SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  TITUS 2:1-8, 11-14; LUKE 17:7-10  ]

What is the role of the elderly?   Often they think they are useless.  They think they cannot do much.  In the sunset of their life, they seem to be waiting only for death, languishing away their days, regretting, moaning, lamenting and complaining.  They are insecure, seek unreasonable attention and make demands on others.  When attention is not met, they become interfering in the lives of others, fault finding, judgmental, critical, negative and always pouring cold water on any initiative of the young.   They are imposing in their ways and always discouraging to those who come after them.  Nothing seems to please them in spite of attempts to satisfy their whims and fancies.

Such attitudes are counter-productive.  Instead of aging gracefully and loved, they become a nuisance and often intolerable to those looking after them.   This is not how one should grow old.  This is the advice of St Paul in his letter to Titus.  He wrote, “The older men should be reserved, dignified, moderate, sound in faith and love and constancy.”  Indeed, the elderly must live a dignified life befitting their years of contribution to the family and society, sharing their wisdom and their life experiences.  They must maintain a serenity that commands respect and reverence.  They must have self-respect and continue to be active in life according to their age, mobility and cognitive level.

In this way, the elderly are called to play their role as mentors and sage to the young. Because of their knowledge and experience, they are the ones that the young could turn to for counsel and advice.  Most of all, they could be a source of inspiration to the young.  The elderly are most suitable for this role because knowledge is cumulative.  The older we get, the more knowledge we acquire over time.  Learning takes place beyond the few years of formal education we have, but continues throughout our whole life.  Furthermore, most of us grow in wisdom and understanding through the experiences of life and the mistakes we make.  We learn to become wiser, more realistic, more humane, more understanding and down to earth not through theories, ideologies and book knowledge, but as a result of our life experiences.

Experience and knowledge of course is a double-edged sword.  Many of us, because of our past experiences, seek to impose our experience and views on others, forgetting that the experiences we have are always limited.  No one has a monopoly of experiences.  Often, experiences shape the way we look at life, positive or negative events that we have encountered.  This is where the danger lies.  We can become so narrow-minded and myopic that we see life only through our experiences and dismiss other peoples’ experiences.   So in guiding the young, we must be careful that we are not wet blankets to their plans and dreams.  Our task is to inspire, encourage and enlighten, not to discourage or to destroy.  Most of all, we must never impose our views on the young because their times are different from ours and the challenges are also very different.   What was a help to us might not be to them today.

So what should we impart to the young?  Firstly, we need to help them to be well grounded in the truth.  Truth is not merely doctrines but the wisdom of life experiences.  Truth is not merely academic but existential.  This is what St Paul advises us.  That is why those guiding the young must have sound faith and be grounded in the truth.  Otherwise we mislead the young and cause them greater harm.  We cannot be mentors unless we continue to grow in faith and in the truth.  This calls for a prayerful life and contemplation.  Elders must spend the remaining years of their lives contemplating on their actions and the lessons they could share with the future generation.  Some write their biographies, which is a good thing.

Secondly, we need to guide our young people in prudence.  Young people are passionate but often reckless without weighing carefully the risks involved in the actions they take.  They tend to be compulsive and reactive to situations, often acting and reacting without thinking.  They are not able to see further than the immediate need.  They have yet to learn responsibility, not just for themselves but also for those close to them or under their charge.  At this point of their life, they are searching for their own identity and can think only of themselves.  Hence they still do not understand the meaning of responsibility.  They do not understand the risks and the consequences.   For those who us who have gone through life, we would have been tamed over the years and come to realize that rash decisions can cause irreparable harm.  We come to understand how our actions and words can affect not just our loved ones but the lives of future generations, for better or for worse.

Thirdly, they must teach the young to be sober.  Young people tend to allow their passions and emotions to control them.  They are temperamental and impulsive.  They are unstable and behave like wild horses seeking to be tamed.  A sober man is one who has his mind under control and is able to control his passions and instinct.  He knows that giving in to self-indulgence can destroy his health, his life and his family.  The follies of life are not worth the little pleasures that we get out of them.  A little pleasure but a whole life of misery and pain!  That is the tragic mistake of man.

Yet, in helping the young, we must be patient and understanding.  We must avoid being impatient and judgmental because we only put them off and alienate them.  We should avoid being reprimanding of the young.  We must appreciate that they lack experience in life.  Often they are over confident of themselves and therefore tend to be reckless, stubborn and self-willed.  Reflecting on our own lives; we too had walked that way.  We disregarded the wisdom and advice of our elders and upon looking back we regret.  Well, experience whilst being the best teacher also requires us to pay a high price for learning.   Unfortunately, no one knows something until he experiences it.  We could have saved the school fees, but that is life.  We grow through mistakes and sufferings.  So we must be sympathetic, forgiving, tolerant and accepting of the young when they make mistakes or insist on going their own ways.  We do not try to control their lives because they need to grow.  Giving them freedom and respect for their decisions is the way to earn respect from them.  The worst thing is to become resentful of them and their ways.

In the final analysis, the best way of mentoring is not by teaching but by living.  We teach best by our life rather than words.  St Paul reminded Titus that if his teaching were to be effective, he must walk the talk.  Our duty is to teach not just doctrines and truth but to live them in our very life if we are to be truly convincing.  There is nothing like a living book and a living example of love and compassion.  That is why as elders we must, as St Paul urges us, conduct ourselves well so that we can be an inspiration and example to others.  We must show ourselves to be people in control of ourselves and wise in our words and actions.  If we are to help the young to exercise self-discipline, then we must show that we are in mastery of our moods, words and temper.

If we show ourselves to be sincere in what we do and in seeking to help them, they will be more docile and receptive to our advice.   This is what St Paul wrote, “In everything you do make yourself an example to them in your sincerity and earnestness and in keeping all that you say so wholesome that nobody will be at a loss, with no accusation to make against us.”  If we help them without selfish motives, we will avoid the temptations of imposing our views on them.  Often young people distrust their elders because they think that they are self-serving; that their interests are not with them.  They will trust us more and be grateful to us for our advice if we give them without conditions and expectations, even of acceptance.   By inviting them to live a just life, they will find salvation for themselves and peace in their lives.

Let us teach and show everyone that we are merely servants of God.  We are not here to proclaim our ideas or ourselves.   We are here to be servants of the gospel.   We take care of others, especially the young so that they too can be servants of God and find meaning and purpose.  We have no claims on them, only God alone does.

Let Jesus ultimately be our only mentor.  There is only one teacher and that is the Christ.  St Paul wrote, “You see, God’s grace has been revealed, and it had made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.”  Jesus showed Himself to be a mentor in life and in death.  St Paul said, “He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”   This is the kind of mentorship that we need today.  We need mentors who are ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of others by having no ambition of their own except to do good and give hope and life to others.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore