By David Alton
Robert Kennedy once remarked that youth is not a time of life but a state of mind. Yet contemporary society certainly doesn’t seem to believe that. Being young is often made out to be synonymous with being capable, decisive and effective – but we all know that this is so much baloney.
When Pope John Paul recently told some youthful pilgrims “I am not an old man. I am still young,” he was playfully putting a shot across the bows of those who are obsessive about the cult of youth. He is only too painfully aware of the frailties of age but knows that while he still has possession of his mind that he must continue to carry the burdens which have been placed on his shoulders. That has nothing to do with age – but with Divine calling.
A few years ago, at the beginning of Lent, I was with a small group who were privileged to join the Pope at his morning Mass. When we entered the chapel he was kneeling and deep in prayer. For the first time I had some real sense of the massive responsibilities which have been laid upon him. He is the successor of Peter, the rock, and the Vicar of Christ. One billion Christians look to him as their pastor. That is an awesome responsibility.
Beset by the great challenges of the world, wrestling with colossal ethical and social questions, dealing with theological and religious disputes from within and without, and stalked by hostile foes, ranging from venomous pens to assassins, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have this brave and enduring figure to lead us in these times. Wisdom and insight are the gifts our Church leaders most need, not necessarily youthfulness. Pope John Paul has wisdom in abundance.
In our families, our grandparents often bring this same gift of wisdom to the crises which hit us all from time to time. When there is a wayward child who can’t bring himself to talk to his parents, his grandparents can often get through. Anyone who saw Cardinal Hume with adolescents and students knows that they would listen to him because of his evident holiness and experience of life in a way that they would rarely have listened to someone from their own generation.
When we become older and our bodies no longer respond in the way we would wish, the temptation is to discard the ailing relative and ship them off to an institution and then to quietly forget them. Who then will teach us about bearing pain, coping with suffering, and facing death?
The late Archbishop Worlock was respected in his Liverpool diocese as an extremely able administrator and a champion of ecumenism and social causes. Yet, it was in the last three years of his life, as he dealt with cancer of the lung, that I detected a deepening of the feelings of his flock for him. He told me that a typically direct scouser had written to him to say that he had shown people how to live, now he was showing them how to die.
With a Bill currently before Parliament to outlaw euthanasia we can see that these questions – of how we deal with ageing, with terminal illness and human suffering – are not academic concerns. Throughout his life Pope John Paul has always affirmed the sanctity and the dignity of human life. As each chapter of his life has passed he has taught us much already. His personal stand against Nazism, Marxism, Materialism and Eugenics, have been a beacon in a world where life is cheap. Now we wait to read the final chapters. The respect and love which we show him will speak volumes. To try and write those chapters out of the book would be to lose the plot.