LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS
POPE JOHN PAUL II
TO THE ELDERLY
October 1,1999 - Vatican City
A Complex Century Towards a Future of Hope
The Autumn of Life
The Elderly in Sacred Scripture
Guardians of Shared Memory
"Honor Your Father and Mother"
"You Show Me the Path of Life, in Your Presence There
is Fullness of Life"
An Encouragement To Live Life to The Full
To my elderly brothers and sisters!
"Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong, and most of
them are fruitless toil, for they pass quickly and we drift away" (Ps 90:10).
1. Seventy years was an advanced age when the Psalmist wrote these words, and
few people lived beyond it. Nowadays, thanks to medical progress and improved
social and economic conditions, life expectancy has increased significantly in
many parts of the world. Still, it remains true that the years pass quickly, and
the gift of life, for all the effort and pain it involves, is too beautiful and
precious for us ever to grow tired of it.
As an older person myself, I have felt the desire to engage in a conversation
with you. I do so first of all by thanking God for the gifts and the
opportunities which he has abundantly bestowed upon me up to now. In my memory I
recall the stages of my life, which is bound up with the history of much of this
century, and I see before me the faces of countless people, some particularly
dear to me: they remind me of ordinary and extraordinary events, of happy times
and of situations touched by suffering. Above all else, though, I see
outstretched the provident and merciful hand of God the Father, who "cares in
the best way possible for all that exists" (1)
and who "hears us whenever we ask for anything according to his will" (1 Jn
5:14). With the Psalmist, I say to him: "You have taught me, O God, from my
youth, and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds. And now that I am
old and grey, O God, forsake me not, till I proclaim your strength to every
generation that is to come" (Ps 71:17-18).
My thoughts turn with affection to all of you, dear elderly people of all
languages and cultures. I am writing this letter to you in the year which the
United Nations Organization has appropriately wished to dedicate to the elderly,
in order to direct the attention of society as a whole to the situation of all
those who, because of the burden of their years, often have to face a variety of
In this regard the Pontifical Council for the Laity has offered some helpful
points for reflection. (2) In this Letter
I wish simply to express my spiritual closeness to you as someone who, with the
passing of the years, has come to a deeper personal understanding of this phase
of life and consequently feels a need for closer contact with other people of
his own age, so that we can reflect together on the things we have in common. I
place all this before the eyes of God who embraces us with his love and who
sustains us and guides us by his providence.
2. Dear brothers and sisters, at our age it is natural to revisit the past in
order to attempt a sort of assessment. This retrospective gaze makes possible a
more serene and objective evaluation of persons and situations we have met along
the way. The passage of time helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light
and softens their painful side. Sadly, struggles and tribulations are very much
a part of everyone's life. Sometimes it is a matter of problems and sufferings
which can sorely test our mental and physical resistance, and perhaps even shake
our faith. But experience teaches that daily difficulties, by God's grace, often
contribute to people's growth and to the forging of their character.
Beyond single events, the reflection which first comes to mind has to do with
the inexorable passage of time. "Time flies irretrievably", as the ancient Latin
poet put it. (3) Man is immersed in time;
he is born, lives and dies within time. Birth establishes one date, the first of
his life, and death another, the last: the "alpha" and the "omega", the
beginning and end of his history on earth. The Christian tradition has
emphasized this by inscribing these two letters of the Greek alphabet on
But if the life of each of us is limited and fragile, we are consoled by the
thought that, by virtue of our spiritual souls, we will survive beyond death
itself. Moreover, faith opens us to a "hope that does not disappoint" (cf. Rom.
5:5), placing us before the perspective of the final resurrection.
It is no coincidence that the Church, at the solemn Easter Vigil, uses the
same two Greek letters in reference to Christ who lives yesterday, today and for
ever: He is "the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to him
and all the ages". (4) Human experience,
although subject to time, is set by Christ against the horizon of immortality.
He "became a man among men, in order to join the beginning to the end, man to
A complex century towards a future of
3. In speaking to the elderly, I know I am speaking to and about people
who have made a long journey (cf. Wis 4:13). I am speaking to my contemporaries,
and so I can readily draw an analogy from my own personal experience. Our life,
dear brothers and sisters, has been situated by Providence in this twentieth
century, which arrived with a complex inheritance from the past and has
witnessed many extraordinary events.
Like so many other times in history, our own has registered lights and
shadows. Not all has been bleak. Many positive aspects have counterbalanced the
negative, or have emerged from the negative as a beneficial reaction on the part
of the collective consciousness. Yet it is true too - and it would be both
unjust and dangerous to forget it! - that unprecedented sufferings have affected
the lives of millions and millions of people. We need but think of the conflicts
which erupted on different continents as a result of territorial disputes
between States or inter-ethnic hatred. Nor should we consider any less serious
the conditions of extreme poverty afflicting broad segments of society in the
Southern Hemisphere, or the shameful phenomenon of racial discrimination and the
systematic violation of human rights found in many nations. And what are we to
say of the great global conflicts?
In the first part of the century there were two of them, with casualties and
destruction never previously known. The First World War killed millions of
soldiers and civilians, cutting off so many human lives in adolescence or even
childhood. And what of the Second World War? Breaking out after a few decades of
relative peace in the world, especially in Europe, it was even more tragic than
the first, with enormous consequences for the lives of nations and continents.
It was all-out war, an unheard-of mobilization of hatred, which struck brutal
blows even against defenseless civil populations and which destroyed entire
generations. The toll paid on various fronts to the madness of war was
incalculable; equally terrifying was the slaughter which took place in the death
camps, which truly remain the Golgothas of our time. The second half of the
century was burdened for long years by the nightmare of the cold war, the
conflict between the two great opposing ideological blocs, East and West. This
was accompanied by an insane arms race and the constant threat of an atomic war
capable of bringing humanity to extinction.(6)
Thank God, that dark page of history was closed with the fall in Europe of
oppressive totalitarian regimes as the result of a peaceful struggle, which
relied on the weapons of truth and justice.(7)
This in turn initiated a difficult but fruitful process of dialogue and
reconciliation aimed at establishing a serene and fraternal coexistence between
But all too many nations are still very far from enjoying the benefits of
peace and freedom. In recent months great concern has been caused by the
outbreak of violent conflict in the Balkans, which had earlier been the theatre
of a terrible war with ethnic undertones. Further blood was shed, further
destruction took place, further hatred was nourished. Now that the clash of arms
has at last ceased, thought is being given to reconstruction as the new
millennium approaches. But meanwhile, on other continents too, numerous hotbeds
of war continue to erupt, at times with massacres and acts of violence which are
all too soon forgotten by the world press.
4. While these memories and these painful happenings sadden us, we cannot
forget that our century has also seen the appearance of many positive signs
which represent so many sources of hope for the Third Millennium. There has been
a growing consciousness - albeit amid numerous inconsistencies, especially where
respect for the life of each human being is concerned - of universal human
rights, proclaimed in solemn and binding international declarations.
Moreover, there has been a continuing development of a sense of the right of
peoples to self-government in the context of national and international
relations, inspired by an appreciation of cultural identity together with
respect of minorities. The fall of totalitarian systems, like those of Eastern
Europe, has led to growth in the universal perception of the value of democracy
and of the free market, although the great challenge of uniting freedom and
social justice still remains.
We must also consider it a great gift of God that the world's religions are
striving with ever greater determination to carry on a dialogue which would make
them a fundamental factor of peace and unity in the world.
Then too, there has been an increasing recognition of the dignity of women.
Undeniably there is still far to go, but the trail has been blazed. A further
reason for hope is the rapid expansion of communications which, thanks to
present-day technology, have made it possible to reach beyond established
borders, making us feel that we are citizens of the world. Another important
area of growth is the new ecological awareness which deserves encouragement.
Another source of hope is the great progress made in medicine and the
contribution of science to human well-being.
There are many reasons, then, for giving thanks to God. All things
considered, these final years of our century present immense potential for peace
and progress. From the very adversities which our generation has experienced
there comes a light which can brighten the years of our old age. Here we see the
confirmation of a principle central to the Christian faith: "Tribulations not
only do not destroy hope; they are its foundation".(8)
It is appealing, then, that, as this century and this millennium
approach their twilight and the dawn of a new season for humanity can already be
seen on the horizon, we should stop to meditate on how quickly time flies, not
in order to resign ourselves to an inexorable fate, but rather to make full use
of the years we still have before us.
The autumn of life
5. What is old age? At times it has been referred to the autumn of life -
so Cicero calls it (9) - following the
analogy suggested by the seasons and the successive phases of nature. We need
but look at the changes taking place in the landscape over the course of the
year, on the mountains and in the plains, in the meadows, valleys and forests,
in the trees and plants. There is a close resemblance between our human
bio-rhythms and the natural cycles of which we are a part.
At the same time however man is set apart from all other realities around
him, precisely because he is a person. Made in the image and likeness of God, he
is conscious and responsible. Even in his spiritual dimension, though, he
experiences the succession of different phases, all equally fleeting. Saint
Ephrem the Syrian liked to compare our life to the fingers of a hand, both to
emphasize that its length is no more than a span, and to indicate that each
phase of life, like the different fingers, has its particular character, and
"the fingers represent the five steps by which man advances".(10)
Consequently, whereas childhood and youth are the times when the human person
is being formed and is completely directed towards the future, and - in coming
to appreciate his own abilities - makes plans for adulthood, old age is not
without its own benefits. As Saint Jerome observes, with the quieting of the
passions, it "increases wisdom, and brings more mature counsels".(11)
In a certain sense, it is the season for that wisdom which generally comes from
experience, since "time is a great teacher".(12)
The prayer of the Psalmist is well known: "Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart" (Ps 90:12).
The elderly in Sacred Scripture
6. "Youth and the dawn of life are vanity", observes the Preacher (Ec.
11:10). The Bible does not hesitate to point out, at times with blunt realism,
the fleeting nature of life and the inexorable passage of time: "Vanity of
vanities..., vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ec. 1:2). Who is not familiar
with this stern warning of the ancient Sage? Those of us who are older, schooled
as we are by experience, understand it in a special way.
Despite such wry realism, Scripture maintains a very positive vision of the
value of life. Man remains for ever made "in the image of God" (cf. Gen 1:26),
and each stage of life has its own beauty and its own tasks. Indeed, in the word
of God, old age is so highly esteemed that long life is seen as a sign of divine
favor (cf. Gen 11:10-32). In the case of Abraham, in whom the privilege of old
age is stressed, this favor takes the form of a promise: "I will make of you a
great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. I will bless those
who bless you and him who curses you I will curse; in you all the families of
the earth will be blessed" (Gen 12:2-3). At Abraham's side is Sarah, a woman who
sees her body growing old, yet experiences within the limitations of her aging
flesh the power of God who makes good every human shortcoming.
Moses too was an old man when God entrusted him with the mission of leading
the Chosen People out of Egypt. It was not in his youth but in his old age that,
at the Lord's command, he did mighty deeds on behalf of Israel. Among other
examples of elderly people in the Bible, I would mention Tobit, who humbly and
courageously resolved to keep God's Law, to help the needy and to endure
blindness patiently, until the angel of God intervened to set his situation
aright (cf. Tob 3:16-17). There is also Eleazar, whose martyrdom bore witness to
an exceptional generosity and strength (cf. 2 Macc 6:18-31).
7. The New Testament, filled with the light of Christ, also contains eloquent
examples of elderly people. The Gospel of Luke begins by introducing a married
couple "advanced in years" (1:7): Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John
the Baptist. The Lord's mercy reaches out to them (cf. Lk 1:5-25, 39-79).
Zechariah, already an old man, is told that a son will be born to him. He
himself makes the point: "I am an old man and my wife is well on in years" (Lk
1:18). During Mary's visitation, her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, filled with
the Holy Spirit, exclaims: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit
of your womb!" (Lk 1:42), and when John the Baptist is born, Zechariah gives
voice to the Benedictus. Here we see a remarkable older couple, filled with a
deep spirit of prayer.
In the Temple at Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to offer him to the
Lord, or rather, in accordance with the Law, to redeem him as their first-born
son. There they meet the aged Simeon, who had long awaited the Messiah. Taking
the child in his arms, Simeon blesses God and proclaims the Nunc Dimittis:
"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace" (Lk 2:29).
At Simeon's side we find Anna, a widow of eighty-four, a frequent visitor to
the Temple, who now has the joy of seeing Jesus. The Evangelist tells us that
"she began to praise God and spoke of the child to all who were looking for the
redemption of Jerusalem" (Lk 2:38).
Nicodemus too, a highly-regarded member of the Sanhedrin, was an elderly man.
He visited Jesus by night in order not to be seen. To him the Divine Teacher
reveals that he is the Son of God who has come to save the world (cf. Jn
3:1-21). Nicodemus appears again at the burial of Jesus, when, bringing a
mixture of myrrh and aloes, he overcomes his fear and shows himself a disciple
of the Crucified Lord (cf. Jn 19:38-40). How reassuring are all these examples!
They remind us that at every stage of life the Lord can ask each of us to
contribute what talents we have. The service of the Gospel has nothing to do
And what shall we say of Peter in his old age, called to bear witness to his
faith by martyrdom? Jesus had once said to him: "When you were young you girded
yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out
your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go"
(Jn 21:18). These are words which, as the Successor of Peter, touch me
personally; they make me feel strongly the need to reach out and grasp the hands
of Christ, in obedience to his command: "Follow me!" (Jn 21:19).
8. As if to recapitulate the splendid images of elderly people found
throughout the Bible, Psalm 92 proclaims: "The just will flourish like the
palm-tree, and grow like a Lebanon cedar..., still bearing fruit when they are
old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just" (vv. 13,
15-16). Echoing the Psalmist, the Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to Titus:
"Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and
in patience. Bid the older women likewise to live in a way appropriate to
believers...; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to
love their husbands and children" (2:2-5).
Thus the teaching and language of the Bible present old age as a "favorable
time" for bringing life to its fulfillment and, in God's plan for each person,
as a time when everything comes together and enables us better to grasp life's
meaning and to attain "wisdom of heart". "An honorable old age comes not with
the passing of time", observes the Book of Wisdom, "nor can it be measured in
terms of years; rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men, and an
unsullied life, the attainment of old age" (4:8-9). Old age is the final stage
of human maturity and a sign of God's blessing.
Guardians of shared memory
9. In the past, great respect was shown to the elderly. "Great was once
the reverence given to a hoary head", says Ovid, the Latin poet.(13)
Centuries earlier, the Greek poet Phocylides had admonished: "Respect gray hair:
give to the elderly sage the same signs of respect that you give your own
And what of today? If we stop to consider the current situation,
we see that among some peoples old age is esteemed and valued, while among
others this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to
immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads
to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led
to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile.
It has come to the point where euthanasia is increasingly put forward as a
solution for difficult situations. Unfortunately, in recent years the idea of
euthanasia has lost for many people the sense of horror which it naturally
awakens in those who have a sense of respect for life. Certainly it can happen
that, when grave illness involves unbearable suffering, the sick are tempted to
despair and their loved ones or those responsible for their care feel compelled
by a misguided compassion to consider the solution of "an easy death" as
something reasonable. Here it should be kept in mind that the moral law allows
the rejection of "aggressive medical treatment" (15)
and makes obligatory only those forms of treatment which fall within the normal
requirements of medical care, which in the case of terminal illness seeks
primarily to alleviate pain. But euthanasia, understood as directly causing
death, is another thing entirely. Regardless of intentions and circumstances,
euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God's law and an
offence against the dignity of the human person.(16)
10. There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on
life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at
every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play
in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity. And this process
of maturing cannot but benefit the larger society of which the elderly person is
a part. Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because
life's vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the
guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that
body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To
exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is
firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of
their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious
advice and guidance.
In view of all this, the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected
with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable
solidarity which link the different generations, inasmuch as every person needs
others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all.
Here the reflections of a poet dear to me are pertinent: "It is not the
future alone which is eternal, not the future alone!... Indeed, the past too is
the age of eternity: Nothing which has already happened will come back today as
it was... It will return, but as Idea; it will not return as itself".(17)
"Honor your father and
11. Why then should we not continue to give the elderly the respect which
the sound traditions of many cultures on every continent have prized so highly?
For peoples influenced by the Bible, the point of reference through the
centuries has been the commandment of the Decalogue: "Honor your father and
mother", a duty which for that matter is universally recognized. The full and
consistent application of this commandment has not only been a source of the
love of children for their parents, but it has also forged the strong link which
exists between the generations. Where this commandment is accepted and
faithfully observed, there is little danger that older people will be regarded
as a useless and troublesome burden.
The same commandment also teaches respect for those who have gone before us
and for all the good which they have done: the words "father and mother" point
to the past, to the bond between generations which makes possible the very
existence of a people. In the two versions found in the Bible (cf. Ex 20:2-17;
Dt 5:6-21), this divine commandment is the first of those inscribed on the
second Tablet of the Law, which deals with the duties of human beings towards
one another and towards society. Furthermore, it is the only commandment to
which a promise is attached: "Honor your father and mother, so that your days in
the land which the Lord your God gives you may be long" (Ex 20:12; cf. Dt 5:16).
12. "Rise in the presence of one with gray hair; honor the person of the
older man" (Lev 19:32). Honoring older people involves a threefold duty:
welcoming them, helping them and making good use of their qualities. In many
places this happens almost spontaneously, as the result of long-standing custom.
Elsewhere, and especially in the more economically advanced nations, there needs
to be a reversal of the current trend, to ensure that elderly people can grow
old with dignity, without having to fear that they will end up no longer
counting for anything. There must be a growing conviction that a fully human
civilization shows respect and love for the elderly, so that despite their
diminishing strength they feel a vital part of society. Cicero himself noted
that "the burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the
Furthermore, while the human spirit has some part in the process of bodily
aging, in some way it remains ever young if it is constantly turned towards
eternity. This experience of enduring youthfulness becomes all the more powerful
when to the inner witness of a good conscience is joined the sympathetic concern
and grateful affection of loved ones. Then, as Saint Gregory of Nazianzus
writes, a man "will not grow old in spirit, but will accept dissolution as the
moment fixed for the freedom which must come. Gently he will cross into the
beyond, where there is neither youth nor old age, but where all are perfect in
We are all familiar with examples of elderly people who remain
amazingly youthful and vigorous in spirit. Those coming into contact with them
find their words an inspiration and their example a source of comfort. May
society use to their full potential those elderly people who in some parts of
the world - I think especially of Africa - are rightly esteemed as "living
encyclopaedias" of wisdom, guardians of an inestimable treasure of human and
spiritual experiences. While they tend to need physical assistance, it is
equally true that in their old age the elderly are able to offer guidance and
support to young people as they face the future and prepare to set out along
While speaking of older people, I would also say a word to the young, to
invite them to remain close to the elderly. Dear young people, I urge you to do
this with great love and generosity. Older people can give you much more than
you can imagine. The Book of Sirach offers this advice: "Do not disregard what
older people say, because they too have learnt from their parents" (8:9);
"Attend the meetings with older people. Is there one who is wise? Spend time
with him" (6:34); for "wisdom is becoming to the elderly" (25:5).
13. The Christian community can receive much from the serene presence of
older people. I think first of all in terms of evangelization: its effectiveness
does not depend principally on technical expertise. In how many families are
grandchildren taught the rudiments of the faith by their grandparents! There are
many other areas where the elderly can make a beneficial contribution. The
Spirit acts as and where he wills, and quite frequently he employs human means
which seem of little account in the eyes of the world. How many people find
understanding and comfort from elderly people who may be lonely or ill and yet
are able to instill courage by their loving advice, their silent prayers, or
their witness of suffering borne with patient acceptance! At the very time when
their physical energies and their level of activity are decreasing, these
brothers and sisters of ours become all the more precious in the mysterious plan
In addition to the obvious psychological need of the elderly themselves, the
most natural place to spend one's old age continues to be the environment in
which one feels most "at home", among family members, acquaintances and friends,
where one can still make oneself useful. As the number of older people
increases, keeping pace with the rise in average life expectancy, it will become
more and more important to promote a widespread attitude of acceptance and
appreciation of the elderly, and not relegate them to the fringes. The ideal is
still for the elderly to remain within the family, with the guarantee of
effective social assistance for the greater needs which age or illness entail.
On the other hand, there are situations where circumstances suggest or demand
that they be admitted to "homes for the elderly" where they can enjoy the
company of others and receive specialized care. Such institutions are indeed
praiseworthy, and experience shows that they can provide a valuable service when
they are inspired not only by organizational efficiency but also by loving
concern. Everything becomes easier when each elderly resident is helped by
family, friends and parish communities to feel loved and still useful to
society. How can we fail to mention here, with admiration and gratitude, the
Religious Congregations and volunteer groups specifically devoted to the care of
the aged, especially the poor, the abandoned and those in difficulty?
Dear elderly friends who feel insecure because of ill health or other
circumstances, I assure you of my closeness and affection. When God permits us
to suffer because of illness, loneliness or other reasons associated with old
age, he always gives us the grace and strength to unite ourselves with greater
love to the sacrifice of his Son and to share ever more fully in his plan of
salvation. Let us be convinced of this: he is our Father, a Father rich in love
My thoughts turn in a special way to you, widows and widowers, who find
yourselves alone in the final part of your lives; to you, elderly men and women
Religious, who for long years have faithfully served the cause of the Kingdom of
Heaven; and to you, dear brother Priests and Bishops, who, for reasons of age,
no longer have direct responsibility for pastoral ministry. The Church still
needs you. She appreciates the services which you may wish to provide in many
areas of the apostolate; she counts on the support of your longer periods of
prayer; she counts on your advice born of experience, and she is enriched by
your daily witness to the Gospel.
"You show me the path of life, in
your presence there is fullness of life" (Ps 16:11)
14. It is natural that, as the years pass, we should increasingly
consider our "twilight". If nothing else, we are reminded of it by the very fact
that the ranks of our family members, friends and acquaintances grow ever
thinner; we become aware of this in a number of ways, when for example we attend
family reunions, gatherings of our childhood friends, classmates from school and
university, or former colleagues from the military or the seminary. The line
separating life and death runs through our communities and moves inexorably
nearer to each of us. If life is a pilgrimage towards our heavenly home, then
old age is the most natural time to look towards the threshold of eternity.
And yet, even we elderly people find it hard to resign ourselves to the
prospect of making this passage. In our human condition touched by sin, death
presents a certain dark side which cannot but bring sadness and fear. How could
it be otherwise? Man has been made for life, whereas death - as Scripture tells
us from its very first pages (cf. Gen 2-3) - was not a part of God's original
plan but came about as a consequence of sin, as a result of "the devil's envy"
(Wis 2:24). It is thus understandable why, when faced with this dark reality,
man instinctively rebels. In this regard it is significant that Jesus, "who in
every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15), also
experienced fear in the face of death: "Father, if it be possible, let this cup
pass from me" (Mt 26:39). How can we forget his tears at the tomb of his friend
Lazarus, despite the fact that he was about to raise him from the dead (cf. Jn
However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint,
it is not possible to experience it as something "natural". This would
contradict man's deepest instincts. As the Council observed: "It is in the face
of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man
tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more
so by a dread of perpetual extinction".(20)
This anguish would indeed be inconsolable were death complete destruction, the
end of everything. Death thus forces men and women to ask themselves fundamental
questions about the meaning of life itself. What is on the other side of the
shadowy wall of death? Does death represent the definitive end of life or does
something lie beyond it?
15. Human history, from the most ancient times down to our own day, has
provided a number of simplistic answers which limit life to what we experience
on earth. In the Old Testament itself, certain passages in the Book of
Ecclesiastes seem to present old age as a building in ruins and death as its
final and utter destruction (cf 12:1-7). But precisely against the backdrop of
these pessimistic attitudes there shines forth the hope-filled outlook present
in revelation as a whole and particularly in the Gospel: "God is not God of the
dead, but of the living" (cf. Lk 20:38). The Apostle Paul affirms that God, who
gives life to the dead (cf. Rom 4:17), will also give life to our mortal bodies
(cf. ibid., 8:11). And Jesus says of himself: "I am the resurrection and the
life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives
and believes in me shall never die" (Jn 11:25-26).
Christ, having crossed the threshold of death, has revealed the life which
lies beyond this frontier, in that uncharted "territory" which is eternity. He
is the first witness of eternal life; in him human hope is shown to be filled
with immortality. "The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of
immortality".(21) These words, which the
Church's Liturgy offers as a consolation to believers as they bid farewell to
their loved ones, are followed by a proclamation of hope: "Lord, for your
faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly
dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven".(22)
In Christ, death - tragic and disconcerting as it is - is redeemed and
transformed; it is even revealed as a "sister" who leads us to the arms of our
16. Faith thus illuminates the mystery of death and brings
serenity to old age, now no longer considered and lived passively as the
expectation of a calamity but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of
full maturity. These are years to be lived with a sense of trusting abandonment
into the hands of God, our provident and merciful Father. It is a time to be
used creatively for deepening our spiritual life through more fervent prayer and
commitment to the service of our brothers and sisters in charity.
Most commendable then are all those social programs enabling the elderly to
continue to attend to their physical well-being, their intellectual development
and their personal relationships, as well as those enabling them to make
themselves useful and to put their time, talents and experience at the service
of others. In this way the capacity to enjoy life as God's primordial gift is
preserved and increases. Such a capacity to enjoy life in no way conflicts with
that desire for eternity which grows within people of deep spiritual experience,
as the lives of the saints bear witness.
Here the Gospel reminds us of the words of the aged Simeon, who says he is
ready to die now that he has held in his arms the long-awaited Messiah: "Lord,
now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes
have seen your salvation" (Lk 2:29-30). The Apostle Paul felt torn between the
desire to continue living in order to preach the Gospel, and the desire "to
depart and be with Christ" (Phil 1:23). Saint Ignatius of Antioch, joyfully
going to his martyrdom, said that he could hear within him the voice of the
Spirit, like living "water" welling up inside of him and whispering the
invitation: "Come to the Father".(24)
These examples could be multiplied. They cast no doubt whatsoever on the value
of earthly life, which is beautiful despite its limitations and sufferings, and
which ought to be lived to its very end. At the same time they remind us that
earthly life is not the ultimate value, in such a way that the twilight of life
can be seen - from a Christian perspective - as a "passage", a bridge between
one life and another, between the fragile and uncertain joy of this earth to
that fullness of joy which the Lord holds in store for his faithful servants:
"Enter into the joy of your master" (Mt 25:21).
An encouragement to live life
to the full
17. In this spirit, dear elderly brothers and sisters, as I encourage
each of you to live with serenity the years that the Lord has granted you, I
feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point
of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter and
as we await the arrival, now imminent, of the Third Millennium. Despite the
limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the
Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of
the Kingdom of God!
At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord
will call me: from life to life! And so I often find myself saying, with no
trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the
Eucharist: "In hora mortis meae voca me, et iube me venire ad te" -- at the hour
of my death, call me and bid me come to you. This is the prayer of Christian
hope, which in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting the
future to God's gracious and loving care.
18. "Iube me venire ad te!": this is the deepest yearning of the human heart,
even in those who are not conscious of it.
Grant, O Lord of life, that we may be ever vividly aware of this and that we
may savor every season of our lives as a gift filled with promise for the
future. Grant that we may lovingly accept your will, and place ourselves each
day in your merciful hands.
And when the moment of our definitive "passage" comes, grant that we may face
it with serenity, without regret for what we shall leave behind. For in meeting
you, after having sought you for so long, we shall find once more every
authentic good which we have known here on earth, in the company of all who have
gone before us marked with the sign of faith and hope.
Mary, Mother of pilgrim humanity, pray for us "now and at the hour of our
death". Keep us ever close to Jesus, your beloved Son and our brother, the Lord
of life and glory.
From the Vatican, 1 October 1999.
(1) SAINT JOHN DAMASCENE, Exposition of the Orthodox
Faith, 2, 29.
(2) Cf. The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in
the Church and in the World, Vatican City, 1998.
(3) VIRGIL, "Fugit inreparabile tempus", Georgics
(4) Liturgy of the Easter Vigil.
(5) SAINT IRENAEUS OF LYONS, Adversus Haereses, IV,
(6) Cf. POPE JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus
(7) Ibid., 23.
(8) SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, Commentary on the Letter to
the Romans, 9, 2.
(9) 2 Cf. Cato Maior, seu De Senectute, 19, 70.
(10) On "All is vanity and affliction of spirit", 5-6.
(11) "Auget sapientiam, dat maturiora consilia":
Commentaria in Amos, II,
(12) CORNEILLE, Sertorius, Act II, Scene 4, v. 717.
(13) "Magna fuit quondam capitis reverentia cani": Fasti,
(14) Sententiae, XLII.
(15) Cf. POPE JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter
Evangelium Vitae, 65.
(16) Cf. ibid.
(17) C.K. NORWID, Nie tylko przyszlosc..., Post Scriptum,
I, vv. 1-4.
(18) "Levior fit senectus, eorum qui a iuventute coluntur
Cato Maior, seu De Senectute, 8, 26.
(19) Discourse upon Returning from the Country, 11.
(20) SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 18.
(21) Roman Missal, Preface of Christian Death I.
(23) Cf. SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI, Canticle of the
(24) Letter to the Romans, 7, 2.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion