Learning to take leave is the wisdom of the elderly
At the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 22 June , Pope Francis continued his weekly catechesis on the value of old age, highlighting the importance of knowing how to take leave. “The wisdom of the elderly,” he explained, is “learning to take leave" of society joyfully, knowing that they ”lived life" and kept the faith. The following is a translation of the Holy Father's words, which he shared with the faithful gathered in Saint Peter's Square.
Dear brothers and sisters, welcome and good morning!
In our catechetical journey on old age, today we will meditate on the dialogue between the risen Jesus and Peter at the end of John’s Gospel (21:15-23). It is a moving dialogue, from which shines all the love of Jesus for his disciples, and also the sublime humanity of his relationship with them, in particular with Peter: a tender relationship, but not melancholic; direct, strong, free, open. A relationship as men and in truth. Thus, John’s Gospel, so spiritual, so lofty, closes with a poignant request and offer of love between Jesus and Peter, which is intertwined, quite naturally, with a discussion between them. The Evangelist alerts us: he is bearing witness to the truth of the facts (cf. Jn 21:24). And it is in the facts that the truth is to be sought.
We can ask ourselves: are we capable of preserving the tenor of this relationship of Jesus with the disciples, according to his style that is so open, so frank, so direct, so humanly real? How is our relationship with Jesus? Is it like this, like that of the Apostles with Him? Are we not, instead, very often tempted to enclose the testimony of the Gospel in the cocoon of a ‘sugar-coated’ revelation, to which is added our own circumstantial veneration? This attitude, which seems respectful, actually distances us from the real Jesus, and even becomes the occasion for a very abstract, very self-referential, very worldly journey of faith, which is not the path of Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made man, and He comports Himself as man, He speaks to us as man, God-man: with this tenderness, with this friendship, with this closeness. Jesus is not like the image of holy cards, no: Jesus is close at hand, he is near us.
In the course of Jesus’ discussion with Peter, we find two passages that deal precisely with old age and the passage of time : the time of testimony, the time of life. The first passage is Jesus’ warning to Peter: when you were young you were self-sufficient, when you will be old, you will no longer be so much the master of yourself and your life. You’re telling me; I have to go around in a wheelchair, eh? But that’s how it is, that’s life. With old age you get all these illnesses and we have to accept them as they come, don’t we? We don’t have the strength of youth! And your witness, Jesus says, will also be accompanied by this weakness. You have to be a witness to Jesus even in weakness, illness and death. There is a beautiful passage from Saint Ignatius of Loyola that says: “Just as in life, so also in death we must bear witness as disciples of Jesus.” The end of life must be a disciple’s end of life: of disciples of Jesus, because the Lord always speaks to us according to our age. The Evangelist adds his commentary, explaining that Jesus was alluding to the extreme witness, that of martyrdom and death.
But we can understand more generally the meaning of this admonition: your sequela [following in my footsteps] will have to learn to allow itself to be instructed and moulded by your frailty, your helplessness, your dependence on others, even in getting dressed, in walking. But you: “Follow me ” (v. 19). Following Jesus always continues, in good health, in not so good health; with physical self-sufficiency and without physical self-sufficiency. But following Jesus is important: to follow Jesus always, on foot, running, going slowly, in a wheelchair… but always following Him. The wisdom of following [Jesus] must find the way to abide in its profession of faith — thus Peter responds: “Lord, you know that I love you” (vv. 15-17) — even in the limited conditions of weakness and old age. I like talking to the elderly, looking into their eyes: they have those bright eyes, those eyes that speak to you more than words, the witness of a life. And this is beautiful, we must preserve it until the end. To follow Jesus like this: full of life.
This conversation between Jesus and Peter contains a valuable teaching for all disciples, for all of us believers, and also for all the elderly. From our frailty we learn to express the consistency of our witness of life in the conditions of a life largely entrusted to others, largely dependent on the initiative of others. With sickness, with old age, dependence grows and we are no longer as self-sufficient as before; dependence on others grows and there too faith matures, there too Jesus is with us, there too that richness of the faith well lived on the road of life springs forth.
But again we must ask ourselves: do we have a spirituality truly capable of interpreting the season — by now long and widespread — of this time of our weakness, that is entrusted to others more than to the power of our autonomy? How do we remain faithful to the sequela we have lived, to the promised love, to the justice sought in the time of our capacity for initiative, in the time of fragility, in the time of dependence, of farewell, in the time of moving away from being the protagonist of our lives? It’s not easy to move away from being the protagonist. It’s not easy.
This new time is also certainly a time of trial — beginning with the temptation — very human, undoubtedly, but also very insidious — to preserve our protagonism. And at times the protagonist has to diminish, has to lower him or herself, to accept that old age reduces you as a protagonist. But you will have another way of expressing yourself, another way of participating in the family, in society, in a group of friends. And it is the curiosity that comes to Peter: “What about him?”, says Peter, seeing the beloved disciple following them (cf. vv. 20-21). Sticking your nose in other people’s lives. But no: Jesus says: “Shut up!”. Does he have to be part of “my” following [of Jesus]? Does he have to occupy “my” space? Will he be my successor? These are questions that do no good, that don’t help. Must he outlive me and take my place? Jesus’ answer is frank and even rude: “What is that to you? Follow me” (v. 22). As if saying: You worry about your own life, about your present situation, and don’t stick your nose into the lives of others. You follow me. This is important: following Jesus, to follow Jesus in life and in death, in health and in sickness, in life when it is prosperous with many successes, and in life even when it is difficult with many bad moments of failing. And when we want to insert ourselves into other people’s lives, Jesus answers, “What is that to you? Follow me”. Beautiful.
We elderly people should not be envious of young people who take their path, who occupy our place, who outlive us. The honour of our faithfulness to sworn love, fidelity to the following of the faith in which we have believed, even in the conditions that bring us nearer to the end of life, are our claim to the admiration of the generations to come and of grateful recognition from the Lord. Learning to take leave: this is the wisdom of the elderly. But to take leave well, with a smile. To learn to take one’s leave in society, to take one’s leave with others. The life of the elderly is a very slow but joyful farewell: I have lived life, I have kept my faith. This is beautiful, when an elderly person can say this: “I have lived life, this is my family; I have lived life, I was a sinner but I have also done good”. And this peace that comes, this is the farewell of the elderly person.
Even the forcibly inactive following [of Jesus], made up of enthusiastic contemplation and rapt listening to the word of the Lord — like that of Mary, Lazarus’ sister — will become the best part of their lives, of the lives of us elderly persons. May this part never be taken from us again, never (cf. Lk 10:42). Let us look to the elderly, let us look upon them, and let us help them so that they may live and express their wisdom of life, that they may give us what is beautiful and good in them. Let us look at them, let us listen to them. And we elders, let us look at the young always with a smile. They will follow the path, they will carry forward what we have sown, even what we have not sown because we have not had the courage or the opportunity. They will carry it forward. But always this mutual relationship. An elderly person cannot be happy without looking to young people, and young people cannot carry on in life without looking to the elderly. Thank you.
24 June 2022, page 3