Last December, as he marked his 80th birthday, Pope Francis quoted the ancient Roman poet Ovid to say that as old age slips up on us, “It is a blow! ” The Holy Father laughed as he celebrated Mass with a group of elderly cardinals. “But also, when one thinks of it as a stage of life that is to give joy, wisdom, hope, one begins to live again, right? ”
Just two days later, Pope Francis spoke with a group of young people on the other end of the life span and gave them homework. “Speak to your grandparents, ” he said. “Ask them questions. They have the memory of history, the experience of living, and this is a great gift for you that will help you in your life journey. ”
At this moment, and given the staggering changes to the coming population, it is especially important to pay attention to the pope’s focus on respecting our elders’ gifts and making sure our young people can learn from them. Every day until 2030, about 10,000 Americans will turn 65. In a few decades, one in five Americans will be over 65. Across the globe, the over-65 population will double in the lifetime of our children—from 7 percent in 2008 to 14 percent in 2040. Because we’re living longer but having fewer kids, by 2020, all over the world, little ones under the age of 5 will be outnumbered by senior citizens over 65—a disparity that has never occurred before in human history.
The implications are staggering for many reasons. Economics, politics, and health care come to mind, but what about ministry? Parishes and dioceses spend a lot of time talking about educating our children and bringing our young adults back to church, but are we taking our elders for granted? Do we give them the special attention they deserve?
Papal Lessons on the Value of the Elderly
Our recent popes have certainly been paying attention. There was that wonderful paradox of young people crowding St. John Paul II’s Masses, especially at the World Youth Days he established. It seemed that as he got older and more frail, St. John Paul II became even more of a hero to the youth.
In the next papacy, Pope Benedict XVI told residents at a London home for the elderly: “As advances in medicine and other factors lead to increased longevity, it is important to recognize the presence of growing numbers of older people as a blessing for society. Every generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it. Indeed, the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude. ”
Just a few months before his surprise resignation, a weary and aging Pope Benedict XVI visited a Roman home for the elderly. In solidarity, he said to them (and reminded the rest of us): “The wisdom of life, of which we are bearers, is a great wealth. The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life. Those who make room for the elderly make room for life! Those who welcome the elderly welcome life! ”
Pope Francis has picked up the topic handed off to him by his two papal predecessors, often preaching about bridging the generation gap. Writing about the elderly in “Amoris Laetitia ” (191‚Äì193), Pope Francis asked us to include our elders in our families and parishes with a sense of gratitude and an awareness that older women and men are “a living part of the community. ”
He quoted St. John Paul II in identifying the role older men and women play in “the continuity of the generations ” by their “charism of bridging the gap. ” Francis then bridged that generation gap himself, “Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods, and their country. ”
Biblical Lessons on the Gifts Age Brings
What lessons can we draw from the Bible about our senior citizens and the gifts they give us from their lives of faith? If we read the biblical stories and proverbs about aging well, we quickly learn that old age can be both a blessing and a burden. We find many stories that teach us the virtue of patience as well as the role that humor plays as a good companion who helps us along our faith journey. These stories encourage us to reflect on our experiences and gain wisdom and perspective from them.
Let’s take Sarah and Abraham, for example. When they learn that she is pregnant, both 99-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah burst out laughing. Abraham is so taken aback that he “fell face down and laughed as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Can Sarah give birth at 90?’ ” (Gn 17:17).
Sarah overhears three mysterious visitors tell her husband that she will have a son, and she chuckles to herself, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure? ” (Gn 18:12). There’s a delicious exchange where Sarah, suddenly frightened, denies laughing, to which God replies, “Yes, you did ” (Gn 18:15). You can’t fool God. Our older heroes and heroines tell us that since we have a lifelong relationship with God, we can be very candid in expressing not only our gratitude and trust but also our disappointment and even anger with God. Watch Moses boldly bargain with God, for instance.
Moses was already about 80 when he encountered God at the burning bush. Even though God is on his side, Moses often seems to be trying to get out of doing things because he’s scared or overwhelmed. When God orders Moses to speak to the pharaoh, Moses questions whether the great king will listen to a nobody like him and if he’s even up to the task, wondering aloud to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? ”
Moses tells God that he’s never been eloquent. He pleads, “If you please, my Lord, send someone else! ” (Ex 4:13), which is how Aaron, his elder brother by three years, ends up as Moses’ spokesman.
As we follow Moses, time and again we find rather unheroic behavior: he complains, whines, pesters, and frets. Moses can come across as weak, fearful, and faithless. He laments that God is being harsh to the Israelites and himself: “Lord, why have you treated this people badly? And why did you send me? . . .You have done nothing to rescue your people ” (Ex 5:22‚Äì23).
But here is also a wise man of bravery, surely born of his decades of experience, who is not afraid to bargain and negotiate with God. Once he sees results, Moses starts telling God what to do: the plagues of frogs and flies did their job, the patriarch informs the Lord, so you can get rid of them now.
As time passes, the ever-bolder Moses bargains more with God and even changes the divine mind. Furious that Aaron had made a golden calf and the Israelites had turned away from their deliverer, the Lord wants to punish them. Moses cautions God not to give the Egyptians a chance to say, “See, God wanted to kill them after all. ” Or, to put it more bluntly: Moses warns God not to be a liar since God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to deliver the Promised Land and a long line of descendants.
“Turn from your burning wrath, ” Moses tells God forcefully and directly. “Change your mind about punishing your people. ” God listened: “So the Lord changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people ” (Ex 32:12,14).
A Quiet Place to Rest
We also find a certain contentment and wisdom that come from even difficult experiences and, more importantly perhaps, from reflecting on how God’s hand was at work—though times were tough in the biblical school of hard knocks. Here we’ll look not at a well-known biblical figure, but an unknown.
You may never have heard of Barzillai the Gileadite. In an obscure, short scene in 2 Samuel 19:32‚Äì40, we meet Barzillai, a wornout 80-year-old man. The only other place in the Bible where Barzillai appears is in a brief reference when he helps David and his retinue by providing them with food as they flee from Absalom. Years later, he visits David, now king, in Jerusalem. David, mindful of Barzillai’s help all those years ago and respectful of his old age, asks him to stay comfortably in the capital.
Barzillai doesn’t consider the offer, asking in what we imagine to be a bemused, self-aware, reflective tone: “How much longer have I to live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? . . . Please let your servant go back to die in my own city by the tomb of my father and mother. ” King David graciously relents, gives Barzillai a kiss of peace, and sends him off.
We can learn a lot from this bit player in the epic stories of David. Barzillai just wants a quiet place to rest and to die at home. He doesn’t want to cut any deals with David, except to be left alone. Barzillai enjoys the wise perspective and very clear-eyed self-awareness that experience has brought him. He’s not fooling anyone, least of all himself.
Barzillai knows who he is. He offers us his example of perspective and open eyes with no illusions about the end of a long life.
Lessons for the Ministry of Uniting Generations
What might we do with these papal directives to honor our elderly and to encourage a good relationship between our younger and older sisters and brothers? How might these and other biblical lessons be our guides?
Throughout the Bible, and indeed in many cultures until our own modern times, households weren’t small units of parents and children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all lived together in multigenerational homes. But now we are more separated from each other, so we should make an effort to bridge and connect the generations.
What if seniors do some babysitting while parents go Christmas shopping? How about a shared movie night—parents not allowed?
Maybe your parish has an elder with grandkids far away or just the opposite. Pairing needs would help the senior and the young person. Perhaps children preparing for their first Communion and teens getting ready for Confirmation might do oral history interviews in retirement homes or with their own older relatives. The key question for the young person to the elder would be, “How did you live your faith at a moment of growth or challenge? ”
Using the digital tools that they know better than adults, these young people could be dispatched to record and then discuss their elders’ memories of their introduction to the sacraments. We ask, “Where were you when 9/11 happened? ” But do we ask of World War II, Korean, or Vietnam War veterans, “What was it like to receive the Eucharist in a battle zone? ” How about connecting a would-be teacher with a classroom retiree? Or a budding nurse with an ER supervisor? The possibilities are endless and can provide our young people with spiritual guidance, professional insight, and practical advice.
We ask students to do service projects, which is admirable and indeed indispensable for opening their hearts. But what if they also recorded for history someone who marched in a 1960s civil rights protest? “What was the cost? ” they might ask of their elders. “What difference did it make? ”
In every case, we would be taking some good papal advice and linking it with biblical insights and pastoral sensitivity. We would be giving life to our elders by asking them to share the fruits of what they planted over the years. We would ground our young people in our past and shape them for the future. We would be building bridges.