Some of Our Life’s Best Work Can Come in Our Later Years
My trip to Italy to meet Pope Francis and the lesson learned.September 2nd, 2022
By Jim Towey
I was in Rome and Vatican City Wednesday. I presented my book on Mother Teresa of Calcutta to Pope Francis, and while my Spanish seemed to buckle under the pressure of the moment as I stumbled through my explanation of my work and the love my family has for him, he seemed genuinely appreciative that a portrayal of this great woman was coming out Tuesday (and it will be published in Spanish, Italian and other languages in 2023). It principally recounts the fecundity of the last 12 years of Mother Teresa’s life, from ages 75-87.
While in Rome, I attended a press conference presided over by the Pope’s spokesperson, Dr. Paolo Ruffini; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston; and Patrick Kelly, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. They announced the premiere of a new documentary on Mother Teresa written and directed by the talented David Naglieri that will appear on over 1,000 screens in U.S. theaters on October 3-4. The movie was later previewed in the historic (and un-air conditioned) Filmoteca San Carlo, which is inside the Vatican compound and a stone’s throw from Saint Peter’s Basilica’s back door. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of Boston and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rei, the dean of the College of Cardinals, were among the notables who got a preview this week of this spectacular film.
No Greater Love
The film, No Greater Love, not only tells Mother’s story but also displays the current work of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) on five continents, in places no one but the poorest of the poor live, such as the slums captured onscreen in Brazil, Haiti, Calcutta, the Bronx, Tijuana, and the Philippines. I wrote a piece that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal that describes what her MCs are doing throughout the world today, often at the risk of their own lives. These women (and men who are MC priests or brothers) give their all for others.
I stood before one such generous soul on Wednesday when I faced Pope Francis. He is now wheelchair-bound. You could see that his knee was tormenting him every time he moved it, and sitting for long periods didn’t help. He needed assistance to stand. And yet, his smile was like that of a child, and his mind as clear as a youth’s. He is 85 going on 20!
Appreciating the elderly
On the previous day, I saw the work of another octogenarian: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the great artist, sculptor, architect, and visionary. I made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint Sebastian, a church on the outskirts of Rome that stands in honor of the 3rd century soldier who is the patron of soldiers and athletes, and the go-to saint for plagues (after Covid, why not?). I went there in honor of my deceased grandson Sebastian. I wanted to bring my other grandsons Patrick (and his soon-to-be-born brother) a figurine depicting the saint’s death by a firing squad of archers (Saint Sebastian is their patron, too). While in the Basilica, I saw near the entrance, heavily protected, a bust sculpted by Bernini of Jesus Christ entitled, Salvator mundi. He completed this masterpiece at age 82 and then died a year later. His own son wrote of this sculpture, “In it was summarized and encapsulated all his art.”
In the 21st century world in which we live, our elders often are depicted as having nothing further to offer. This falsehood owes to our failure to appreciate the value of wisdom, insight, historical perspective, life balance, and many other gifts that attend old age. In truth, you don’t have to be a pope or master artist to live a fruitful life in your 80’s. That fact is lived out by countless grandmothers and fathers, and greats, and others.
As Mother Teresa, Pope Francis and Bernini demonstrate through their seniority, sometimes our best work, our most impactful work, can come at the end!