“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty if we are strong, and most of them are fruitless toil, for they pass quickly and we drift away.” (Ps 90:10)
These words of the Bible have certainly been on my mind recently, for having just celebrated my 70th birthday on April 1st, I’ve now reached the “sum of my years.”
Saint John Paul II used the same words in his “Letter to the Elderly” (1999).
There our Holy Father wrote: “Seventy years was an advanced age when the Psalmist wrote these words, and few people lived beyond it. Nowadays, thanks to medical progress and improved social and economic conditions, life expectancy has increased significantly in many parts of the world. Still, it remains true that the years pass quickly, and the gift of life, for all the effort and pain it involves, is too beautiful and precious for us ever to grow tired of it.”
By nature, I’m an introverted, introspective person, and I spend a fair amount of time alone, thinking about things. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to turn 70, to have this milestone birthday. First, I’ve found, there are some very practical consequences.
For example, I’m taking lots of pills now, so many I’ve joked that I barely need to eat anything else. But the meds seem to be working and, thank God, I’m in pretty good health.
But in case my pills should fail me, I’m also in the process of updating my will. The beginning of a new decade seems like a good time to do that. After all, as time goes on, circumstances and relationships change.
And now that I’ve turned 70 I have to start drawing down from a personal IRA. It seems funny to start collecting on my retirement funds when I still have several years before I can retire.
And speaking of retirements, most of my high school classmates have now retired, and some of my priest classmates in Pittsburgh are in the process of retiring since they too have turned 70. I’ve thought about that – what would I do if I were still a parish priest in Pittsburgh? Would I retire or labor on, and if I retired, where would I go and what would I do?
On this birthday I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom and some of the struggles, large and small, she had in her later years. I remember her complaining about several irritating challenges as she grew older. (“I’m not complaining, just commenting,” she always insisted.) Her daily struggles? Restaurants that served large portions and were too expensive; teenagers who worked at checkout counters speaking too fast; and how hard it was trying to open packages, boxes and bottles of meds.
Yep, I’ve noticed all of these things now too, and I’m sure that Mom, from the recliner in her heavenly home, is enjoying my predicament and getting her vicarious revenge. Okay Mom, you win – but really, I’m not complaining, just commenting!
It seems that growing older is all about gaining and losing: gaining weight, but losing hair; gaining insight, but losing eyesight; gaining knowledge, but losing memory; and gaining experience, but losing excitement.
Things certainly do change over the years, don’t they? I was in a discussion with some of our seminarians and priests recently when this topic came up. We talked about how communication and technology have developed so much, so quickly. The seminarians have never experienced a record player, a manual typewriter, carbon paper, or a rotary phone. And there were only two of us who knew what a slide rule was!
Over the years I’ve learned a few more serious things too.
First, I’ve gained a sense of patience and perspective. I’ve learned that I can’t solve every problem, meet every need, or make everyone happy. And I’ve discovered that not every problem is as serious as it seems at the moment, and that a sense of humor goes a long way in maintaining my sanity.
Second, I’ve learned that human relationships are fragile. Parents die, families fight, neighbors move, and friendships fail. You’ve heard the expression, “You want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” It’s true for bishops too. And so I did – get a dog. Twice. And I’ve found consolation in this saying: “When any relationship ends, you should say, peacefully, we’re better for having met, and no worse for having parted.”
And finally, I’ve come to realize, more clearly than ever, how good God is. He created me, placed me in a peaceful home with wonderful parents, and provided me with the best blessings this world has to offer. He called me to be his priest and bishop, a wonderful vocation I didn’t deserve and have failed in many serious ways, but a vocation that has given me so much joy and fulfillment. And I’m pretty confident, that when he finally calls me home, he’ll be kind to me then, too.
At the end of his letter to the elderly, Pope John Paul said, “I encourage each of you to live with serenity the years that the Lord has granted you . . . Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. And it is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God.”
To which I only add, Amen!