At a meeting which I attended recently, a psychologist remarked that once a person turns forty, he begins to think more and more about death. Death, he suggested, is a greater reality for those over forty than for younger people. As I listened, I had to agree. When I was younger, death seemed only an idea, one which wasn't too troubling -- except in that rare moment when it happened to overtake someone who was a close relative or friend. For me, personally, death was a very distant horizon; and that horizon seemed hardly to move closer. But when I came to my fortieth birthday, I looked again, and that horizon had suddenly loomed very close. Now, there is not a day that passes but that I think of the end of life, knowing that it is near.
You who are older than I enjoy the same awareness of death, I am confident. But, death is a more insistent reality for you. In the twilight of your lives, you can think back on all those loved ones whom you have seen pass from this life. You have seen more of death and of human suffering than those who are younger. Death is, as you know, always poised to knock at one's door; it can overtake any of us at any time. You know this far better than those who have lived less long.
Does this seem a melancholy subject to introduce at a celebration which honors the senior citizens of our diocese? Does it seem a particularly unlikely topic to broach when we rejoice with those couples who today offer Almighty God their grateful thanks for fifty years of married life together'? Excuse me, but I would argue that it is precisely the correct issue for this occasion. Age begets wisdom. And the wisdom which is the prerogative of the senior citizen arises from his appreciation of the temporality of things, his keen knowledge of mortality. Knowing that we have no firm hold on life in this world, those who have achieved advanced age see everything in this life with a keener vision, a more exacting appreciation of reality.
Not too long ago, I told my parents, who are seventy-five, that I would have the privilege of preaching the sermon for this occasion. I said to them: "What do people your age think most about?" "Death, of course," my mother replied. "You think about being separated from those you love. You think, too, of what your life has meant. Has it meant anything? Have you accomplished anything that counts? You think back on the mistakes you have made. You think, I guess, about God's judgment." My mother is no great philosopher. But she is wise, I'm sure. I should guess that her summary is fairly accurate. You who gather here today to be honored by the Church are thoughtful men and women; "thoughtful" in the sense that your thoughts turn to the basic issues, the paramount questions: has my life been worth anything? When will God call me to judgment? What will he say to me? How have I loved others? How shall I part from them when God calls? Thinking on these questions, you are wise indeed. You have so often, isn't it true, said to younger people: "Don't' worry about this or that; it isn't that important. It will pass. You're making too much of the matter."
Because God has allowed you length of years and offered you the wisdom which comes with those years, you must be men and women filled with hope. Death may very well be very near. It is because you know this that you are able to be wise. In this wisdom, you can be filled with hope. You can set aside the unimportant issues, the "cares" of younger people which really are not so urgent. In your truer vision of what life is about, you can come closer to God. He can become more and more important in your life. And thus you grow in hope -- in confidence that He is near. Despite the pains and the loneliness of advancing age, you can find your consolation in God -- in a way which those of us who are younger cannot.
Old age, then, is a time when life can be graced with the lovely virtue of hope. Owing to your confidence in God, it follows that another gift of your time in life is the ability to pray. I have long felt that the prayers of senior citizens are more valuable than those of the younger. For those prayers arise from a deeper wisdom and a firmer hope. Yours is the privilege -- given to you in love by God -- to pray with great earnestness for yourselves and for those whom you love. In this time of life -- which is itself a great grace -- you must recognize the gift of efficacious prayer which God offers you. You must use that gift for all who rely on you. How strange! You have come to an age when the world may think you are almost useless; whereas, in God's plan, you are at the age when you can be of the greatest possible assistance to others.
Let me think again, for a moment, of my dear mother. Although she said nothing about the Church in the conversation I mentioned previously, I know that the Church is an indispensable part of her life. It has always been, in fact; but the older she becomes, the more her love for the Church grows. Is this not typical of most older Catholics? The young people whom I teach are, in general, tolerant of the Church at best. There are exceptions to be sure. But the majority of young people look upon the Church only as something incidental in their lives. One has, I suppose, to grow older to understand the expression, "Holy Mother Church." For the Church is truly a mother, a warm, welcome hearth that one associates with a loving mother.
Oh, it is true that those of us who are called to serve as ministers in the Church often botch the job. We blunder. We sin. We fail to answer the questions put to us which questioners have a right to hear. But with advancing age comes that wisdom that sees the Church for what it really is -- not a set of sinful ministers and poor managers, but the very arms of Christ enfolding us in his grace. The Church is the sacraments through which Jesus Christ attends us throughout our lives. The Church is the liturgy, so vexing because of the changes wrought in the last decade, but so wonderful still because the liturgy is our worship of the God who made us and who now calls us to himself. The Church is our maternal home because it, and it alone, offers us the bright promise of immortality -- of a life beyond the grave, a life of unending joy.
The secular mind of this age sees old age as a liability. How many there are who consider it a burden! A disgrace, even! To the men and women of faith, it is quite the opposite. Long life, even considering the sufferings which advancing age offers, is a blessing from God. For with age comes a wisdom that younger people cannot possess; and out of that wisdom, hope can arise. Out of home, fervent prayer that is efficacious. And out of that prayer, the longing for the life that is eternal. It is true, as Jesus told Peter on the shore of Lake Genesereth, that when one is old he is led where he would not go. It is true, that old age robs one of some of his liberty. It is equally true, that the consciousness of death brings a somberness into one's life as the years progress. But how much more true is it that old age is the loveliest of blessings to men and women of religious faith.
Today the Diocese of Dallas rejoices with you who are God's chosen ones, upon whom he has poured so many blessings. With you, we pray that you may be conscious of the gifts he has offered you. May the grace of senior age be of profit not only to yourselves, not only to your loved ones, but to all of us who strive to honor you. Give us your wisdom. Keep us in your mighty prayers. Remind us, by your example, of that bright promise, given us by our Mother, the Church, of the life beyond the grave, the life that is eternal.