Although the practice of faith is often under pressure from those “who seek to debase it by treating it as an archaeological find, or an old superstition, an anachronistic fetish”, believing is not merely for the elderly, Pope Francis said at the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 4 May. Continuing his series of catecheses on the value of old age, the Holy Father spoke about the Biblical figure of the elderly Eleazar, describing him as an example of consistency against the temptation of hypocrisy and a witness who can inspire young people. The Pope encouraged elderly people to imitate Eleazar in resisting the temptation to trivialize outward expressions of faith. The following is a translation of the Pope’s catechesis which he shared in Italian with the faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Square.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On the path of these catecheses on old age, today we meet a biblical figure — an old man — named Eleazar, who lived at the time of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. He is a wonderful character. His character gives us a testimony of the special relationship that exists between the fidelity of old age and the honour of faith. He is a proud one! I would like to speak precisely about the honour of faith, not only about faith’s consistency, proclamation, and resistance. The honour of 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, and so on.
The biblical story — we have heard a short passage of it, but it is good to read it all — tells of the episode of the Jews being forced by a king’s decree to eat meat sacrificed to idols. When it is the turn of Eleazar, an elderly man in his 90s who was highly respected by everyone — a person of authority — the king’s officials advise him to fake it, that is, to pretend to eat the meat without actually doing so. Religious hypocrisy. There is so much religious hypocrisy, clerical hypocrisy. These people tell him, “Be a bit of a hypocrite, 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. After all, they insisted, it was a small gesture, pretending to eat but not eating, an insignificant gesture.
It is a small thing, but Eleazar’s calm and firm response is based on an argument that strikes us. The central point is this: dishonouring the faith in old age, in order to gain a handful of days, cannot be compared with the legacy it must leave to the young, for entire generations to come. But well-done Eleazar! An old man who has lived in the coherence of his faith for a whole lifetime, and who now adapts himself to feigning repudiation of it, condemns the new generation to thinking that the whole faith has been a sham, an outer covering that can be abandoned, thinking that it can be preserved interiorly. And it is not so, says Eleazar. Such behaviour does not honour faith, not even before God. And the effect of this external trivialization will be devastating for the inner life of young people. The consistency of this man who considers the young, considers his future legacy, thinks of his people.
It is precisely old age — and this is beautiful for old people — that appears here as the decisive place, the irreplaceable place for this testimony. An elderly person who, because of his vulnerability, accepts that the practice of the faith is irrelevant, would make young people believe that faith has no real relationship with life. From the outset, it would appear to them as a set of behaviours which, if necessary, can be faked or concealed, because none of them is particularly important for life.
The ancient heterodox “gnosis,” which was a very powerful and very seductive trap for early Christianity, theorised precisely about this, this is an old thing: that faith is a spirituality, not a practice; a strength of the mind, not a form of life. Faithfulness and the honour of faith, according to this heresy, have nothing to do with the behaviours of life, the institutions of the community, the symbols of the body. The seduction of this perspective is strong, because it interprets, in its own way, an indisputable truth: that faith can never be reduced to a set of dietary rules or social practices. Faith is something else. The trouble is that Gnostic radicalisation of this truth nullifies the realism of the Christian faith, because the Christian faith is realistic. Christian faith is not just saying the Creed: it is thinking the Creed, it is understanding the Creed, it is doing the Creed. Working with our hands. Instead, this gnostic proposal is to pretend. The important thing is that you have spirituality, and then you can do whatever you please. And this is not Christian. It is the first heresy of the gnostics, which is very fashionable at the moment, in so many centres of spirituality and so on. It makes void the witness of this people, which shows the concrete signs of God in the life of the community and resists the perversions of the mind through the gestures of the body.
The gnostic temptation, which is one of the — let us use the word — heresies, one of the religious deviations of this time; the gnostic temptation remains ever present. In many trends in our society and culture, the practice of faith suffers from a negative portrayal, sometimes in the form of cultural irony, sometimes with covert marginalization. The practice of faith for these gnostics, who were already around at the time of Jesus, is regarded as a useless and even harmful externality, as an antiquated residue, as a disguised superstition. In short, something for old people. The pressure that this indiscriminate criticism exerts on the younger generations is strong. Of course, we know that the practice of faith can become a soulless external practice — this is the other danger, the opposite — but in itself it is not at all so. Perhaps this very important mission is precisely up to us, older people: to give faith back its honour, to make it coherent, which is the witness of Eleazar: consistency to the very end. The practice of faith is not the symbol of our weakness, no, but rather the sign of its strength. We are no longer youngsters. We were not kidding around when we set out on the Lord’s path!
Faith deserves respect and honour to the very end: it has changed our lives, it has purified our minds, it has taught us the worship of God and love of our neighbour. It is a blessing for all! But the faith as a whole, not just a part of it. We will not barter our faith for a handful of quiet days, but will do as Eleazar, consistent to the very end, to martyrdom. We will show, in all humility and firmness, precisely in our old age, that believing is not something “for the old”, but a matter of life. Believing in the Holy Spirit, who makes all things new, and he will gladly help us.
Dear elderly brothers and sisters — not to say old, we are in the same group — please look to young people: they are watching us. They are watching us. Do not forget that. I am reminded of that wonderful post-war film: The Children Are Watching Us. We can say the same thing about young people: young people are watching us and our consistency can open up a beautiful path of life for them. Potential hypocrisy, on the other hand, will do great harm. Let us pray for one another. May God bless all of us old people.
I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially those from England, Norway, Canada and the United States of America. I also welcome the members of the various ecumenical and interreligious groups present. In the joy of the Risen Christ I invoke upon you and your families the loving mercy of God our Father. May the Lord bless you!
Lastly, as usual, my thoughts turn to the elderly, to the sick, to young people and to newlyweds. At the beginning of this Marian month, I invite everyone to worship the Mother of Jesus with filial trust. Look to her as a teacher of prayer and spiritual life.
I will greet you later. Unfortunately, I will not be able to walk among you because of the pain in my knee. And I apologize for having to greet you while seated but it is a temporary thing. I hope it will soon pass and I will be able to come among you in other Audiences. I offer my blessing to all of you.