Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Do you remember how poor Pope John Paul II’s health was during his final years? If you recall, his hands shook from Parkinson’s, he struggled with his speech, he was confined to a wheelchair, and sometimes he drooled. Some saw his failing health as a sign that it was time for him to step down and retire. He didn’t, however, primarily because he believed that God wanted him to stay on. But he also continued his ministry to show the world that aging people have a great deal to contribute, and should be revered and respected, regardless of the state of their health.

            In today’s Scripture readings we’re introduced to elderly people- two poor widows, as a matter of fact. The Lord sent to one widow a prophet who helped provide for her needs. In the gospel, Jesus praised the generosity and faith of another widow who placed into the Lord’s hands everything she had. It’s for reasons such as these that today’s psalm praises God as being a protector of widows. These Scriptures suggest some important messages, both for our society in general, and for older people in particular.

            Our society doesn’t respect the elderly as perhaps it once did. In his “Letter to the Elderly,” written in 1999, John Paul II lamented that in economically advanced countries, there is “a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity.” This leads to a contempt for old age, and causes older people themselves to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile.

            To change this, the Holy Father said, we need to “recover a correct perspective on life as a whole.” That perspective is one of eternity, since life on earth, as we Christians understand it, is a preparation for eternity. Because of their wisdom, experience, and maturity, the Pope explained, older people have much to teach younger generations about the meaning and purpose of life, as they themselves prepare to pass into eternity.

            People used to joke that when you’re a kid, your parents seem to know everything. Then when you’re a teenager, you think that they don’t know anything. But after you reach adulthood, you begin to realize that maybe you’re parents weren’t so off-base after all. We need to reclaim that sort of mentality.

            Speaking of parents, Pope John Paul reminds us that the Ten Commandments instruct us to honor our mother and father. He adds, “Where this commandment is accepted and faithfully observed, there is little danger that older people will be regarded as a useless and troublesome burden.”

            Yet this commandment isn’t universally observed in our society. I recall reading once about a parish group that assisted at a local nursing home. Before Mother’s Day arrived, the parish volunteers called the adult children of the women in the nursing home, urging them to visit on Mother’s Day. But what they got were excuses about being too busy. How sad.

            Perhaps you have an older parent you don’t see very often. Maybe they’ve hurt you in the past, or they’re angry and bitter, or they criticize you or your spouse or the way you raise your children. It’s understandable that you’d want to keep your distance. But you still are their child, and God calls you not to abandon them. They may not admit it, but they need your love and contact. And there are ways you can give that while still maintaining your integrity and protecting yourself from harm. Try to forgive them. Empathize with their situation- either their situation now or their situation in the past. And lower your expectations for their behavior, because they’ll probably never change.

For those of you who are older adults, how might you embrace your current state in life, from a Christian perspective? If you’re a retiree, you perhaps have more time on your hands than you once did. This can be an opportunity for leisure and relaxation, but it’s also an opportunity to be a servant. A few years ago, the US bishops wrote, “Older persons have a responsibility, commensurate with health, abilities, and other obligations, to undertake some form of service to others.” This may involve helping a neighbor, volunteering in the community, joining a church outreach activity, even helping with grandkids. If you have grandchildren, they need you to love them, not necessarily to spoil them. And they will benefit from your sharing your faith with them. It’s for good reason that John Paul II described grandparents as “evangelists.”

            You may also have more opportunities to pray, than do others of us. If this is your situation, I encourage you to attend daily Mass. Come pray before the Blessed Sacrament or in a quiet corner of your home. Re-discover the rosary. Open your Bible- even if it’s for the first time.

            It could be that you find yourself in declining health. Perhaps you’ve lost a a life partner, a child, or close friends. You may be lonely or sacred. If so, the Lord encourages you to surrender yourself into his hands and trust in his goodness and love- just like the poor widow in the gospel who surrendered to God all she had. This doesn’t mean you’re to give all your money to St. Hugh’s. Instead, it’s an invitation to make a final preparation for your passage into eternal life. So try to enjoy the present while accepting your current limitations. Forgive yourself and others as God forgives you. Pray constantly. Make an effort to stay connected. Learn to graciously accept help from others. And trust that God is good beyond your wildest dreams. As John Paul II wrote, “These are years to be lived with a sense of trusting abandonment into the hands of God, our provident and merciful Father.”

            It is this provident and merciful Father who calls everyone to respect the elderly, and honor our mothers and fathers. And it is this provident and merciful Father who calls the elderly to service and prayer, while he waits to welcome you home.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent, to be published by Ave Maria Press later this month, is available for pre-order: )

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