“Do not cast me off in time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” [Psalm 71:9].
I had an interesting experience in one of my classes recently. It was a language class I am taking on the side, at a secular university. To help build up our speaking ability, the teacher often asks open ended questions so that we can try to practice expressing ourselves. The teacher was asking students what their ideal of old age would be like. One student said he would like to live in a city, and have his children and grandchildren close by, because he likes being around people. But another student, a young woman, said –
“Oh I haven’t really thought about that… I don’t want to get old, old people have a lot of burdens, and your whole body gets wrinkly, I don’t think I could be happy if I was old…I think I would just end my life before I became like that…”
Some people giggled, and others looked nervously around at each other whispering – “Did she really say that?” But she wasn’t joking. So the teacher asked if anyone had any advice for our classmate. Predictably, and disappointingly I might add, one young man suggested that getting old was not such a bad thing after all, because many seniors are sexually active, citing a statistic that STD’s are on the rise among senior citizens. Another student suggested that seniors have many benefits, and they can break laws with reduced penalties, if they get punished at all. But the young woman remained unconvinced. Finally, another student piped up – “I would like to ask her just one question – have you ever encountered an old person who you thought was really full of joy?” The young woman thought about it, and realized that she hadn’t, because both sets of her grandparents had passed away before she was born.
The young woman in my class who would rather have ended her life than get old, is not an isolated case. The general impression that today’s media culture gives us is that life is not worth living unless you are young, beautiful, and rich. Many of us are blessed to have joyful signs of contradiction to this view in our lives – elderly relatives, elderly neighbours, elderly people from Church, etc. But there are some people, like that young woman, who do not, and if her worldview is largely informed by today’s marketing, who can blame her for thinking the way she does about getting old?
On his way to World Youth Day in Rio last summer, Pope Francis commented that while the young have the strength to bring the Church forward, older Catholics have no less a contribution to make, for they have “the wisdom of life” that should not be discarded.
When I think of the New Evangelization, I do not often think of the elderly. Perhaps I am just as influenced by the views of our culture as the young woman in my class. But the question that one student raised made me think about a particular role that only the elderly can have in the New Evangelization. Where once old age was something to be revered and thought of as a time of enjoying the fruits of one’s hard work, it seems that old age is more and more seen as something simply undesirable, to be escaped, or avoided. How many of us know someone who has remarked about those who live in nursing homes: “I would rather die than live like that.”
Pope Francis has also said on numerous occasions that a key to the New Evangelization is promoting a culture of encounter. And encounters do not result in mere connections, but relationships. And no one but an elderly person can help in this particular situation – only they can witness to the younger generations that life is worth living, until a ripe old age. That there is more to life than what the media tells them. And I’m not just talking about opportunities for travelling, or gardening and other hobbies, because as we saw, pointing to particular activities according to one’s personal interests wasn’t very effective. I think it is relevant here to point out the title of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the New Evangelization – The Joy of the Gospel. Those of us blessed with a relationship with the living God have experienced that joy at least at some point in our lives. And while we should always be ready to give a verbal account for the hope that is in us, most of the people we encounter will not remember what we said to them, but the way we were. I really do believe that if my classmate had a joyful old person in her life, she wouldn’t think the way she did.
And what about us who are not so old? What can we do about my classmate’s worldview? Well, we can give some of our time and be present to the elderly and help them rediscover and continue to radiate that Joy of the Gospel to younger generations. And after years of doing so, we will be well prepared to step up and continue their witness when we are old.
“They still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green” [Psalm 92:14].
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