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A friend of mine, Fr. Gene Cullinane, joined the Madonna House Apostolate as an elderly priest. He said to Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, “Catherine, I’m so sorry. I’m joining you as an old priest. I can’t do much.” And she said, “Just your presence, Father. Just your presence.” And God says those same words to each one of us as we worry about our decreased “productivity.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand was a brilliant Catholic author. He often used the phrase “in conspectu Dei” (“in the sight of God”) in his writings. It’s a good question to keep constantly before us: “What does this word or thought or action mean ‘in the sight of God?’”
You’ve probably heard this before: “The soul is young.” The soul is ageless. At 80 years old, we remain a child of God. In the sight of God, we remain always His children. How can we be a radiant child of God at age 80? By embracing Him in faith and love on deeper and deeper levels every day of our lives. As the Psalmist puts it: “…your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5, RSVCE).
Aging calls us to leave the desert of self-concern and self-focus, and to open more widely not only to Our Lord but also to the people who can bring us joy and who can liberate us from the tyranny of the self.
Does it strike you that the last words of the Creed, “I believe in life everlasting. Amen.”, reminds us that the goal of all our desires, the “end,” if you will, is Heaven?
Catholic theology notes that in Heaven we will give perfect praise to our God, and all our desires will be purified and satisfied, and we will experience the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face. We will enter the joyous community of all the blessed and love everyone as we love ourselves and rejoice in their joy even as we are rejoicing in our own. Not a bad destiny to work for, when you think about it!
Saint Augustine famously said, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” We can verify that from our own experience, can’t we? We have a wonderful family gathering or a delightful holiday or a great vacation or whatever, but it all passes. Something deep within us knows: “I’m made for more. I’m made for God. I’m made for a Joy that never ends.”
On preparing for our death, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1014) has this: “The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death…she has us pray: ‘From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord’; to ask the Mother of God to intercede for us ‘at the hour of our death’ in the Hail Mary; and to entrust ourselves to Saint Joseph, the patron of a happy death.”
It’s not intended as a “scare tactic.” It’s simply a truth that can bear good fruit in our lives. It’s encapsulated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1007) in these words: “Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment…”
Some time ago I learned a new word: “Velleity.” It means having good intentions for helping, and maybe even enjoying our good intentions, but never actually getting around to doing them. Now that we’re retired, we have more disposable time to visit a friend who is homebound or in a nursing home, to help someone who is more limited physically with their projects at home, to call a friend who’s living alone, to drive someone to the doctor—in short, to move from having a good idea to actually doing it!
We often hear the phrase “grow in your faith.” Can faith be grown? Absolutely! The gift of Faith is planted in our hearts at Baptism, but we can definitely grow it by turning to God in all things, by relying on Him in every circumstance of our lives, and by praying for an increase of faith even as the Apostles did. God gives us opportunities every day to grow our living relationship with Him.
Strange to tell, but a Christian can experience a desire for death. Saint Paul said, “I long to depart this life and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23a). And he also said, “For to me life is Christ and death is gain” (Philippians 1:21). For the Christian, because of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, death has a positive meaning. Death is truly a “going home” to the Father.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (#1024). “To live in Heaven is ‘to be with Christ.’ The elect…retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name” (#1025). What a destiny is ours!
“Scripture speaks of it (Heaven) in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the Kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Corinthians 2:9; CCC #1027).
Sometimes at the time of a tragedy people will say, “I can’t forgive God.” They attribute the tragedy to the hand of God. But our faith assures us that God can do no evil. Jesus said, “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give…?” (Luke 11:11–13). So just ask, “Would I do something this tragic to my loved one?” The answer, of course, is “No!” So neither would our Father in Heaven.
Life is transitory. We have no permanent home here. This leads us to, first of all, appreciate every precious moment, and secondly, not to hold on too tightly. God has something even more wonderful in store for us.
I remember reading, years ago, a book by Eric Berne called Games People Play (Berne 1964). One of the games he called “Ain’t it Awful?” It consists of people getting together and spending endless hours talking about how terrible our kids are, how awful the world is, and how stark the future looks. The result of this game is, of course, depression. It’s true we are not ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand, we are aware of the situations in our world, but as Christians we have great reason for optimism—Christ has conquered death and won the victory! The ultimate future is filled with Hope and Joy.
As we age, more and more of our loved ones die, and we get a new job: having Masses offered for them and praying for their eternal happiness. At some point it becomes literally true that we know more people in Heaven than on Earth, and all our best friends are there already! It changes our perspective a bit, and that’s a good thing.
I always think funerals of a loved one (granted they are difficult) offer a great opportunity to us. It’s a chance to reflect on their strongest virtues, what we most admired in them, and to realize that God is calling us, through the example of their lives, to grow in those same virtues as well.
Do you ever reflect that God put us where we are and at the precise time in history in which we are living for a reason? There are no accidents with God. We change when we realize we are living at this exact time and in this exact place where we live, for a Divine purpose! That awareness encourages us to invest our best talents and energies “right where we are.”
I love the image in Hebrews 12:1 of the great “cloud of witnesses” in the grandstand of the stadium, cheering us on. And we’re the athletes running the race. And as we look closer, we notice the faces in the grandstand. They’re our loved ones who have died and all the great saints of our Catholic faith. They’re all praying for us, cheering us on. What a blessing is the “Communion of Saints.” We’re all one family, and those ahead of us in Heaven and Purgatory are urging us on. Thank God for the Communion of Saints.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (CCC #1021). Sobering words. There are no “do-overs.” Clearly, there is no such thing as an “insignificant life.” Every human life has eternal consequences.
I think one of the most wonderful beliefs of our Catholic faith is our belief in Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the souls in Purgatory as “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified…after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (#1030). Many saints speak of the joy of the souls in Purgatory as they draw closer and closer to God. And our prayers and Masses for them hasten the day when they can see God face to face. What a glorious fate is ours!
One of the struggles I hear constantly from the elderly is “Father, I can’t concentrate! I start to pray and get immediately distracted. I can’t even finish a Hail Mary without distraction.” And to that I would say, “Welcome to the club.” That’s my experience as well. But I know that God understands. When you become aware that your mind is somewhere else, just gently return your thoughts to prayer. If you have to do that 20 times in 10 minutes, that means for 20 times you chose God over whatever your distracting thoughts were. And choosing God 20 times over is a good thing!”
I have hard water, and the softener helps, but not completely. So I have to get a solution to gradually rub away the lime. I think of Purgatory that way. Our sins are like that covering of lime, but our God is a “Consuming Fire” who in Purgatory gradually rubs away those layers of sin so that we are able to see God face to face.
Jesus told us in Luke’s Gospel to take up our Cross every day and follow Him (see Luke 9:23). So as difficult as suffering is, from the perspective of our faith, we see it as an opportunity to follow Jesus Christ. The Cross in our lives is a gift, a blessing. What we need to do is recognize our crosses as gifts. The “gift” of poor health or of family struggles or of the failures and disappointments of our lives—all of these can be offered to God as gifts. And in offering those crosses to Him, God is transforming us.
One of my favorite Scripture verses is Romans 8:28—“We know that all things work for good for those who love God…” Just think of it. All things. Even sin. Not that we should go out and sin, but when we do fall, God can even use that to deepen our reliance on Him. He calls us to compassion for others who struggle and to have a less exalted opinion of our spiritual status. In God’s hands, all things work together unto good.
To state the obvious: We don’t stay 30 forever. But this is not a bad thing. As we age, we have new opportunities to love and care for others. As a priest, I experience that while youth ministry is now more difficult for me (kids see my white hair and fear I wouldn’t understand), other doors are now open for me.
In general, children and young people are growing and learning their God-given identity, those in middle age are doing the work of building and maintaining, and we elderly…we get to serve as elder statesmen. Not a bad job description! We are privileged to hand on God’s virtues and values to those who follow us.
The soul is young. Isn’t that a great thought? There is at least one thing about us that doesn’t age! 🙂 We go to God with a youthful soul.
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