Longevity: A Blessing

Last January 31st, Pope Francis welcomed warmly all the participants of the International Conference on the pastoral care for the elderly initiated by the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life. The Holy Father reminded us that in the bible, “longevity is a blessing.” He further pointed out that “God the Father gives us time to deepen our knowledge of Him, our intimacy with Him, to enter ever more into His heart and surrender ourselves to Him. This is the time to prepare to deliver our spirit into His hands, definitively, with childlike trust.” Growing old is a gift and indeed, “the elderly person, even when he is weak, can become an instrument of salvation history.” Thus, Pope Francis encourages the ecclesial communities to continue the journey of “pastoral exploration and discernment” for the care of the elderly as they “are also the present and the future of the Church. Yes, they are also the future of a Church that, together with the young, prophesies and dreams!”

Being part of the more than 500 participants from 60 countries of this International Conference held at the Augustinianum from January 29th to 31st, I felt an energized universal Church committed to the pastoral care of the elderly in the local churches. There has been a very rich input from various speakers from different contexts in English, Portuguese, Spanish and French.

Cardinal Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, stated the fact that a present aging population “not only has implications of a sociological, economic, anthropological and political nature, but above all, it raises questions and needs of a spiritual character, for which we are obligated to be proactive.” He further stressed that we need to dialogue to be able to outline a pastoral care for the elderly.

Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant’Egidio exhorted us that belonging to a Christian community, we “need to affirm oneself in the art of aging well for the sake of others.” This spirit of other-centeredness of the elderly “will potentially be a great treasure for the Church herself and for the whole of society if they can learn how to live these new horizons in the seriousness of a renewed commitment to others and of a new mission for a more human world.”

I am deeply grateful to have participated this International Conference which has allowed me to remember so many encounters with the elderly whose gifts of friendship and hospitality have shaped of who I am today. I feel blessed and honored by them.

There was a period in my life when I was in-charge of the old and sick sisters in the infirmary of Tokyo. There was this 92-year-old missionary sister who would stay long hours in the chapel. I would hear her implore the name, “JESUS” many times. She suffered from brain hemorrhage and after a week fell into coma. She was in the Intensive Care Unit. Several times we were called by the doctor, thinking it was her last moment. On the final hour, the priest and three sisters were there. We prayed and waited. When the electrocardiogram showed the irregularity of her heart rhythm, I could not hold my breath and hoped she would not go. At times, she made a painful grimace. Yet the moment her heartbeat stopped and the ECG showed zero, I saw a sudden glow in her face. She was literally beautiful as affirmed by the people around her especially the nurses. I believed, she finally encountered Jesus and there was an inexpressible joy in that encounter. I stood awed in silence. In God’s mysterious ways, this opened the door to welcome the death of my own father months later.

The elderlies have experienced many different seasons in their lives and have abounding stories waiting to be told. For every human story allows us, as Pope Francis exhorts, to remember “who and what we are in God’s eyes, bearing witness to what the Spirit writes in our hearts and revealing to everyone that his or her story contains marvelous things.” Furthermore, he encourages us more importantly that to grow old graciously, we need to learn “to tell our story to the Lord” that is “to enter into his gaze of compassionate love for us and for others. We can recount to him the stories we live, bringing to him the people and the situations that fill our lives. With him we can re-weave the fabric of life, darning its rips and tears.”