To mark today’s eighth anniversary of the death of John Paul II, here is an excerpt from his 1999 Letter to the Elderly.
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“You show me the path of life,
in your presence there is fullness of life” (Ps 16:11)
14. It is natural that, as the years pass, we should increasingly consider our “twilight”. If nothing else, we are reminded of it by the very fact that the ranks of our family members, friends and acquaintances grow ever thinner; we become aware of this in a number of ways, when for example we attend family reunions, gatherings of our childhood friends, classmates from school and university, or former colleagues from the military or the seminary. The line separating life and death runs through our communities and moves inexorably nearer to each of us. If life is a pilgrimage towards our heavenly home, then old age is the most natural time to look towards the threshold of eternity.
And yet, even we elderly people find it hard to resign ourselves to the prospect of making this passage. In our human condition touched by sin, death presents a certain dark side which cannot but bring sadness and fear. How could it be otherwise? Man has been made for life, whereas death — as Scripture tells us from its very first pages (cf. Gen 2-3) — was not a part of God’s original plan but came about as a consequence of sin, as a result of “the devil’s envy” (Wis 2:24). It is thus understandable why, when faced with this dark reality, man instinctively rebels. In this regard it is significant that Jesus, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15), also experienced fear in the face of death: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39). How can we forget his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, despite the fact that he was about to raise him from the dead (cf. Jn 11:35)?
However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint, it is not possible to experience it as something “natural”. This would contradict man’s deepest instincts. As the Council observed: “It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction”.(20) This anguish would indeed be inconsolable were death complete destruction, the end of everything. Death thus forces men and women to ask themselves fundamental questions about the meaning of life itself. What is on the other side of the shadowy wall of death? Does death represent the definitive end of life or does something lie beyond it?
15. Human history, from the most ancient times down to our own day, has provided a number of simplistic answers which limit life to what we experience on earth. In the Old Testament itself, certain passages in the Book of Ecclesiastes seem to present old age as a building in ruins and death as its final and utter destruction (cf 12:1-7). But precisely against the backdrop of these pessimistic attitudes there shines forth the hope-filled outlook present in revelation as a whole and particularly in the Gospel: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living” (cf. Lk 20:38). The Apostle Paul affirms that God, who gives life to the dead (cf. Rom 4:17), will also give life to our mortal bodies (cf. ibid., 8:11). And Jesus says of himself: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26).
Christ, having crossed the threshold of death, has revealed the life which lies beyond this frontier, in that uncharted “territory” which is eternity. He is the first witness of eternal life; in him human hope is shown to be filled with immortality. “The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality”.(21) These words, which the Church’s Liturgy offers as a consolation to believers as they bid farewell to their loved ones, are followed by a proclamation of hope: “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”.(22) In Christ, death — tragic and disconcerting as it is — is redeemed and transformed; it is even revealed as a “sister” who leads us to the arms of our Father.(23)
16. Faith thus illuminates the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age, now no longer considered and lived passively as the expectation of a calamity but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of full maturity. These are years to be lived with a sense of trusting abandonment into the hands of God, our provident and merciful Father. It is a time to be used creatively for deepening our spiritual life through more fervent prayer and commitment to the service of our brothers and sisters in charity.
Most commendable then are all those social programmes enabling the elderly to continue to attend to their physical well-being, their intellectual development and their personal relationships, as well as those enabling them to make themselves useful and to put their time, talents and experience at the service of others. In this way the capacity to enjoy life as God’s primordial gift is preserved and increases. Such a capacity to enjoy life in no way conflicts with that desire for eternity which grows within people of deep spiritual experience, as the lives of the saints bear witness.
Here the Gospel reminds us of the words of the aged Simeon, who says he is ready to die now that he has held in his arms the long-awaited Messiah: “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:29-30). The Apostle Paul felt torn between the desire to continue living in order to preach the Gospel, and the desire “to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23). Saint Ignatius of Antioch, joyfully going to his martyrdom, said that he could hear within him the voice of the Spirit, like living “water” welling up inside of him and whispering the invitation: “Come to the Father”.(24) These examples could be multiplied. They cast no doubt whatsoever on the value of earthly life, which is beautiful despite its limitations and sufferings, and which ought to be lived to its very end. At the same time they remind us that earthly life is not the ultimate value, in such a way that the twilight of life can be seen — from a Christian perspective — as a “passage”, a bridge between one life and another, between the fragile and uncertain joy of this earth to that fullness of joy which the Lord holds in store for his faithful servants: “Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt 25:21).
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Full text of letter: