Sunday 23 July is the Third World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. The theme this year is “His mercy is from age to age,” from the Gospel of Luke (1:50).
The Diocesan Comms Team sat down with Bishop Owen Dolan, the oldest priest in the country, to talk about his experiences of growing older and his reflections on the theme for this year’s celebration.
How would you describe your experience of growing older?
It’s been a good, happy, life-giving experience. I have no regrets about it, although I can’t understand that I’m now the oldest priest in New Zealand – with the death of Fr Thomas Keys in Invercargill I’ve taken over that role, so they tell me!
One thing that strikes me about growing older is that there’s nobody to talk to about a whole set of things from the past now, because they have all died. All my classmates from the seminary have died … Monsignor John Card was a particular friend, and in the last few years we were able to have quite humorous conversations, and wise conversations too, of experiences that we’d shared – and there was nobody else that knew those things. Apart from all of that, my experience of growing older has been a happy one, a peaceful one – no distressing things at all.
How do you view the changes that have taken place in the Church over the years?
The church has changed very, very much over the years. I was ordained in 1954: that’s getting on for 70 years ago. And I think we all know that there have been some massive changes in church policy – not in truths and teachings, of course, but in outlooks and policies and whatnot. And from my point of view, that’s all been a very positive thing.
I think what has helped me immensely is the years that I spent living and working in a completely different culture and area of the church. I spent 5 years in Latin America in the 1970’s. Latin America makes up 40% of the Catholic Church, which means that how they think, what they say, what their values are, are worth listening to because they make up such a large portion of the church that I belong to. So that was a very, very valuable experience. I learned a lot about church, and I guess my attitudes to things were very much influenced by those years.
I’d like to think that I have more or less kept up with the changing attitudes within the church. I’ve been listening to and influenced by John Paul II, Vatican II, Pope Benedict, but especially by Pope Francis. I have, I suppose, a little bit of bias because he’s also from Latin America. I’m very much in accord, I’d like to think, with the policies, documents, and attitudes that we’ve been hearing about so much in the last few years. That’s certainly influenced me. I’m carried along by that very much, and I feel in touch with everything that Francis is saying and doing.
Do you have any advice for young people living in today’s society?
Probably nothing original! But I certainly think young people should listen: listen, learn, and seek understanding from the Church’s point of view. Society’s attitudes and values have changed so much since I was young, and because today’s young people live in this society, of course they’re going to be influenced by it. I remember not long after he was made Pope, Francis went to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he was encouraging the young people there to find out as much about our Lord as possible and imitate Him, and to read the gospel. And he said there are two bits of the gospels that you’ve just got to know about. You’ll find them in Matthew 5 and Matthew 25. That would be my message to young people too.
What are your thoughts on the theme for Grandparents Day 2023, “His mercy is from age to age”?
Sin was easy to commit in a former era, and mortal sin very much, and I don’t think we had anything like the attitude to the mercy of God that we’ve been getting in more recent times – especially from Francis. When I was a young priest, we went flat out on a Friday and Saturday night hearing confessions – we had a very clear feeling about sin and guilt, and sort of ‘offloading’ things every week so that you could be at Holy Communion on Sunday. I would look upon that now as not being a healthy attitude at all.
That idea of God’s mercy is very, very much a part of my faith thinking in this era. Mercy, and intergenerational relationships – so that idea of listening to everybody, particularly young people. I will listen, and I will certainly learn if I listen to young people. I will have to learn to roll, and I’m hoping and trying to do so, with perhaps a different lifestyle that young people live now from the lifestyle that I grew up with. That’s something I would certainly support from Pope Francis, about the mercy of God.
I certainly believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in everything we say and do – not just for bishops or priests, but it’s our baptism that allows the Holy Spirit to work through us. So I think it’s terribly important that we listen to everybody. I will listen to you, because the Holy Spirit is present in you because of your baptism. It’s not because of my ordination as a priest or a Bishop, but essentially because I’m baptised that I have this faith, and I have hope, and I have charity. All of which of course I have to work at, but I’m assisted very much by the fact that everybody around me in the Catholic faith has got that.
When I was a young curate in Petone in the 50s, I ran a Catholic youth movement. Last week, I was in the Hutt Valley and visited four people – now grandparents, two of them great-grandparents – who were kids in my youth movement. Now they have a lifetime of experience, and so I would be wise to listen and learn from them.
Why do you think it’s important for the elderly to spend time with young people?
Those grandparents that I was telling you about in the Hutt Valley: they have the privelege of intergenerational relationships. They’re visited by their children, they’re visited by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And I think it’s terribly important as their life experiences, their occasional comments or attitudes offer wisdom to and support for their grandchildren.
One of the points Pope Francis makes in his message for this year’s Day for Grandparents and the Elderly is “the presence of young people and the lives of the elderly gives them hope and ensures that their experiences and dreams are not forgotten.” I’d like to think that that is the case, and I’d like to think that even me now at 94, going on 95, not having a lot of contact with a wide range of ages – I’d like to think that anything that I say or do will have a positive impact and young people, and will be seen as coming out of a belief in and a desire to be Christ-like.