The Church and Older People

Bulletin of the Ovulation Method Research
and Reference Centre of Australia
September 2004
(An extract from a small book
published by the Pontifical Council for the Laity)
Reproduced with Permission

"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."1 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 within Christian communities and families.

Often lived in a simple way, but not for that reason any less profound, the religious faith of older people of both sexes is highly diversified; this is also determined by the relative strength of their faith in their earlier life.

At times, it is distinguished by a kind of fatalism: in such cases, suffering, disabilities, illnesses, the losses inseparable from this phase of life, are regarded, if not as divine punishments, at least as signs of a God who is no longer benevolent. The ecclesial community has the responsibility to purify this fatalism by helping to develop the religious faith of older people and by restoring a horizon of hope to it.

In this task, catechesis has a role of primary importance to play. It is the job of catechesis to purge faith of fear, to overcome the image of a wrathful God, and to lead the older person to discover the God of love. Familiarity with Holy Scripture, a deeper knowledge of the content of our faith, and meditation on the death and resurrection of Christ will help older people to overcome a punitive conception of God, which bears no relation to his love as a Father. By participating in the liturgical and sacramental prayer of the Christian community and by sharing its life, older people will increasingly learn to understand that the Lord is not uncaring, not indifferent to human sorrow or to the personal difficulties they encounter in the course of their lives.

It is the duty of the Church to announce to older people the Good News of Jesus, who is revealed to them just as he was revealed to Simeon and Anna. Jesus comforts them with his presence. He causes their hearts to rejoice at the furfilment of hopes and promises they kept alive in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:25-38).

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 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, modem 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. Who has not heard of the Russian 'babushkas', who kept alive the faith during the long decades when any expression of religious faith was equivalent to a criminal activity, and who transmitted it to their grandchildren? It was thanks to their courage and steadfastness that faith was not completely extinguished in the former Communist countries and that a basis now exists albeit a precarious one for the new evangelization to build on. The International Year of Older Persons offers a valuable occasion to remember these extraordinary older people both men and women and their silent and heroic witness. Not only the Church, but human civilization is greatly indebted to them.

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".2 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 charisma, 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.


1  [Back]

Concern for the social Order, John Paul 11

2  [Back]

Dignity and Vocation of Women, John Paul 11