One of the surprises from the papal election was the age of Pope Francis. From the media, to vaticanistas, to the expectation of many Catholics – many speculated on a younger man being elected. At work I was asked about the Pope’s age and one person said “couldn’t they find someone younger?” I also bought into the expectation of somebody relatively younger somewhere in the sixties or very early seventies.
In some ways it is surprising that a man only two years younger than Pope Benedict XVI was elected. The pope’s resignation due to age you would have thought would have weighed more in the thinking of the cardinal-electors. Perhaps though Benedict’s resignation might have actually provided a way forward for the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. That resignation due to age is now more opened up and age might now be less of a consideration than at one time. Historically the large majority of papacies has been 10 years or fewer. Blessed John Paul II’s length as pope is really a historical oddity, although occurring more in the last two centuries such as with Pius IX and Leo XIII. Advances in medicine will certainly skew this over time.
It is not surprising the desire for a younger physically active pope. Considering that in most cultures now there is a worship of youth and a more slanted view towards the elderly. The celebrity focused culture puts a shorter shelf life on people’s attention and aging gracefully now means keeping up with the latest injections and surgery. We don’t want to look at the ravages of age because we don’t want to think about our own. Ironically the Culture of Death really does not want to think about their own inevitable demise. The wisdom that age can bring is not a commodity we much care about.
I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. It would be superfluous to say that I am well acquainted with the difficulties, problems and limitations of this age and I know that for many these difficulties are more acute due to the economic crisis. At times, at a certain age, one may look back nostalgically at the time of our youth when we were fresh and planning for the future. Thus at times our gaze is veiled by sadness, seeing this phase of life as the time of sunset. This morning, addressing all the elderly in spirit, although I am aware of the difficulties that our age entails I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! At every phase of life it is necessary to be able to discover the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches they bring. We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sorrow! We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some “aches and pains” and a few limitations. In our faces may there always be the joy of feeling loved by God and not sadness.
Dear brother Cardinals, take courage! Half of us are advanced in age. Old age is – as I like to say – the seat of life’s wisdom. The old have acquired the wisdom that comes from having journeyed through life, like the old man Simeon, the old prophetess Anna in the Temple. And that wisdom enabled them to recognize Jesus. Let us pass on this wisdom to the young: like good wine that improves with age, let us give life’s wisdom to the young. I am reminded of a German poet who said of old age: Es is ruhig, das Alter, und fromm: it is a time of tranquillity and prayer. And also a time to pass on this wisdom to the young. You will now return to your respective sees to continue your ministry, enriched by the experience of these days, so full of faith and ecclesial communion. This unique and incomparable experience has enabled us to grasp deeply all the beauty of the Church, which is a glimpse of the radiance of the risen Christ: one day we will gaze upon that beautiful face of the risen Christ!