Thinking New – Faithfulness in Old Age and Respect for Faith

A biblical character – and old man – named Eleazar lived during the time of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. He’s a wonderful character. His character gives us testimony to the special relationship that exists between the fidelity of old age and the honor of faith. He’s proud, huh? I would like to speak precisely of the honor of the faith, not only of the consistency, the proclamation and the resistance of the faith. The honor of the faith periodically comes under pressure, even violent pressure, from the culture of the rulers, who seek to debase it by treating it as an archaeological find, or an old superstition, an anachronistic fetish, etc.

The biblical story relates the episode of the Jews forced by decree of a king to eat meat sacrificed to idols. When it’s the turn of Eleazar, an old man much respected by all, in his nineties; highly respected by all – an authority – the king’s officers advised him to pretend, that is to say to pretend to eat the meat without actually doing so. Hypocrisy. Religious hypocrisy. There are so many ! There is so much religious hypocrisy, clerical hypocrisy, there is so much. These people tell him: “Be a little hypocritical, no one will notice. In this way Eleazar would be saved, and – they said – in the name of friendship, he would accept their gesture of compassion and affection. A hypocritical outing. After all, they insist, it was a small gesture, pretending to eat but not eating, an insignificant gesture. It’s a small thing, but Eleazar’s calm and firm answer rests on an argument that strikes us. The central point is this: to dishonor the faith in old age, to gain a few days, cannot be compared to the heritage it must leave to the young, for entire generations to come. But congratulations Eleazar! An old man who lived his whole life in the consistency of his faith, and who now adapts to pretending to repudiate it, condemns the new generation to think that all faith has been a sham, a shell that can be abandoned . , imagining that it can be kept indoors. And it is not, says Eleazar. Such behavior does not honor faith, not even before God. And the effect of this external trivialization will be devastating for the inner life of young people. But the constancy of this man who considers young people! He thinks of his future inheritance, he thinks of his people.

It is precisely old age – and it is beautiful for all of you old people, isn’t it! – which appears here as the decisive place, the irreplaceable place of this testimony. An elderly person who, because of his vulnerability, accepts that the practice of faith is irrelevant, would lead young people to believe that faith has no real relationship to life. It would appear to them, from the outset, as a set of behaviors which, if necessary, can be faked or concealed, because none of them is particularly important for life. [. . . ]It is perhaps up to us the elders to restore the faith to its honor, to make it consistent, which is the testimony of Eleazar: consistency to the end. The practice of faith is not the symbol of our weakness, no, but rather the sign of its strength. We are no longer young. We weren’t kidding when we got in the way of the Lord!

Faith deserves respect and honor to the end: it has changed our lives, it has purified our minds, it has taught us the worship of God and the love of neighbour. It is a blessing for all! But faith as a whole, not just a part of it. Like Eleazar, we will not trade our faith for a handful of quiet days. [. . .] Dear elderly brothers and sisters – not to say old, we are in the same group – please look at the young people: they are looking at us. They are watching us. Don’t forget that. I remember this marvelous post-war film: The children are watching us. We can say the same thing with young people: young people look at us and our constancy can open up a beautiful path for them in life. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, will do much harm. Let’s pray for each other. God bless us all, the elderly.

(General Audience, Rome, May 4).

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