Communicanda III – 1997-2003
Reflections on the Third Age
Prot. N° 0000 0265/99
8 December 2000
1. I greet each of you fraternally in Christ Jesus. The members of the General Council join me in extending best wishes for abundant blessings in the New Year. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
In the second Communicanda of this General Council, “I am ruined if I do not preach the Gospel” (January 14, 1999), I expressed my intention to dedicate a future letter to the question of the spiritual demands particular to the “third age” (n. 41). This reflection is an attempt to fulfill that pledge.
2. Let me explain how I understand the term third age. If it is true that the first age of a person’s life is that of education and the second is marked by production and one’s life work, the third age is often used to refer to that time in life when a person’s primary work has ended. Although I am thinking of you who have already begun to live the third age, I write this message to every confrere in the Congregation. Regardless of age, as Constitution 55 reminds us, we are all brothers in the same family and share the same vocation: each of us is a missionary and we remain missionaries for our entire lifetime. At each stage of our lives and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, we ought to seek to live our religious consecration more intensely. Furthermore, to live in community and carry our pastoral work through the community is an essential law for us (Constitution 21). This same Constitution tells us that community does not exist simply where members merely cohabit but requires as well genuine sharing on the human and spiritual level. We are meant to bring together in community our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts and limitations for the sake of the Mission or Charism that gives meaning to our lives. Each community, then, should face the question of aging and its consequences for Redemptorist missionaries.
Why should we think about this question?
3. Along with entire societies, the Congregation is facing a new reality: the number of elderly confreres is increasing significantly. As I write to you, among the 5,569 professed members in the Congregation, 520 are eighty years old or older, while 948 are in their seventies. This means that 26% of the Congregation is aged seventy or older. Even though we are still blessed with many young members — there are more professed Redemptorists in their 20’s than in those aged 80 or more years, and more in the 30’s than in their 70’s – the Congregation has never had such a large group of elderly among its members. This is a fact that none of us can ignore, for it presents us with challenges that must be faced in order to mature together faithfully as a community sent to preach and witness to the Good News of the Kingdom.
4. Redemptorists are not only living longer but many confreres reach the seventh or eighth decades of life in much better health and vigor than in the past. At the same time, there is also an increasing need to provide medical care for Redemptorists who are seriously ill. Yet the deeper challenge for older Redemptorists is not how to cope with health problems but rather, how to live their religious consecration, particularly when they are forced to limit or, at times, suspend their ordinary pastoral activities. At this stage of life, redefining or reshaping one’s concrete identity as a missionary can threaten one’s self esteem.
5. Cultures have different attitudes towards the aging and elderly. Some revere their eldest members; the very fact of reaching a certain age endows a person with a dignity that demands respect in the community. What concerns me is an emerging world culture that idolizes youth, energy and flexibility while neglecting or attempting to “hide” the elderly. This cultural perspective causes so much anxiety that many people will do all in their power to “remain” young. The aging and the elderly are encouraged to leave the marketplace and the political forum and ought to be pacified or humored, but certainly not taken seriously or challenged to continue to contribute to their society. For men, especially, one’s work and one’s worth are so closely related that when one is incapable of working, life seems to lose all meaning. And, finally, the fact of death has become a taboo, never to be discussed in polite company and certainly not a passage for which one should consciously prepare.
The circumstances of the Congregation
6. We should recognize that the Congregation is certainly influenced by this ambivalence towards aging. In some areas of the world the secular notion of “retirement” strongly affects the lives of Redemptorists. It is taken for granted that the duties of a confrere should be eased as he reaches a certain age. In some cases, the elderly Redemptorist is not expected to carry out serious responsibilities in the community, no matter what the actual state of his physical and mental health. Some Redemptorists come to view retirement as an acquired right and therefore, upon reaching a certain age, they expect to be freed of duties in the community in order to pursue their own interests. There are provinces in the developed world where the receipt of pensions becomes a thorny problem when the confrere considers this income as his personal property. At times the care for aged confreres focuses almost entirely on health problems, neglecting the spiritual needs specific to this stage of life.
7. As we visit the provinces, the other members of the General Council and I are often edified by older confreres, who intensify their missionary identity as the years pass, and who have the ability of sharing with others, especially the young, the wisdom that they have acquired. Every year I receive letters from our jubilarians: brother and priests who are celebrating fifty or more years of life in the Congregation. These letters glow with gratitude, humility and zeal. I am often moved to share their testimony with the members of the General Government.
8. Unfortunately old age alone is not a guarantee of these sentiments. During the visitations we also meet Redemptorists who are disappointed, disillusioned, even bitter. More poignant still are the confreres who are anguished because of the rapid changes they have experienced in the Church and in our Institute. Some of these judge that the Congregation has been unfaithful to its Charism and Mission in the Church and conclude that God has withdrawn his favor from the Congregation.
9. These are some of the situations and concerns that lead me to write this letter. I would like to offer some reflections from the perspective of the last General Chapter, which urged us to consider spirituality as the lens through which we view all aspects of our lives (Final Message, n. 5). My purpose is to invite each of you to reflect as well on how we nourish and express our relationship in faith with Jesus (Final Message, n. 3) as a community in our later years and on the challenge of conversion in order to follow Jesus more closely at any stage of our missionary life.
10. There are also personal reasons that motivate this letter. I had the privilege and grace to have spent my first years in the Congregation with a number of wonderful confreres in their third age. Their words and example continue to influence me today. These Redemptorists shared with me their secrets in preaching the Word, connected me with the history of my Province and taught me to love the Congregation and to hope in its future. Most of these have died and, I pray, are now savoring fully the sweetness of God. With much gratitude, I dedicate this letter to all of those faithful witnesses, hoping that these reflections will help me prepare to be a good Redemptorist in my later years, when I too might help a young confrere at the beginning of his own pilgrimage.
Life as pilgrimage
11. Pilgrimage is a sacred experience that is found in most great religions and in many cultures. Interestingly, the notion of pilgrimage persists in some societies where the rest of traditional religious expressions have been swept away by secularizing influences. Perhaps this is so because the pilgrimage is a sort of paradigm for how human beings experience life itself. We sense or, at least, we hope that our lives are not to be understood simply as products of a random collision of atoms, blind destiny or biological urges. We sense that our lives began in a place and are going somewhere. Just as pilgrims keep moving in the direction of an unseen sanctuary, so we choose to find meaning in our life’s journey by “walking” towards a place or a Person that we often glimpse only “as reflections in a mirror, mere riddles” (1 Cor. 13, 11).
12. The holiness of the pilgrimage is to be experienced not simply in arriving at the desired goal. The vocation of a pilgrim is also lived each day, each hour and each minute of the journey: in every step taken in faith. As we walk the journey of life we are aware of a paradox: that we change radically along the journey while we remain the same. That is, we can trace important stages or identifiable segments through which we pass while the core of our identity mysteriously remains unvarying. A common metaphor for this paradox is that of a day, which has a morning, noon and an evening, all of which are perceived distinctly yet fused in a single unit. Although united, each phase of life has an autonomous value that should be appreciated as such and not simply as the preparation for the next stage.
13. It sometimes happens that circumstances compel a person to proceed to the next segment of life prematurely. Consider the heartbreak of children who are obliged by poverty to assume adult responsibilities, such as the burden of feeding their family or caring for a sick parent. We consider it a tragedy when a human life ends prematurely, before a person has had the chance to develop and truly “live”. And it is possible to resist passage from one stage to another in the journey, like the adult who wishes to remain forever the adolescent. But such struggle is futile and frustrating, since we are constantly confronted by evidence that, whether we like it or not, we are in fact passing through different stages of life’s journey. In other words, we are reminded that we are aging.
14. An awareness of aging has influenced spiritual writers as diverse as Paul the apostle and Pope John Paul II. Paul used the metaphor of human growth or aging to describe progress in discipleship (e.g. 1 Cor. 3, 1-2; 13, 11;). In his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (1996), John Paul II encourages religious to recognize the different stages of life and to never cease struggling to grow humanly and as consecrated persons, since “at no stage of life can people feel so secure and committed that they do not need to give careful attention to ensuring perseverance in faithfulness; just as there is no age at which a person has completely achieved maturity” (n. 69).
15. What does it mean to be a Redemptorist when one no longer exercises the kind of apostolate or the responsibilities held in younger days? Thanks be to God, the response of the Congregation to this new situation does not begin with the present letter. Many (vice)provinces already have special policies designed to meet the physical and emotional requirements of aging confreres. It is possible to offer an extensive bibliography of contemporary spiritual writers, including Redemptorists, who ponder the special challenges of discipleship in the third age. I hope that individual confreres and (vice)provincial governments are aware of such resources and make use of them. Perhaps this letter will serve to stimulate us to think about the growing number of aged confreres in the Congregation, recognizing that their needs go beyond health care and hobbies, since one does not retire from our religious profession, the “definitive act of the whole missionary life of Redemptorists” (Constitution 54).
16. I would like to limit the range of these reflections and not pretend to address thoroughly what it means to grow old. First, I will pay some attention to one feature of aging, that of loss, then see whether this experience might also be an occasion for spiritual growth. What follows can be expanded and enriched by you, especially the older confreres who are able to contemplate the experiences of life with the sort of wisdom that is only available in the third age. May the Congregation continue to learn how we can help Redemptorists in the third age to deepen their commitment to the Redeemer while appreciating the special way in which these confreres live our Charism.
Being led where one does not want to go
17. Among the encounters between the disciples and their Risen Lord, one of the most moving is that contained in the epilogue of the Gospel of John. The narrative speaks about the appearance of Jesus on the shore of Tiberias and contains captivating details: the mistaken identity, a miraculous catch, an impetuous swim and a home-cooked meal. The account continues with the triple profession of love by Peter and his commission by the Lord for a life of apostolic charity.
Then Jesus speaks of how that life will end up giving glory to God:
In all truth I tell you,
When you were young
You put on your own belt
And walked where you liked;
But when you grow old
You will stretch out your hands,
And somebody else will put a belt round you
And take you where you would rather not go. (Jn. 21,18)
When I meditate on this scene, I try to imagine how Jesus conveyed these last words to Peter. I imagine the Lord looking his friend in the eyes while speaking to him with tenderness and calm assurance. The Father has a plan for Peter: it will not be easy but his life will have meaning and value. Peter is commissioned for a life of pastoral charity, but what will “glorify God”, in fact, will be his death. And the final words of Jesus to Peter (Jn 21, 19, repeated in verse 22) are the same as the first words spoken to him in the Gospels (i.e.: Mk 1, 17): Follow me.
18. There are many qualities unique to the stage of life we are considering in this reflection. I wonder whether the prophetic description of the old age of Peter, but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go, might not speak eloquently to us of an essential characteristic of this stage of life’s journey? The metaphor of being bound and led where one would not choose to go seems a most apt description of the unavoidable experience of loss that accompanies people into the third age.
Loss in the Third Age
19. It is easy to recognize the reality of loss in the particular suffering that is endured by some confreres, for whom aging has meant the onset of debilitating illness, confinement to bed and utter dependence on others. But isn’t it true that for every man, whatever the stage of his health, aging brings a procession of losses? Even in the case of the most vigorous elderly, there is a deepening awareness of the transitory nature of things. Time appears to speed up and days, weeks and years seem to fly by, practically without one being aware of their swift passage. There is the haunting sensation that something is ending and we speak of the “evening” or “autumn” of life. The journey is taking us to where we would rather not go. For, before we face the final dissolution that is death itself, there are many lesser deaths that mark our pilgrim way.
20. Life in the third age means confronting loss, which comes in many shades and forms. There is the physical diminishment caused by aging, which brings discomfort, even dreadful suffering. There can be a deterioration of our mental capabilities and dementia. The death of our closest friends in the Congregation and relatives may leave us feeling more and more alone. The loss experienced in aging is not limited to body, mind or human relationships. It also touches our self-understanding as Redemptorist missionaries, inviting us forcefully to rethink what our religious profession means in the latter stages of life. Our Founder surely struggled with this reality.
The experience of Alphonsus
21. If you have ever visited the town of Scala, the birthplace of our Congregation, you have probably paused to pray in the chapel that now shelters the grotto of Alphonsus. Here was an oasis for our Father during the tumultuous weeks and months that followed the momentous event of November 9. 1732. Alphonsus would come to this little cave and spend hours in prayer: pondering the first, tenuous steps of his Congregation, mourning the departure of practically all his companions, seeking strength from God and His Blessed Mother. Today the visitor sees a simple wooden plaque nestling in a corner of the grotto itself. On it are inscribed words credited to Alphonsus by Tannoia, his first biographer: “O my grotto, O my grotto: O that I might (again) delight in this my grotto” (II, 97). These words are attributed to an elderly Alphonsus, who dreams of returning to that “mystical cell, from which he emerged inebriated by the love of God and by an unreserved passion for the salvation of Souls” (TANNOIA, ibid.).
22. I suggest that Alphonsus is not simply longing for a particular place to pray. He is mourning the passing of the thirty-eight year old man who prayed in that cave. Perhaps, to the mind’s eye of the elderly Alphonsus, everything seemed much clearer in his little grotto. Back then, he had a better idea of who he was and what he was meant to do. Forty years later, after stepping down from his diocese and returning to Pagani, Alphonsus must rediscover what it means to be a Redemptorist. He could not anchor his identity in preaching missions – he hadn’t preached one in more than twenty years. Nor could he expect to regain the final word among his brethren. Andrea Villani, the vicar general, had been governing the Congregation during the long absence of its Founder and did not relinquish this task when Alphonsus returned from Sant’Agata dei Goti. It is true that Alphonsus would continue to write and, certainly, would have his way in some matters, such as his categorical rejection of the ornate bedchamber that had been prepared for him, taking instead one of the unadorned rooms at Pagani. But, having a room like everyone else would not be enough: Alphonsus would have to rediscover what it means for him to be a Redemptorist in his own third age, especially, what it means to be a brother among his brothers in community.
23. Most of us have found – or will discover – our own “grotto”. More than a place, this “grotto” is the memory of one’s own self at a time of life when one felt most alive, most missionary, most engaged with the projects of life. Seeing that stage of our life recede irretrievably into the past and knowing that it can never be recreated can cause the sort of bittersweet emotion that Alphonsus felt for his own “grotto”. This loss is part of being human and needs to be mourned. What seems to be an obstacle to growth in the spiritual life, however, is the inability or the unwillingness to accept the losses that accompany aging, especially the diminishment that is felt when one no longer does the same apostolic work or carries the same responsibilities within the province.
24. All masters of spirituality insist that self-knowledge is an indispensable foundation on which a life with God is built and grows. The great enemy of spirituality, then, is denial, that is, a self-deluding refusal to accept myself and my circumstances. In the case of the aging Redemptorist, denial might tempt him to try to regain his “grotto” or cling stubbornly to what he believes were his halcyon days. Such denial is difficult or impossible to sustain, but there are confreres who resist all attempts to reduce their apostolic activity, even when it is clear that they no longer have the energy or the formation to continue it. At times a superior must take the difficult decision of removing a confrere from a ministry that exceeds his capabilities. Or, it may happen that, after leaving apostolates that have occupied them for most of their lives, confreres become obsessive about their own physical health, appointments with their doctors, television or any number of distractions. Unconsciously they may develop a real envy of young people, often manifested by a malignant joy in pointing out the defects and defeats of younger confreres. The fact that some confreres of advanced age become tyrants in the community is less a result of the aging process itself and more attributable to their failure to accept this new stage of the pilgrimage and find a healthy spirituality as elderly Redemptorists.
25. As the pilgrimage of life progresses, we are increasingly aware of being led where we would not choose to go. Diminished physical and mental health, the death of friends and family and the end of involvement in apostolates that have occupied a Redemptorist for many years are spiritual challenges particular to the latter stage of life. How might confreres at this stage of the pilgrimage find serenity and joy in the face of these losses?
“Counting everything else as loss”…not simply losing
26. There is a life-giving paradox in the third age. It is this: at the very time when a Redemptorist is bound and led where he would rather not go, instead of plunging down a steep and ever more slippery slope that ends in death, he is invited to pursue a greater freedom. It seems to be the experience of people who are serious about their pilgrimage towards God that one eventually has to face up to the possessive power of attachment to things that are in fact passing away. Alphonsus proposed that greater spiritual freedom could be achieved by reducing the extravagant control the circumstances of life might exercise over a person in order to become progressively more free to love God. This dual movement – away from a clinging attachment and towards the loving God – Alphonsus calls distacco. It is a central value in the spiritual path Alphonsus proposes in the Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. Chapter 17 of that work offers a crisp summary of this Alphonsian doctrine:
“Attachment to our own inordinate inclinations is the greatest obstacle to true union with God. Therefore, when God intends to draw a soul to his perfect love, he tries to detach her from all affection for created things. Thus he may deprive her of temporal goods, of worldly pleasures, of property, honor, friends, relations or bodily health. By means of these losses, troubles, neglect, bereavements and infirmities he wipes out, by degrees, all earthly attachments so that all the affections may be centered on him alone”.
27. Perhaps the mention of distacco makes you wince, reminding you of too many conferences on the subject when you were a novice? It may be that not all of the concrete obstacles to greater union with God faced by Alphonsus and his Neapolitan contemporaries – the tentacles of a domineering family, the lure of worldly honor and the siren song of riches – are, in fact, our problems. The point Alphonsus is trying to make is that we need to examine our lives honestly and see who or what has the ultimate claim on our heart. For it is within our hearts that God so greatly wishes to dwell. In Chapter 11 of the Practice, Alphonsus asks, “Do you have a heart that is empty enough for the Holy Spirit to fill?”
28. There is no escaping the fact that trying to achieve greater union with God is not easy. Many of us are afraid of pursuing this path because we sense that it entails some suffering. But what is the alternative? We could try to anaesthetize ourselves: using work, prestige, relationships, alcohol, fear or resentment to distract ourselves from the passage of time and its consequences. But, in our sober moments, we would have to watch with terror as life slips through our fingers and time, no longer a kairos in which God reveals himself, becomes our enemy.
29. Try as we may, we cannot change most things that happen to us. This truth, valid at any moment in life, seems to gain more clarity the older we become. What is in our power to determine is how people, places and things will affect us. Alphonsus helps us how see the losses that accompany the third age can be invitations to abandon ourselves to the care of God, discovering and rediscovering the depth of His faithful love for us.
A Path of Distacco
30. Paul proposes the path of distacco in his Letter to the Philippians. The third chapter might be an excellent source of meditation for the third age. How does Paul describe his pilgrimage towards God? He begins with a practice common to older people: he takes stock of his life (Phil 3, 4-6). He makes no excuses for his past but he has a new way of looking at it: “What were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses” (v. 7). Far from taking the safe path, Paul intends to risk everything:
“Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ and be given a place in him, with the uprightness I have gained not from the Law, but through faith in Christ, an uprightness from God, based on faith, that I may come to know him and the power of his resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being molded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3, 8-12).
31. Paul is aware that he has not achieved his goal but that he is being led in the right direction. He chooses to accept what happens to him, including the loss of all that he thought was precious in his life, as a price in order to gain Christ Jesus. He does not despise in principle what he loses; he simply cannot compare anything to the inestimable value of his relationship with Christ Jesus.
Freedom to love
32. Paul and Alphonsus teach that loss may bring greater spiritual freedom, that is, the liberation of oneself to love more and more unreservedly. A peculiarly Redemptorist way of loving is called by our Constitutions “apostolic charity”; this is our share in the mission of Christ and the unifying principle of our lives (cf. Const. 52). Apostolic charity presumes that “the glory of God and the salvation of the world are one” and that “love of God and love for people are the same” (Const. 53). Therefore, at each and every stage of our pilgrimage, Redemptorists are called to “live their union with God in the form of apostolic charity and, through missionary charity, seek his glory”. The XXII General Chapter recognized the life-long call to apostolic charity when it recommended:
“That every member of the Congregation, regardless of age, search for ways to be faithful to the most abandoned, and especially the poor in favor of whom we have made an option on the day of our profession” (Orientations, 2.4).
33. Certainly, there are ministries that elderly Redemptorists can offer to the most abandoned, especially the poor. For example, I think older Redemptorists are very effective in bringing compassion, comfort and hope to other elderly and sick persons. But the place where many Redemptorists of the third age are called to practice apostolic charity is within the local community, whose life is itself the primary form of the proclamation of the Gospel (XXII General Chapter, Orientations, 3). I believe that there are two unique services that elderly Redemptorists can provide in our communities.
The first type of assistance is one that Alphonsus himself sought to render. In November of 1774, as he was preparing to return from Sant’Agata, he wrote, “When I have returned to one of our houses, I may be useful to the subjects, particularly the young men”. Perhaps Alphonsus was thinking of himself as a tutor for the students in homiletics or moral theology. His biographers suggest that the example of his life in the third age left its impact on his young confreres. An elderly Redemptorist who does not allow himself to be overcome by the suffering or limitations of age, but keeps alive joy, love and hope, is an invaluable mentor for the young confreres.
34. The second type of service has to do with the mundane details of our common life. It has been observed that often in the search to do something dramatic we miss the opportunity to do something important because the action itself does not seem worth our attention. The elderly in our communities can make great contributions to the quality of our common life by performing very ordinary tasks. I recall how the generosity of an elderly priest helped the work of all the members in a busy community. Although a stroke had left him semi-paralyzed, each evening he would answer the telephone while the rest of confreres were occupied with the pastoral activity of a difficult parish. I also recall my first visit to Rome and seeing an elderly Bernhard Häring caring for the flowers in the community’s garden. I imagine that most of you have been touched by the generosity of an elderly confrere.
Discovering the best wine at the end (Jn. 2, 10)
35. John of the Cross reminds us that in the evening of our life we shall be judged on love. Perhaps that is why, in the dusk of life’s pilgrimage, we are presented with losses so that we might be more free to love. It behooves us as missionaries not to carry excessive baggage. At the end of the pilgrimage, all that we really will need is love: to love God as He deserves to be loved and to love each other as brothers. The love of an elderly Redemptorist, expressed in very ordinary ways, can leave a lasting impact on his confreres, especially the young.
36. It is love that “ages” our spirit like the action of time on fine wine. At the end of life, love will give us mellowness and flavor, not the smarting sting of vinegar. This type of love is never totally within our grasp but must be the object of lifelong conversion of heart and continual renewal of mind (Constitution 41). On November 24, 2000 Father Josef Pfab, Superior General emeritus, finished his pilgrimage. At his funeral, a young priest told me of his last meeting with Father Josef. It was a day or two before he died and they were about to celebrate the Eucharist in his hospital room. The younger priest asked him for what should they pray? Father Josef replied, “Pray that I am converted at the hour of my death”. Paul had the same desire:
“I can only say that forgetting all that lies behind me, and straining forward to what lies in front, I am racing towards the finishing point to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3,13-14).
37. May our Mother Mary, whose prayerful presence accompanied the first apostolic community and who did not hesitate to give herself in service of others, help us to be faithful each day but especially when we “are suffering and dying for the salvation of the world” (Const. 55).
Fraternally in Christ the Redeemer,
Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
(The original text is English.)