups, communities and movements working more specifically in the world of the third age. Thanks to their charisms, all these associations create an environment in which communion can thrive between the various generations and a spiritual climate that helps older people to maintain their spiritual vitality and youthfulness.
In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici on the vocation and mission of the laity, John Paul II, addressing older people, writes: “The expected retirement of persons from various professions and the workplace provides older people with a new opportunity in the apostolate. Involved in the task is their determination to overcome the temptation of taking refuge in a nostalgia in a never-to-return past or fleeing from present responsibility because of difficulties encountered in a world of one novelty after another. They must always have a clear knowledge that one's role in the Church and society does not stop at a certain age at all, but at such times knows only new ways of application [...]. Arriving at an older age is to be considered a privilege: not simply because not everyone has the good fortune to reach this stage in life, but also, and above all, because this period provides real possibilities for better evaluating the past, for knowing and living more deeply the Paschal Mystery, for becoming an example in the Church for the whole People of God” (no. 48).
The ecclesial community, for its part, is called to respond to the greater participation which older people would like to have in the Church, by turning to account the “gift” they represent as witnesses of the tradition of faith (cf. Ps 44:2; Ex 12:26-27), teachers of the wisdom of life (cf. Sir 6:34; 8:11-12) and workers of charity. It must therefore re-examine its apostolate on behalf of older people, and open it up to their participation and collaboration.
AREAS OF WITNESS
Of the various areas that best lend themselves to the witness of older people in the Church the following should not be forgotten:
Charitable activities. A large proportion of older people have enough physical, mental and spiritual energies to devote their own time and talents in a generous way to the various activities and programmes of the volunteer services.
Apostolate. Older people can make a major contribution to the preaching of the Gospel as catechists and witnesses to Christian life.
Liturgy. Many older people already contribute effectively to the service of places of worship. If suitably trained, they could, in larger numbers, play the role of permanent deacons, and fulfil the ministry of lector and altar server. They could also be used in the extraordinary ministry of the Eucharist, and exercise the role of animators of the liturgy. They could also help promote forms of eucharistic devotion and other forms of devotion, especially to Mary and to the Saints.
Ecclesial associations and movements. Especially in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council older people began to show a more marked interest in the community dimension of their faith. The growth of many ecclesial associations and communities—which represent a great enrichment for the Church—is also due to a form of participation that integrates the various generations, and manifests the richness and fruitfulness of the different charisms of the Spirit.
The family. Older people represent the “historical memory” of the younger generations. They are the bearers of fundamental human values. Where this memory is lacking, people are rootless; they also lack any capacity to project themselves with hope towards a future that transcends the limits of the present. The family—and hence society as a whole—will benefit greatly from a revaluation of the educational role of older people.
Contemplation and prayer. Older people should be encouraged to consecrate the years that remain hidden in the mind of God to a new mission illuminated by the Holy Spirit. In this way they may give rise to a stage of human life which, in the light of the Paschal Mystery of the Lord, is revealed as the richest and most promising of all. In this regard, John Paul II, addressing the participants at the International Forum on Ageing, said: “Older people, with the wisdom and experience which are the fruit of a life-time, have entered upon a time of extraordinary grace which opens to them new opportunities for prayer and union with God. Called to serve others and to offer their lives to the Lord and Giver of Life, new spiritual powers are given to them”. (11)
Trials, illnesses and suffering. These experiences represent the “fulfilment”, in body and heart, of the passion of Christ for the Church and for the world (cf. Col 1:24). It is important that older people—and not only they—be helped to accept these crosses in a spirit of humble submission to the will of God, in imitation of the Lord. But this will only be possible in proportion as they feel loved and esteemed. Devotion to the weak, to the suffering, to the disabled is a duty of the Church and is proof of her maternal care. A whole series of services and forms of pastoral care should therefore be provided to ensure that older people do not feel useless and a burden, and to help them to accept their suffering as a means of encountering the mystery of God and of man.
Commitment to a “culture of life”. Illness and suffering are privileged means for reminding us of the inalienable principle of the sacredness and inviolability of life. The mission of Jesus itself, with its many cases of healing the sick and disabled, shows how much God has at heart not only the spiritual but also the bodily life of man (cf. Lk 4:18). ...
In view of the great diversity in the situations and conditions of the life of older people, the Church's pastoral ministry to those in the third and fourth ages ought to involve the implementation of a series of measures aimed at achieving the following objectives:
Consciousness-raising: the Church should heighten awareness of the needs of older people, not least that of being able to contribute to the life of the community by performing activities appropriate to their condition. This awareness will permit the formulation of qualified forms of intervention. It will also sensitise and involve both the ecclesial and civil communities; and focus attention on those options that are revealed as evangelically and culturally more valid, also with a view to a renewal of the Church's charitable works and forms of assistance.
Countering attitudes of withdrawal: older people must be helped to overcome the indifference and mistrust that hamper their active participation and solidarity.
Promoting integration: older people must be integrated, without any form of discrimination, into the Christian community. All the baptized, in every moment of life, must be able to renew the richness of grace of their own Baptism and fully experience it in their lives. No one should be deprived of the grace of God, the preaching of the Word, the consolation of prayer or the witness of charity.
Developing the service of older people in the community: the life of the Christian community must be organized in such a way as to encourage the participation of older persons and to foster the capacities of each. To this end, the dioceses should set up their own diocesan offices for the ministry to older people; and parishes should be encouraged to develop spiritual, community and recreational activities for this age group. The service of older people should also be promoted within diocesan and parish councils and within councils for economic affairs.
Participation in the sacramental life of the Church: older people must be helped to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in pilgrimages, retreats and spiritual exercises. Steps should also be taken to ensure that their involvement in such events be not hindered by physical or architectural barriers, or by the lack of specialized personnel to accompany and assist them.
Spiritual care: the care and assistance of older people who are infirm or disabled, or no longer in full possession of their physical or mental faculties, should also involve spiritual care; through prayer and communion in the faith, it should testify to the inalienable value of life, even when it is reduced to a terminal condition.
Sacrament of the sick and dying: the administration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of Viaticum must be fostered in a special way, and preceded by appropriate catechesis. Where circumstances permit, it is desirable that priests incorporate the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick in community celebrations both in the parishes and in the places of residence in which older people live.
Comforting the terminally ill: efforts should be made to resist the tendency to abandon the dying and leave them without religious assistance and human comfort. This task is not only incumbent on chaplains, whose role is fundamental, but also on the families and communities to which older people belong.
Caring for those of other faiths: particular attention should be devoted, in a spirit of charity and dialogue, to the elderly of other religious confessions in order to help them live their faith; nor should Christians be shy of witnessing to their own faith, in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity, to older people who are non-believers.
A rightful place in society and in the family: older people have a right to a place in society and even more so to an honoured place within the family. The family is called to be a communion of persons. It needs to be reminded of its special mission to foster, manifest and communicate love, and its duty to provide assistance to its weaker members, not least the elderly, and surround them with affection....
Intergenerational solidarity: the young members of groups, associations and movements present in the parishes must be educated to show solidarity towards the elder members of the community. Such intergenerational solidarity is also expressed in the companionship that the young are able to offer to the old. Young people who have opportunities for involvement with older people will appreciate the value of a formative experience by which they gain in maturity and are helped to develop an awareness of others that remains with them for the whole of their life. In a society in which selfishness, materialism, consumerism are rife and in which the means of communication serve little to alleviate the growing loneliness of man, such values as selflessness, dedication, friendship, acceptance and respect represent a challenge to those, not least the young, who are striving for the birth of a new humanity.
To accompany older people, to approach them and enter into relation with them, is the duty of us all. The time has come to begin working towards an effective change in attitude towards older people and to restore to them their rightful place in the human community....
The Christian community must strive to help older persons to live their own life in the light of the faith and to rediscover in it the value of the resources that they are still able, and still have a responsibility, to place at the service of others. Older people must become increasingly conscious that they have a future before them that they themselves must shape. They must be made aware that their missionary task is not exhausted. They still have a responsibility to testify to children, young people, adults and those in their own age group that there is no meaning nor joy outside the bond with Christ, neither in their own personal lives not in their relations with others.
“The harvest is rich” (Mt 9:37). These words of the Lord are particularly applicable to the field of the pastoral care of older people. It is a field so extensive as to require the generous work and passionate commitment of countless apostles, workers and witnesses who can testify convincingly to the fullness of life that can characterise this season of life if it be founded on the “rock” that is Christ (cf. Mt 7:24-27)....
Service to older people, especially if accompanied by a pastoral care alert to the diversity of needs and charisms, open to everyone's participation, and aimed at exploiting everyone's capacities, represents an enrichment for the whole Church. It is therefore desirable that as many as possible embrace this service, and that they grasp its profound significance as a process of conversion of heart and reciprocal giving between the generations.
(1) The “population” section of the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs published new demographic estimates and projections on 26 October 1998. The chapter devoted to the growth in the number of older people suggests, inter alia, that the 66 million octogenarians and over-80 year-olds in the world today are destined to increase to 370 million in 2050, including an estimated 2.2 million centenarians.
(4) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VII, 1 (1984), p. 744.
(6) John Paul II, Address to the Italian Church gathered in Palermo for the third Ecclesial Conference, L'Osservatore Romano, 24 November 1995, p. 5.
(7) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, V, 3 (1982), p. 130.
(8) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, III, 2 (1980), p. 539.
(11) Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, III, 2 (1980), p. 538.