In an age where last week is old news and last month is ancient history, where young is in and looking young can be purchased for a price — the world still finds strength and critical insight from religious leaders in the twilight of life. There is something unique and special in aging world religious leaders that captures hearts, opens minds and stills the turbulent forces of unsettling global commotion.
The Dalai Lama is 82 years old, Arch Bishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is 86 and Pope Francis is 81. Each has unique gifts that excite and inspire young and old alike. Each of these leaders have spent years traveling the world, at a time when their peers were settling into rocking chairs, with an urgency to connect with people, teach powerful principles and provide hope.
Such well-known religious leaders are just kids compared to Russell M. Nelson, who recently received a sustaining vote from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as their prophet and president. He is 93 years old. He walks onto the stage as a world religious leader with the posture and pace of a young man. There is nothing old about him — other than his birth certificate.
The faith’s semiannual general conference was recently held over the Easter weekend. President Nelson electrified and excited the 16 million worldwide members of the church by announcing sweeping organizational changes. Equally stirring were personal challenges for believers to become better disciples of Jesus Christ by ministering and being more mindful of their neighbors and fellow travelers through life.
Few expected such a breathtaking beginning to a new administration within the LDS Church. Of the pace and magnitude of the changes, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, quipped, “To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most memorable moments in life are those in which we feel the rush of revelation. President Nelson, I don’t know how many more ‘rushes’ we can handle this weekend.”
The rush continues as President Nelson and Elder Holland, a spry 77-year-old, along with their spouses, embark on a 14-day, eight-city global ministry tour that will take them to Europe, Africa and Asia. A pair of running shoes should be provided to members of the international media who will attempt to keep up while covering the ministry tour.
While young people as a whole are abandoning the faith of their formative years, there is also an undeniable attraction for many millennials to such aging global religious leaders. Could it be that young people, raised in a very secular and cynical world, see something positive, simple and certain in the words and actions of these spiritual teachers? Is it that young people today have doubts about their doubts and are looking for something not found in their digital devices?
It could also be that these world religious leaders have made the effort to meet young people where they are, adapted their approaches and connected in unique ways. All four of the leaders mentioned have infectious smiles and endless energy. All have challenged the status quo and called out wrongs in the world while promoting what is right. Pope Francis has mastered the art of the “selfie” while challenging young people to courageously and selflessly marry and start families. Bishop Tutu has reveled in the passion of Africa hosting the World Cup while forever declaring a resounding message of reconciliation and forgiveness. President Nelson still snow skis down mountains while inviting all to develop the heart of true disciples. The Dalia Lama jokes about his face being the face of the past while teaching that he would rather be with, and look at, young people who are the face of the future.
These leaders are not the dour faces of endless rules and shaming judgment. They are teachers of principles that still ring true, who offer an exciting and compelling alternative to the empty promises of secularism and selfishness. They demonstrate a pattern of happiness and fulfillment in their words and actions. While many will say that these global religious leaders have passed their “use by date,” the world would be wise to watch what they do and listen to what they have to say.