The Elderly as viewed from the perspective of the Bible and the Church's magisterium
by: Sister Maria Angeles Infante, DC
(This article first appeared in Anales, volume 119, #3 [May and June 2011] and is part of a series of articles by the same author on the aging process.)
At the present time in the life of the Company there are many elderly Sisters. This is a very visible reality that we experience as part of our present day situation. Our situation is not something unique. We live in a society in which the number of elderly persons has noticeably increased. The advances in science, better housing conditions and food, as well as the progress that has been made in medicine … all of these have contributed to this situation. This reality presents the church with a challenge upon which to reflect and as a result of said reflection to review and revise its pastoral activity with the elderly. In light of the way in which life has been prolonged during recent years we now speak about a “third age” in which we group people between the ages of 65-80 and a "fourth age" which encompasses those persons 80+. Specialists in pastoral for the elderly seek new forms and methods that better correspond to the physical, affective and spiritual needs and expectations of these people. All the western Episcopal Conferences have outlined pastoral criteria for this stage of life and have based these criteria on the defense, the meaning and the destiny of all human life. These criteria attempt to encourage the elderly, especially consecrated elderly persons, to continue to make a contribution to the Church’s mission. As a result those who accompany the elderly in a pastoral manner should help them to live this stage of their life with optimism and hope.
We know that the “third age” is comprised of a considerable number of the world’s population. According to a study of the Department of Population and Economic-Social Affairs of the United Nations (2000) a considerable increase in the number of elderly persons is foreseen. In 2000 there were 66 million people who were 80 years of age or older and in the year 2050 this number is expected to reach 370 million and 2.2 million of these people will be 100 years of age or older. The increase, on the one hand, in the average life span, together with the decrease in the number of births (at times a dramatic decrease) is producing dramatic demographic changes. The phenomena which began during the 1970’s in the countries of the northern hemisphere has now begun to occur in the countries of the southern hemisphere, but here the process of aging is even more rapid.
This type of “silent revolution” is more powerful that the demographic data and presents us with problems that are social, economic, cultural, psychological and religious. For some time the examination of these questions has been the object of much attention from the International Community. The World Assembly on Aging of the United Nations which was held in Vienna (July 26 – August 6, 1982) discussed the aging of the world’s population. The delegates at this Assembly drew up a Plan for International Action which to this day continues to be a point of reference. Later more studies were carried out that led to a definition of The Principles of the United Nations with regard to the Elderly (there are eighteen principles which are divided into the following categories: independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment, and dignity). The application of these principles was the theme of the meeting to deal with the fifth revision of the Plan for International Action, which took place in the Assembly of the United Nations and resulted in the document: Global Objectives with regard to Aging.
The United Nations made a decision to dedicate one day a year to the celebration of the elderly among us and October 1st was set aside for said celebration. At the same time 1999 was declared the International Year of the Elderly and was celebrated with the motto: Toward a society for people of all ages. In his message for the 1998 World Day of Older Persons, Kofi Annan stated: a society for all ages is a society which, far from caricaturing older people as retired and infirm, considers them on the contrary as agents and beneficiaries of development.
On the occasion of the celebration of the International Year of the Elderly which took place in 1999, the Holy Sea made known the voice of the Pope both in the area of reflection as well as with action. The Letter of John Paul II to the Elderly is a magnificent point of reference and here we also mention the Instruction of the Pontifical Council for the Laity which is entitled: The dignity of the elderly and their mission in the Church and the world. This Instruction emphasizes respect for the dignity and the fundamental rights of the elderly. Convinced of the fact that the elderly have much to contribute to the social life of the community the Instruction confronts this question with a great sense of responsibility for all parties involved: individuals, families, associations, governments and international organizations (each one has responsibilities and obligations according to its competency and in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, which is most important). Only in this way can we pursue the objective of guaranteeing the elderly with conditions of life that are more human and at the same time give value to their indisputable role in a society of continual and rapid economic and cultural transformation.
We note here that in November, 2007 the Pontifical Commission for Health Pastoral Care dedicated time for reflection on the problems of the elderly and their missionary possibilities. The interventions and studies that were presented during this gathering have become one of the sources for the reflections that we are going to share in this presentation. The magisterium of the church, far from considering the situation of the elderly as a simple problem of assistance, has emphasized the importance of valuing the elderly whose accumulated experience and wisdom are sources of human and spiritual wealth for all people.
On March 23, 1984, Pope John Paul II in an audience with approximately eight thousand elderly persons expressed the Church’s concern for them: 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 fulfill and a contribution to make (John Paul II, audience with the elderly, March 23, 1984).
We have the obligation to help our older sisters accept and live this mission with an evangelical spirit. This is the objective of these present gatherings: to respond to the Church’s call and to make real the words expressed in our Constitutions: By their prayer, the offering of their sufferings, and the witness of their lives, the sick and elderly Sisters truly share in mission. The community surrounds them with care and affection and helps them to accept, in peace and serenity, their limitations of age and health as a form of service (Constitutions and Statutes of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, #35b). With our elderly sisters we remember that we are all daughters, children of God and therefore we return once again to the Word of God mindful of all those things that the Scriptures tells us about the elderly and old age. We are also children of the church, daughters of the Church and therefore we also reflect on the recent teaching of Church in this same matter.
Old Age in the Bible
Old age is not the end or the conclusion of one’s spiritual life. Rather as we grow older we discover a rich reserve of experiences and abilities that enable us to understand that which is essential and important for our lives. As Church, we ought to create opportunities and encourage the manifestation of these experiences and abilities which are often silenced and yet are also indispensable for the younger members of our community. We need to find new motives that will enable the elders in our families and Christian communities to live a full life on a daily basis. Every person possesses surprising and almost limitless creativity: we have been created in the image of God. As we reflect on the Word of God we ought to foster this creativity at every stage of life.
The Word provides us with the light of truth that enables us to live the spiritual, moral and theological dimension of this stage of life to its fullest. Sacred Scripture considers old age as a gift that renews and that ought to be lived each day with an openness to God and to the neighbor. In the Old Testament the elders are viewed as teachers: How becoming to the aged is wisdom … the crown of old men is wide experience; their glory, the fear of the Lord (Sirach 25:5-6).
In addition, the elderly have another important task: to communicate the Word of God to new generations: O God, we have heard with our own ears; our ancestors have told us the deeds you did in their day, with your own hand in days of old (Psalm 44:2). As we communicate our faith in God to young people, we do so with the fruitfulness of the spirit which does not decrease with our declining physical strength: they shall bear fruit even in old age, always vigorous and sturdy, as they proclaim: “the Lord is just; our rock, in whom there is no wrong" (Psalm 92:15-16).
These tasks of the elderly correspond to the obligations of the young people, that is, the obligation to listen to them: reject not the traditions of old men which they have learned from their fathers (Sirach 8:9), ask you father and he will inform you, ask your elders and they will tell you (Deuteronomy 32:7), my son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength (Sirach 3:12-13).
The teaching of the Old Testament is equally rich. Saint Paul presents the ideal life of the elderly as he speaks about the practice of very specific evangelical counsels: temperance, self-control, respectfulness, soundness in faith, love, and endurance (cf., Titus 2:2). A very significant example is presented to us in the person of Simeon, who lived in hopeful expectation of encountering the Messiah and who viewed Christ as the fullness of life and the hope of the future … a hope for him and for all people. He had prepared himself for this encounter through a life of faith and humility and he knew how to recognize the Lord and sang with enthusiasm a hymn that was not a farewell to life but rather a hymn of thanksgiving to the Savior of the world (Luke 2:25-32).
Let us look at some important and enlightening biblical references with regard to our present situation.
Respect for the elderly
In Scripture, esteem for the elderly is transformed into Law: Stand up in the presence of the aged ... thus shall you fear your God (Leviticus 19:32). This is in addition to the law: honor your father and your mother (Deuteronomy 5:16). In Scripture we also read a very tender exhortation regarding the elderly, especially as they grow older (Sirach 3:1-16). The text from the book of Sirach concludes with a very serious affirmation: a blasphemer is he who despises his father; accused of his Creator, he who angers his mother (Sirach 3:16). Everything must be done to put an end to the tendency to ignore and marginalize the elderly and therefore it is necessary to educate new and future generations about ways of integrating and living with people of different ages. Young people, adults and the elderly all need one another and mutually enrich one another.
Connection with the past
The psalmist affirms: our ancestors have told us the deeds you did in their days, with you own hand in days of old (Psalm 44:2). The story of the patriarchs is particularly significant in this regard. When Moses was in the presence of the burning bush, God presented himself as the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob (Exodus 3:6). God placed his name beside the great elders who represented the legitimacy and the promises of Israel's faith. The child, the young person, always encounters God through his/her parents and elders.
In the above referenced text from the book of Exodus, beside the name of each patriarch appears the expression the God of and this phrase reveals that each one of the patriarchs had his own unique experience of God. This experience, which was the patrimony of the elders, also provided them with a foundation for their spirituality during the time of their youth and was the reason for their serenity at the time of death. Paradoxically, the elderly who communicate what they received also give profound meaning to the present moment. This is indeed a call and a reason to reflect especially in light of the fact that we live in a world that exalts external youthfulness and that seems to have no memory or recollection of the past and no vision of the future.
Old age as a possibility for hope and for a full life
Once again the words of scripture instruct us: they shall bear fruit even in old age (Psalm 92:15). The power of God can be revealed in old age, even though an individual might experience even more numerous limitations and difficulties: God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who account for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something so that no human being might boast before God (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). God's salvific plan is also fulfilled in the frailty of old, weak and impotent bodies. Thus the chosen people were born from the sterile womb of Sarah and the hundred year old body of Abraham (cf., Romans 4:18-20). Also John the Baptist was born from the sterile womb of Elizabeth and the aging body of Zachery. When life becomes most difficult and one feels most weak, the elderly have reason to feel that they are instruments in the history of salvation because the Lord promises: with length of days I will satisfy them and show them my saving power (Psalm 91:16).
Considerations about the fragility of life
The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us: remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them (Ecclesiastes 12:1). This biblical perspective on aging is impressive because of its objectivity. The psalmist also reminds us that life passes like a breeze, but not always a gentle breeze or a breeze that is painless: seventy is the sum of our years or eighty if we are strong; most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone (Psalm 90:10). The words of Qohelet provide us with a lengthy description of physical disintegration and death, a description filled with symbolic images and also paints a sad image of old age. Scripture warms us that we should have no illusions about this stage of life that brings with it pains and aches and problems and suffering. We are reminded that throughout our life we ought to turn toward God because he is the reference point toward whom we move, especially during the time of fear, which will occur if we live our aging years as a time of disaster.
A call to be mindful of the sacred nature of death
Then he breathed his last, dying at a ripe old age, grown old after a full life; and he was taken to his kinsmen (Genesis 25:7). This biblical passage has great relevance. The contemporary world has forgotten the truth about the value of human life --- a truth that from the beginning was engraved by God on the mind of humankind. As a result the contemporary world has also lost sight of the full meaning of old age and death. Death has lost its sacred character, its significance as a passage and the door that invites one to communion with God and with one's ancestors in the faith. Death has become a taboo: everything is done to make it pass unnoticed. The setting for death has also changed: people seldom die at home and more and more people die in a hospital or an institution, far removed from family and the community. In many cases there is no longer an exchange of condolences and other pious practices have also disappeared. It is as though people have been anesthetized to the reality of death and as a result there is no desire to confront a reality that is unsettling and that causes anguish and fear. Consequently one is alone when facing death.
But the Son of God made man gave a new meaning to death as he accepted the cross. He opened wide for us the doors of hope: I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). In light of these words, death is revealed as a time of sure and certain hope of encountering the Lord face to face and not a condemnation or a foolish conclusion to life that ends in nothingness.
Old age, a time of true wisdom
Once again the book of psalms teaches us to see and to pray: teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart (Psalms 90:12). According to the Bible one of the gifts of longevity is wisdom, though it is not some automatic prerogative that is given to the elderly. Rather wisdom is a gift of God that ought to be accepted and that should be seen as a goal that allows us to count our day aright, that is, that enables us to live responsibly the time that Providence gives to us. At the very heart of this wisdom is the discovery of the profound meaning of human life and the transcendent destiny of the human person. If this is important for a young person, it is even more important for the elderly who are called to orient their life toward the one thing that is necessary (cf., Luke 10:42).
Old age, a time for confidence in God
In you, Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame (Psalm 71:1). This psalm, which stands out for its beauty, is one of the many prayers of the elderly that we find in the Bible. It is a beautiful testimony to the religious sentiments of the prayers of the elderly. Prayer is the only path to obtain an understanding of life according to the spirit, a life proper for people who are elderly. Old age is a privileged stage for confidence in God and for surrender to God.
Prayer is a service, a ministry that the elderly can engage in for the good of the whole Church and the good of the world. Even the most infirm person and those unable to move about can pray. Prayer is their strength and their nourishment. The elderly, tired and worn out, confined to bed, are like monks or hermits: with their prayer they can embrace the whole world. It seems impossible that a person who has lived an active life can become a contemplative. Remember, however, the experience of Louise de Marillac, Vincent de Paul, Father Arrupe, Sister Rosalie Rendu, Saint Catherine Laboure and so many others.
Magisterium of the Church with regard to old age
The message of Pope John Paul II to the World Assembly on Aging, organized by the United Nations and held in Vienna (July 1982), contains a very relevant doctrine for our time. The Pope forcefully and energetically offered a biblical vision and spoke about the following aspects.
Human and Christian vision of old age
These themes indicate that not just abstract or technical problems are at stake but the fate of human beings, each having his own history, family roots, social bonds and occupational successes or failures, which have characterized or still characterize their lives. To this important Assembly, which is dealing with these realities in order to explore them in depth and find practical and judicious solutions, the Church would like to offer the contribution of its reflection, its experience and its faith in mankind. More specifically, it offers its human and Christian vision of old age, its conviction regarding the family or family-type institutions as the most propitious setting for the well-being of the aged, and its support for the commitment of modern society to the service of the older generations (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982).
Old age, a natural phase in life
I recall with emotion my meeting with old people in November 1980 at Munich Cathedral. I emphasized, on that occasion, that human old age was a natural stage of life and that it should generally be its consummation. This vision implies, obviously, that old age --- when a person attains it --- should be understood as an element having its own particular value within a human life as a whole, and its also requires a precise conception of the human being as having both a body and a soul (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982).
Dignity of the person; respect for life
In truth, life is God's gift to man, who is created by love in His image and in his likeness. If the sacred dignity of the human person is understood in this way, it follows that a value attaches to all the stages of life. For reasons of consistency and justice alone, it is surely impossible to value truly the life of an old man without valuing truly the life of a child from the commencement of its conception. If life ceased to be respected as an inalienable and sacred possession, the consequences would be incalculable (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982)
Euthanasia, a dignified death?
It must, therefore, be resolutely affirmed, as did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Declaration on Euthanasia of 5 May 1980, that nothing and nobody can authorize the termination of the life of an innocent human being, fetus or embryo, child or adult, old person, incurable or dying invalid, and that any such act is a violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, an outrage against humanity. It is very fitting to mention that the same Declaration, in referring to the use of therapeutic methods, went on to say that it is today very important to protect, at the moment of death, the dignity of the human person and the Christian concept of life against techniques that may lend themselves to malpractice (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982).
Death with dignity and serenity
Death is a part of our human horizon and gives it its true and mysterious dimension. The modern world, particularly the Western world, needs to learn to reintegrate death in human life. Surely, there is no one who does not wish that his fellow human beings, and himself, may be able to accept and accomplish that last act of earthly existence with that dignity and that serenity which are assuredly possible for believers (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982).
Positive aspects of old age
It is the time when men and women must reap the harvest of the experience of their whole life, make an apportionment between what is essential and what is subsidiary and attain a level of great wisdom and deep serenity. It is the period when they can devote a great deal of time, or even all their time, to loving their familiars or casual acquaintances with the disinterestedness, patience and discreet joy so admirably displayed by many old people. It is also, for believers, the blessed opportunity of meditating on the splendors of the faith and of intensified prayer. The rich promise of these values and their survival are linked to two inseparable conditions. First, the elderly themselves must whole-heartedly accept their age and appreciate its potential. The second condition is that modern society must become capable of recognizing the moral, emotional and religious values enshrined in the mind and heart of the old, and it must strive for their integration in our civilization, which suffers from a disturbing gap between its technical level and its ethical level (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, 1982).
In concluding his message to the Assembly the Pope put forth some lines of action ... some that were proper to the international political community and others that were proper to more immediate and direct levels:
- To protect life and its dignity until its natural end, providing for palliative care.
- To enable the elderly to remain self-sufficient and mobile as long as possible.
- To promote a culture in which the elderly have a place and to educate all levels of society with regard to this problem.
- To encourage the elderly to understand the evolution of present day society and to help them overcome and put aside attitudes of pessimism and fear of change.
- To promote an intergenerational education so that the elderly can teach the young and the young can teach the elderly.
Finally in his Lenten Message of 2005, Pope John Paul II, a short time before his death, called us to value and see new possibilities in this final stage of life. Reflecting on his own experience he stated: The greater amount of free time in this stage of life offers the elderly the opportunity to face the primary issues that perhaps had been previously set aside, due to concerns that were pressing or considered a priority nonetheless. Knowledge of the nearness of the final goal leads the elderly person to focus on that which is essential, giving importance to those things that the passing of years do not destroy. Precisely because of this condition, the elderly person can carry out his or her role in society. If it is true that man lives upon the heritage of those who preceded him, and that his future depends definitively on how the cultural values of his own people are transmitted to him, then the wisdom and experience of the elderly can illuminate his path on the way of progress toward an ever more complete form of civilization. How important it is to rediscover this mutual enrichment between different generations! The Lenten Season, with its strong call to conversion and solidarity, leads us this year to focus on these important themes which concern everyone. What would happen if the People of God yielded to a certain current mentality that considers these people, our brothers and sisters, as almost useless when they are reduced in their capacities due to the difficulties of age or sickness? Instead, how different the community would be, if, beginning with the family, it tries always to remain open and welcoming towards them (John Paul II, Lenten Message, 2005)
The Church is, in fact, the place where distinct generations are called to share the plan of God’s love through a relationship that involves the mutual exchange of gifts … gifts that each person possesses through the grace of the Holy Spirit. In this exchange of gifts the elderly transmit religious and moral values that represent a rich spiritual patrimony for the life of the Christian community, the family and the world. At the same time “the third age” seems to be a time of special openness to transcendence. This task is fundamental to our life and mission: to help us discover the profound mercy of God. Knowledge of Scripture, a deeper understanding of the content of our faith, and meditation on the death and resurrection and Christ will help us to overcome our fear of God which has nothing to do with the love of the Father.
The Church has an obligation to motivate the elderly to become very aware of their task to transmit the gospel of Christ to the world, thus revealing to all people the mystery of Christ’s continued presence in history. The Church also has an obligation to make them aware of their responsibility to be witnesses before the human and the Christian community … witnesses of their fidelity to God who always is faithful to his promises with humankind. Pastoral activity with the elderly ought to focus on helping them to develop a spirituality that is proper to their age, that is, a spirituality of rebirth that Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus when he invited him to not allow his age to prevent him for being reborn in the spirit, reborn to a new life filled with hope because what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit (John 3:6).
During his visit to England Pope Benedict XVI visited Saint Peter’s Residence, a home for the elderly under the direction of the Sisters of the Poor of Saint Jeanne Jugan. He presented a wonderful synthesis of the magisterium of the Church on the elderly and applied the doctrine of the Church to the present reality. The Pope stated: The Church has always had a great respect for the elderly. The Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you” (Deut 5:16), is linked to the promise, “that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deut 5:16). This work of the Church for the aging and infirm not only provides love and care for them, but is also rewarded by God with the blessings he promises on the land where this commandment is observed. God wills a proper respect for the dignity and worth, the health and well-being of the elderly and, through her charitable institutions in Britain and beyond, the Church seeks to fulfill the Lord’s command to respect life, regardless of age or circumstances. At the very start of my pontificate I said, “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take. One may enjoy good health in old age; but equally Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity. My predecessor, the late Pope John Paul, suffered very publicly during the last years of his life. It was clear to all of us that he did so in union with the sufferings of our Savior. His cheerfulness and forbearance as he faced his final days were a remarkable and moving example to all of us who have to carry the burden of advancing years. In this sense, I come among you not only as a father, but also as a brother who knows well the joys and the struggles that come with age. Our long years of life afford us the opportunity to appreciate both the beauty of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of life, as well as the fragility of the human spirit. Those of us who live many years are given a marvelous chance to deepen our awareness of the mystery of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. As the normal span of our lives increases, our physical capacities are often diminished; and yet these times may well be among the most spiritually fruitful years of our lives. These years are an opportunity to remember in affectionate prayer all those whom we have cherished in this life, and to place all that we have personally been and done before the mercy and tenderness of God. This will surely be a great spiritual comfort and enable us to discover anew his love and goodness all the days of our life (Benedict XVI, Address during a visit to St. Peter’s Residence, a home for older people in England, September 18, 2010)
In light of the Church's magisterium, we can help the elderly to make this time of their life a time in which they produce much fruit.
Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM with the permission of the editors of Anales.