Michael Apichella writes about his great, great, great uncle, Leo XIII, a great pope who quite literally confirmed the often patronizing quip: You’re not getting older; you’re getting better.
It’s cliché (and a distinctly patronising one), to say: You aren’t getting older; you’re getting better. But there’s more than a little truth about it. As the writer of the book of Job asks: “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job: 12:12)
Growing old is difficult, and it’s misguided to idealize it by assuming old age always yields wisdom. But by the same token, old age mustn’t be seen intrinsically as a period of barrenness and decline.
After all, like some wines that improve with age, not only do God’s servants gain wisdom over time, but often it isn’t until they’re downright elderly that they may reach their greatest achievements – think of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and others – including Cardinal Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci.
Pecci was 68 years old when he became Pope Leo XIII in 1878. Given his advanced age and frail health, many assumed he would be a stopgap pope until a younger man could be put in place. Instead, he became the oldest pope in Church history and enjoyed the third-longest period in office. During those years, he established himself as a tireless reformer up to his death at age 93.
In Protestant England, Leo XIII is best remembered for astutely appointing the 78-year-old priest-theologian-poet, John Henry Newman, as a cardinal in 1878. Newman’s Cardinalate won wide approval in Britain and helped to lessen lingering anti-Catholic feelings.
London’s strongly establishment Financial Times has suggested that Newman was Britain’s leading religious thinker and writer of the last two centuries. No small praise, considering that Britain has produced numerous intellectual giants in modern times. But also to the point, putting Newman forward was a neat piece of international diplomacy on the part of sage old Leo XIII.
Michael Apichella, PhD, is professor emeritus (English) with the University of Maryland, University College, Europe. He has written many books and articles, and is a great, great, great nephew of Leo XIII.