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Letter to the Elderly - Pope John Paul II



Here is the 1999 letter of Pope John Paul II to the Elderly. It was written on the occasion of the International Year of the Elderly, promoted by the United Nations to, as Pope John Paul noted, "direct the attention of society as a whole to the situation of those who, because of the burden of their years, often have to face a variety of difficult problems."

"As an older person myself," writes the Holy Father at the start of the Letter, dated October 1 and published in seven languages, "I have felt the desire to engage in a conversation with you. I do so first by thanking God for the gifts and the opportunities which he has abundantly bestowed upon me up to now. ... 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."

"The passage of time," says the Pope," helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side." Moreover, he says, the daily difficulties can be eased with God's help. In addition, "we are consoled by the thought that, by virtue of our spiritual souls, we will survive beyond death."

In the second part of the Letter, entitled "A complex century towards a future of hope," Pope John Paul points out that "our life, 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." He looks at the many "lights and shadows" of this century about to end.

Among the shadows are the "unprecedented sufferings (that) have afflicted the lives of millions and millions of people": two world wars, the many conflicts which have erupted on various continents, inter-ethnic hatred, the extreme poverty in many parts of the world, the "shameful phenomenon of racial discrimination," the "systematic violation of human rights," "the nightmare of the cold war .... accompanied by an insane arms race and the constant threat of atomic war."

Among the positive signs, writes the Pope, are "a growing consciousness .... of universal human rights" and of the right of peoples to self-government; a greater awareness of the value of democracy and free markets; the striving of the world's religions "to carry on a dialogue which would make them a fundamental factor of peace and unity in the world"; increasing recognition of the dignity of women"; a new ecological awareness; advances in medicine and "the contribution of science to human well-being."

"The autumn of life" is the title of part three of the Holy Father's Letter to the Elderly. Reminding us that Cicero called old age "the autumn of life, ... following the analogy suggested by the seasons and the successive phases of nature," the Pope adds: "At the same time, however, man is set apart from the other realities around him, precisely because he is a person. Made in the image and likeness of God, he is conscious and responsible." He remarks that old age, like youth, has its benefits: "As St. Jerome observes, with the quieting of passions, 'it increases wisdom, and brings more mature counsels'."

The Holy Father dedicates part four to the elderly in Sacred Scripture, pointing out that "Scriptures maintain a very positive vision of the value of life," and "each stage of life has its own beauty and its own tasks." He highlights the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Tobit, Eleazar and, in the New Testament, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, Nicodemus and St. Peter, "called to bear witness to his faith by martyrdom."

"Guardians of shared memory" is the title of the next part of the Pope's Letter. Pointing out that "in the past, great respect was shown to the elderly," the Pope remarks that this is still true in many cultures today, "while among others, this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity."

He writes: "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."

The Pope adds: "Here it should be kept in mind that the moral law allows the rejection of 'aggressive medical treatment' 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 offense against the dignity of the human person."


The elderly, the Pope concludes this section, "are the guardians of our collective memory. ... To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted. ... Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance." Human frailty "becomes a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the generations."

The Holy Father dedicates part six of this Letter to the commandment "Honor thy father and mother." He writes that "where this commandment is accepted and faithfully observed, there is little danger that older people will be regarded as a useless and troublesome burden.He observes that while honoring parents and older people is a time-honored tradition in many nations and societies, "elsewhere, and especially in the more economically advanced nations, there needs to be a reversal of the current trend (in order) to ensure that elderly people can grow old with dignity, without having to fear that they will end up no longer counting for anything."

"We are all familiar," affirms the Holy Father, "with examples of elderly people who remain amazingly youthful and vigorous in spirit. ... May society use (them) to their full potential." And here he urges young people to be close to the elderly as they "can give you much more than you can imagine."

As the number of older people increase, states John Paul, it will be more important than ever "not to relegate them to the fringes," but to keep them in the family. He acknowledged, however, the need on occasion for the elderly to be admitted to homes with specialized care.

The Pope went on to express special affection to widows and widowers, "who find yourselves alone in the final part of your lives," and to elderly priests and bishops and men and women religious. In the next section, "You show me the path of life, in Your presence there is fullness of life," the Pope reminds us that life on earth is a journey, a pilgrimage towards our heavenly home, and that death is the start of a new life. "And yet, we elderly people find it hard to resign ourselves to the prospect of making this passage. ... Man has been made for life, whereas death ... was not a part of God's original plan but came about as a consequence of sin."

"However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint, it is not possible to experience it as something 'natural'." We ask ourselves, he says here, "What is on the other side of the shadowy wall of death?" The answer comes from faith "which illuminates the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age, now no longer lived passively as the expectation of a calamity, but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of full maturity."

Pope John Paul's Letter to the Elderly closes with a section entitled "An encouragement to live life to the full." He writes: "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. ... 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," he concludes, "I find great peace in thinking about the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! ... 'Bid me to come to you': this is the deepest yearning of the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it."

JPII-LETTER/ELDERLY/... VIS 991026 (1410)

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