When writing I generally try to reach as broad an audience as possible, but in this column I’d like to address myself to those who feel they are growing old.
“Aren’t we all growing old?” you might wonder. Well, yes and no!
Although Pope Francis often expresses his esteem and appreciation for the elderly, he also speaks of “growing old” as something to avoid at all costs. He refers to a certain kind of aging: “growing old out of sorrow, resentment or fear, doubt or failure,” of being “encased in the past,” and letting one’s horizons shrink.
In his book on aging, Sharing the Wisdom of Time, the pope laments older people who have become cynical. “They become unwilling to share their experience,” he writes. “They look down on young people. They are always complaining. They cannot share wisdom. They can only look back fruitlessly on earlier times.”
At the same time, Pope Francis affirms the biblical admonition to “to accept the authority of those who are older” (1 Peter 5:5). “The Bible never ceases to insist that profound respect be shown to the elderly, since they have a wealth of experience,” he writes. “In the silence of their heart, they have a store of experiences that can teach us not to make mistakes or be taken in by false promises.”
“Jesus tells us that the wise are able to bring forth from their store things both new and old (cf. Matthew 13:52),” Francis continues. Herein lies the key to aging without growing old — to remain flexible, to accumulate wisdom and to know how to bring forth from one’s store both old and new.
I think this wisdom and flexibility are crucial today if we hope to reverse the vocation crisis and the tide of young people leaving the church. Sociologist Sister Mary Johnson writes, “Staying mentally flexible enough to communicate across any cultural boundary — whether of ethnicity, class or generation — is hard work. As a result, most people do not bother to do it very often. We tend to choose our friends from those like us. … The older we get, therefore, the more twenty-somethings seem foreign to us, and we to them, unless we make concerted attempts to bridge the gap.”
Twenty-somethings are showing us just how foreign we are to them. Recent surveys indicate that 50 percent of young people who were brought up Catholic now self-identify as “nones,” meaning they do not espouse any religion. Let’s ask ourselves what we can do to stem this tragic exodus!
In Christus Vivit, the document Pope Francis wrote following the 2018 Synod on Youth, he advises us to return to the sources of our Catholic faith. “Jesus is risen, and he wants to make us sharers in the new life of the resurrection. He is the true youthfulness of a world grown old, the youthfulness of a universe waiting ‘in travail’ (Romans 8:22) to be clothed with his light and to live his life. With him at our side, we can drink from the true wellspring that keeps alive all our dreams, our projects, our great ideals, while impelling us to proclaim what makes life truly worthwhile.”
The Holy Father said that when he began his ministry as pope, God broadened his horizons and granted him a renewed youthfulness. “The same can happen to a couple married for many years, or to a monk in his monastery,” he writes. “An institution as ancient as the church can experience renewal and a return to youth at different points in her age-old history. Indeed, at the most dramatic moments of her history, she feels called to return with all her heart to her first love.”
What is this “first love”?
Pope Francis tells us: “more of his friendship, more fervor in prayer, more hunger for his word, more longing to receive Christ in the Eucharist, more desire to live by his Gospel, more inner strength, more peace and spiritual joy.”
He challenges us to “let go of” whatever is holding us back, and to be open to receive new gifts from God. “True youth means having a heart capable of loving,” he exclaims.
Let’s shake off whatever is weighing us down and limiting our horizons so that we can reach out with open arms and hearts to welcome the younger generations into the church and to show them how much God loves them and is waiting for them.
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.