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from issue no. 03 - 2007

A landmark reached in the fullness of his strength

by Cardinal Jorge María Mejía

For those who have a some familiarity with Holy Scripture, mention of eighty years of life immediately brings to mind the harsh sentence of Psalm 90 (89) verse 10: the prayer of Moses servant of God.
The Hebrew text, as given in the Masoretic version, is very uncertain; and therefore the versions diverge, beginning with the Latin versions themselves. The generic sense is nevertheless clear: the limit of human life that can be hoped is seventy. Eighty would be extraordinary, at least in what is known as the Gallican psalter which the Latin Church has used for so many centuries. Indeed one reads there: «Dies annorum nostrorum septuaginta anni; si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni». And it would be better not to go beyond. «Et amplius eorum labor et dolor». The second version of Saint Jerome, Psalterium iuxta hebraeos, follows the same line: «Dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni, si autem multum octoginta anni et amplius eorum labor et dolor». «Multum», because the limit has been gone beyond and one does not hope to pass beyond.
Whereas the neo-Vulgate chooses a possible different version of the second part of the verse. The “amplius” refers not to the future but the past: «Et maior pars eorum [of the years spent up to eighty] labor et dolor».
Psalm 90 (89) is in itself a meditation on the fragility and on the insubstantiality of the life of man on earth. A theme, as we know, very present in the Bible of the First Testament. It’s enough to quote Psalm 102 (103): «As the grass are the days of man, as the flower of the field, so he blooms»; or Isaiah 40, 6b: «Every man is as the grass and all his glory as a flower of the field». In this context one understands that old age (eighty) is looked at with worry and anguish, both because the future is considered (one version) and because the past, the departed years, is considered (other version).
This is very striking in a prayer attributed to Moses, whose lifespan lasted well beyond eighty, according to Deuteronomy (31, 2): «I today am one hundred and twenty»; and still, in the story of his mysterious death on Mount Nebus (Dt 34, 7): «Moses was one hundred and twenty when he died: the eyes were not dimmed and his vigor had not waned», despite that he himself had said, in the verse quoted above: «I can no longer go and come»; but he was referring to the end of his wanderings: he would not enter the Promised Land. And, always in the Old or First Testament, old age or, as it is often said, the lengthening of days, is a special gift of the Lord and the reward of a good and wise life (cf. for example, Pr 9, 11: «Through me [Wisdom] your days are multiplied, years of life will be added to you», and passim).
Today instead, we are well aware that the hope of life (as it is called) has considerably lengthened. People of eighty and over eighty are no longer an exception. Even the hundred-year-old are no longer an isolated phenomenon. Indeed one can rightly say, and our Venerable Pope Benedict XVI is the proof, that the eightieth year of life can mark, counter to the pessimistic assertion of Psalm 90 (89), a physical and mental maturity and integrity to be envied by many younger people.
Would we perhaps say that for this reason the divine Scripture has been gainsaid and that human life, in this twenty-first century, is less frail and less flimsy than the grass or the flower of the fields? First of all, as we have seen, the Scripture sets before us figures such as Moses (not to mention the antediluvian Patriarchs: Gen 5, 6ff.; and also of the postdiluvian ones, such as Abraham: ibid. 11, 10ff.), who lived long lives in excellent form. But above all it teaches us that one lives and dies, one lives for a long time or one dies early, by the wish and gift of the Lord of life and death. And this both in the one and in the other of the two Testaments that are the basis of our faith. Thus in the New, in the beautiful text of Rm 14, 7-8: «For none of us, in fact, lives to himself and dies to himself, for whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s». And that is true also for a so-called untimely death, according to the saying in Solomon’s Wisdom (4, 7-8): «The just man, even if he dies untimely, shall find rest. Venerable old age is not longevity, nor is counted in the number of years; but the grey-headedness of men is in wisdom; real longevity is a life without stain». Here, in this book of Greek inspiration but at the same time deeply biblical, the length and brevity of the existence are made relative. The horizon is always the supreme divine dominion over our life and our death and what may accompany the one and the other. And here one’s thought goes to the last painful years of the previous Pontiff, John Paul II. His eighty years truly were «labor et dolor».
Benedict XVI with his brother Georg praying at the tomb of their parents and sister Maria in the cemetery of Ziegetsdorf, in Regensberg, 14 September 2006

Benedict XVI with his brother Georg praying at the tomb of their parents and sister Maria in the cemetery of Ziegetsdorf, in Regensberg, 14 September 2006

In relation to the eightieth birthday of Benedict XVI three things seem to me, in the light of the above, worthy of note. The first obviously is the explicit awareness that we owe this celebration wholly to the goodness of the Lord who has in this way granted us to give thanks yet again for his mysterious providence. Pope Benedict reached this landmark in the fullness of his strength, just like Moses in the text of Deuteronomy quoted earlier. Secondly, it must strike us that, in the present time of an increasing presence of the elderly in our western society, as the demographers tell us, it is a man of over eighty who heads our Church and hence to perform in her and before the world this difficult and necessary task. This, too, must be seen and valued as a gift of Divine Providence. And in third place we must be glad and again most thankful that our venerable eighty-year-old gets on with young people and young people get on with him – in the manner of John Paul II in his last years (but in reality always) – much more than young people get on amongst themselves. All this must serve us as alternative criterion when it’s a question of deciding on the benefit or not of keeping to strict age limits for determined social services, such as university chairs, not to mention ecclesial posts, now restricted by age limits ever less determinant.
In this the Scriptures again offer an enduring lesson. The number of the years counts little at bottom. What counts and has point is the «wisdom of the heart». And so we have returned to Psalm 90 (89) which invites us to say this stupendous prayer (v.12): «Dinumerare dies nostros sic doce nos, ut inducamus cor ad sapientiam». And one might gloss: «Dies nostros et aliorum». The rest is very secondary.

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