Bishop: Wisdom, Be Attentive!
by Diocese of Des Moines | January 17, 2020
I chuckled when I called Bishop Emeritus Richard Pates to seek his counsel about a pastoral situation, only to find out that it was being announced that very day that he was appointed the interim apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Joliet in the wake of their bishop’s leave of absence for health reasons. So much for retirement—a whole three months—especially after serving for over 17 months post-retirement age as administrator of our own Des Moines diocese!
I’m prompted to think of Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel: “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me when I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’ ” (17:7-8). In numerous other passages, Jesus commends faithful servants who are entitled to enter into their rest, but here he seems to suggest that there is an enduring nature to our discipleship that carries through every hour, every season of our lives.
Our vocations unfold and take shape in different forms, but never are we entitled to check out or say, “I’ve done my share; it is enough.” Only God in Christ is entitled to declare, “It is accomplished.” We are asked to be perpetually at the disposal of the Lord, seeking his face as did Simeon and Anna in the temple, and then poised to render whatever sort of service is asked of us. This service may be as simple as identifying where God is among us, or reflecting his light to others while they care for us; it may involve offering a word of wisdom and a blessing over those whom God has entrusted to our care as grandparents and retired priest pastors are privileged to do. And as many grandparents and retirees know, often they find themselves busier than ever.
From my three years as assisting priest at one of our state’s larger care centers, and for nine years ministering to aging BVM sisters (Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary), I came to both reverence and receive so much from the seniors with whom I was privileged to hear their life stories, to anoint them, and to be moved by how they bore their crosses to the end. For all of us, to the extent that we can muster words or let loose sighs and groans from the core of our hearts, we know that we are called to pray constantly, remaining firm in hope God is still at work for us, through us. Our call endures no matter how limited we might feel on account of age, energy level, or infirmity—though, as far as I can tell, in this regard the Energizer Bunny who is Bishop Pates has yet to encounter his limits!
The call to “wear our apron” and serve others when we have already labored long and hard is not a heavy yoke imposed by Christ. It is good news to realize that God has a purpose for us at every moment of our lives. And it is incumbent upon the larger Body of Christ to recognize the reservoir of wisdom represented in those who combine experience, living faith, and graced insights into what matters most in life. Pope Francis, in Christus Vivit/Christ is Alive!, speaks specifically to young people: “The Bible never ceases to insist that profound respect be shown to the elderly, since they have a wealth of experience; they have known success and failure, life’s joys and afflictions, its dreams and disappointments. In the silence of their heart, they have a store of experiences that can teach us not to make mistakes or be taken in by false promises.”
Further, the Holy Father cautions, “It is unhelpful to buy into the cult of youth or foolishly to dismiss others simply because they are older or from another generation. Jesus tells us that the wise are able to bring forth from their store things both new and old (cf. Mt 13:52). A wise young person is open to the future, yet still capable of learning something from the experience of others” (CV n. 16).
Our Eastern friends in the Divine Liturgy enjoin us: “Wisdom: Be attentive!” Our attention to seniors not only accesses wisdom from above and below, but refines our appreciation for people in all walks of life so that we might glimpse beauty in their steadfast fidelity to their vocation. Again, Pope Francis: “Realize that there is beauty in the laborer who returns home grimy and unkempt, but with the joy of having earned food for his family. There is extraordinary beauty in the fellowship of a family at table, generously sharing what food it has. There is beauty in the wife, slightly disheveled and no longer young, who continues to care for her sick husband despite her own failing health. Long after the springtime of their courtship has passed, there is beauty in the fidelity of those couples who still love one another in the autumn of life, those elderly people who still hold hands as they walk” (CV n. 183).
Bishop Pates continues to take up the cup of salvation in serving as interim shepherd of the Diocese of Joliet. May he and all who continue to pour themselves out well past retirement age ultimately experience the beautiful reversal Jesus anticipates—again in Luke’s Gospel (12:37-38): “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.”