Franciscan Formation – Inspirations (Part 18)
“For the friar, old age and illness can become a privileged moment of communion with the Lord, the Church and with his brothers. It can be an opportunity to experience the purification of one’s memories and one’s heart”.
When I was studying theology at our Conventual Franciscan seminary, I chose an elderly religious as my spiritual director. He was wise and accepting, full of joy and simplicity. Instead of being a director or leader, he was incredibly easy-going. Although he was more than eighty years old, he was still very active pastorally. He had extensive experience in evangelization and itinerant preaching. Despite his outward involvement in various ministries, I sensed he was deeply connected with God and the Church. I enjoyed visiting him; I went to our meetings without fear and never felt judged by him. There in his cell, I experienced his wisdom. He would often say, at the beginning or the end of our meetings, “I encourage you to live a long life, Pietro.” I once asked him precisely about this, because, after all, how long I lived depended more on the Giver of Life than it did on me. He explained that he was encouraging me to be well-prepared for old age, because it is a particular gift I may receive from the Lord and it is worth living well.
It is difficult to define what old age is or determine precisely when it begins. Conventional wisdom holds that old age begins at sixty-five. However, the onset of old age depends on a number of factors, such as physical and mental health, genetic make-up, living conditions, lifestyle, social roles, and occupational activity. What we can be sure of, though, is that many of us are likely to suddenly realize we have entered this final stage of life.
According to the World Health Organization, there are three stages of old age that come after middle age (45-59). These are early old age (60-74), middle old age (75-89) and longevity (late old age). Already in middle age, one may notice a slow decline in psychophysical condition, a decrease in muscle mass, increased susceptibility to various infections, reduced intellectual abilities, hormonal changes, and worsening visual and auditory impairments. Men experience the characteristic symptoms of andropause. The process of extinction of various functions intensifies in the later stages. The experience of the death of loved ones, friends and significant others also grows during this period. One increasingly thinks about one’s own passing.
To age well, we must undoubtedly start taking care of ourselves early. After all, aging is a process that we experience with every passing moment. What we need, however, is to know more about old age and to change certain habits. In terms of learning more, there are many publications currently being published in the field of gerontology. On the other hand, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea, during some phases of our formation, to further study issues related to aging—how it relates to our elderly friars and how to go through old age in our religious life. Another issue linked to our self-formation is our changing certain habits. Habits become second nature to us and are difficult to change in old age. Here are some points that may help you acquire the right habits in old age:
- Learn to express respect for others: through your behavior and how you express yourself—especially when you do not have the desire, strength or mood to do so. A senior friar who is kind, friendly and has a good word for young and old alike is undoubtedly highly appreciated and sought after by the community and by people outside of the community.
- Pay attention to your personal hygiene, namely, the cleanliness of your clothes, body, room and office. In old age, not all spots are seen and not all odors can be smelled. Good habits in this area will help others enjoy being in your company.
- Nurture the bonds between you and your confreres and friends. You already do this when you care for others—in the Order, in your Province, in your friary, in your family, and in your relationships with the people among whom you live and carry out your ministry. These people will also need your witness on how to live old age.
- Nurture serenity in your spirit. See the blessings around you! It is not good to focus only on the problems of the world, of the Order, of others and yourself. This generates a spirit of judgment, complaint and dissatisfaction. It’s worth observing that you are surrounded by many little beautiful moments, wonderful things, charming places and good people. These are gifts that the Lord God gives you. In response you should bless Him for all this. We need the presence of senior Conventual Franciscans who are full of peace and joy.
- Calmly accept changes of office or position and their associated functions. It is better to pray for and support your successors. Allow them to make changes and also experience their own mistakes.
- Be a discreet mentor. Others are often disturbed when you go about promoting your own experiences and reflections or trying to manage people. A friar’s inner wisdom is visible on the outside. The wisdom you cultivate in yourself will attract those who need spiritual guidance.
- Cultivate patience in illness. Let yourself be served, trust your caregivers and be helpful and kind to others who are sick and suffering.
- Nurture your formation, that is, your personal relationship and close connection with God. When your self-formation is “clothed” in the Franciscan habit, you will develop into a friar who is a model of religious life for others. Such a senior is mourned by many friars at the time of his death, and even after his passing, his life continues to have an impact as a model and example.
Perhaps at the heart of these recommendations is the idea that we should practice asceticism, because it often requires that we renounce what is harmful and commit ourselves to what helps us and our development. In contemporary terms, this means following certain practices in the physical sphere, such as exercise, healthy diet, adequate rest, regular medical and dental examinations and treatment, etc. It also involves practices in the intellectual sphere, for example, attending formation courses or reading a good book. It involves practices in the mental sphere, such as caring for your emotional development, balancing your life correctly, working on your resources and deficits, seeing a therapist, etc. Finally, it involves practices in the spiritual sphere, such as prayer, community life, retreats, and taking on spiritual and pastoral challenges. These different spheres in our lives are closely connected and interact with one another, because they are integral to who we are as individuals. I would add that asceticism often involves practical fasting, such as making an effort to engage in some new activity or giving up various overindulgences, like eating too much, spending too much time in front of the TV or on the Internet, etc.
There are probably other practices we can cultivate to help us live our old age well as Conventual Franciscans. In all of this, we should practice a sensible lifestyle, one that is not burdensome to our community or our ministry. The length of our lives and how we are eventually affected by old age do not depend entirely on us; therefore, we should certainly be prepared to cooperate with the Lord in this matter.
We recall that St. Francis treated his body very roughly; such was the spirituality of that era. His dying and death took place in the late Middle Ages. Towards the end of his life, he apologized to his body for the harsh way he had treated “brother ass” and encouraged his followers to treat their bodies as they would a brother who needed to be cared for properly.
Asceticism in the Franciscan sense is not so much about staying physically fit or chasing the illusion of eternal youth. It is more about living in a certain way so as to continue proclaiming the Kingdom of God as long and as well as possible. In this way, despite the effects of aging upon our bodies, we can still experience youth within us, because we are constantly open to eternity. I asked a senior friar what was the most important element of living his old age well as a Conventual Franciscan. He replied that it was feeling that, despite his imperfections, he was still the Lord’s fit instrument in the hands of the Immaculata, as expressed in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Act of Consecration to the Immaculata.
Our spirituality as “penitents of Assisi” is ideal for helping us make the appropriate changes we need to make in our lives, to be the kind of senior friars who will peacefully and joyfully welcome Sister Death as she ushers us into eternity with the Lord. So the questions we need to ask ourselves remain relevant: “What would I like to be, how would I like to behave, and how would I like to function in my old age as a Conventual Franciscan?”
Friar Piotr STANISŁAWCZYK
General Delegate for Formation
 Order of Friars Minor Conventual, Franciscan Discipleship. Ratio studiorum, Rome 2022, no. 165, https://www.ofmconv.net/download/discepolato-francesc-ratio-stud-2022/?wpdmdl=51910&refresh=64a5a6fa64a5e1688577786, November 7, 2023.
 Cf. Bernadeta Łacheta, Zrozumienie starości, http://bc.upjp2.edu.pl/Content/2397/lacheta.pdf, November 8, 2023.
 Cf. Mariola Świderska, Obawy związane ze starością̨, https://bazhum.muzhp.pl/media/files/Pedagogika_Rodziny/Pedagogika_Rodziny-r2015-t5-n3/Pedagogika_Rodziny-r2015-t5-n3-s137-150/Pedagogika_Rodziny-r2015-t5-n3-s137-150.pdf, November 10, 2023; Wikipedia, Andropauza, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andropauza, November 10, 2023; Halina Zielińska-Więczkowska, Kornelia Kędziora-Kornatowska, Tomasz Kornatowski, Starość jako wyzwanie, https://gerontologia.org.pl/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2008-03-3.pdf, November 9, 2023.
 Cf. 2 Cel 129. 201-211; FF 713. 789-800.
 Cf. Jan Paweł II, Do moich braci i sióstr – ludzi w podeszłym wieku. List Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II do osób w podeszłym wieku, October 1, 1999, nr 12, https://opoka.org.pl/biblioteka/W/WP/jan_pawel_ii/listy/do_starszych_01101999.html, November 9, 2023.