“We trivialize the elderly and aging if we assume that elderly persons are no longer moral subjects called to do good in the world, called to make a contribution by being a gift for others. Thus, despite what our society often suggests, retirement and old age are not principally a time of leisure, freedom and well-earned self-absorption, but a distinct stage in a life of discipleship in which we continue to be called to live for others.”
Paul Wadell’s 2011 article in The Christian Century poses a provocative question: what would happen if we considered the elderly as being called? And not just called to a life of leisure in their later years, but called to share their gifts, wisdom, service and experience with younger generations.
Christians believe baptism is an initiation into a lifelong relationship with God and the community of the church. Once we have made our baptismal vows, we are called to follow Christ no matter our age or ability.
But Wadell’s perspective on the vocation of the elderly challenges common underlying assumptions about vocation: that vocation is primarily about paid or professional work, or that vocation is mostly a concern for young adults starting out in their careers or relationships. Theology of vocation asserts that all humans are called by their Creator. By its nature this relationship of call and response continues throughout the length of our lifetime.
This week the Seminar on Vocation Across the Lifespan is meeting at the Collegeville Institute to explore vocation in the elder years. Among the questions we will take up in relation to calling and the elderly include:
- What are the central theological issues facing the elderly, their families and friends, and communities?
- How is God experienced in relation to aging and loss?
- What enhances or diminishes a sense of vocation for elders?
- What are the joys and opportunities for service in this final stage in life?
- What roles do suffering and death play in our callings?
The question of God’s calling for the elderly concerns all of us—not only those who are in their elder years or who care for aging relatives and neighbors. What we claim about vocation must be consistent across the lifespan, from childhood through old age. Otherwise our theologies of vocation fall short of the fullness of human experience.
In our Seminar’s work on vocation across the lifespan, such “test cases” have proven interesting challenges for developing a coherent theology of God’s call. What about young children who cannot yet narrate a clear understanding of their relationship with God? What about Alzheimer’s patients whose ability to communicate deteriorates as their condition worsens?
God’s loving call for each person, created for relationship with the Creator in whose image we are made, is not limited by the extent to which we can respond. And yet vocation is undeniably shaped by the contours and constraints of each stage of life’s transitions as well.
The ways in which vocation evolves, remains consistent, or completely changes in the elder years will be the topic of our Seminar’s conversation over the next three days. What questions do you have about calling and the elderly? How have older adults in your life shaped your vision of what God may be calling you to be and do in your own elder years?