Grandparents were the focus of this Wednesday’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square. Continuing his catechesis on the family, today the Pope considered the difficult current situation faced by the elderly, commenting that next week he will present a more positive view of the vocation that corresponds to this stage in life.
Thanks to advances in medical care, the Holy Father observed, life expectancy has increased and there is a far greater number of elderly people, but nevertheless society has not adapted to this change, and has not responded by creating space for them, with the respect and consideration their fragility and dignity demand. “When we are young, we are induced to ignore old age, as if it were an illness to keep at bay; however, once we become old, especially if we are poor, ill and alone, we experience the gaps in a society programmed for efficiency, which as a consequence ignores the elderly”.
He recalled the words of Benedict XVI during his visit to a residential home for the elderly: “The quality of a society … is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life”, and exclaimed, “A civilization can sustain itself if it respects wisdom, the wisdom of the elderly. On the contrary, a civilization in which there is no place for the elderly or in which they are discarded because they create problems … carries the virus of death”.
He continued, “In the west, scholars present the current century as ‘the century of old age: there are fewer children and an increase in elderly people. This imbalance is a great challenge to contemporary society. And yet, a certain culture of profit insists on making the elderly appear to be a burden, an extra weight. They are not only unproductive; they are an encumbrance, and are to be discarded. And discarding them is sinful. We do not dare to say this openly, but it happens. There is something cowardly in this inurement to throwaway culture. We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability, but in this way we increase in the elderly the anguish of being inadequately supported and abandoned”.
Francis recalled that during his ministry in Buenos Aires he had first-hand experience of these problems. “The elderly are abandoned, and not only to material precariousness. They are abandoned as a result of our selfish inability to accept their limits, which reflect our own limits, in the many difficulties that they must overcome nowadays to survive in a civilization that does not allow them to participate, to have their say, or to be referents according to a consumerist model in which ‘only the young can be useful and can enjoy themselves’. The elderly should instead be, for all of society, the reserve of wisdom of our population. How easy it is for our conscience to slumber when there is no love”.
In the tradition of the Church, there is “a legacy of wisdom that has always promoted a culture of closeness to the elderly, a willingness to provide affectionate and supportive accompaniment in this final stage of life. This tradition is rooted in the Sacred Scripture”. Therefore, “the Church cannot and does n wish to conform to a mentality of impatience, far less indifference and disdain, with regard to old age. We must reawaken our collective sense of gratitude, appreciation and hospitality that enable the elderly to feel like a living part of the community. The elderly are men and women, mothers and fathers who have walked the same road before us, in the same house, in our everyday struggle for a dignified life. They are men and women from whom we have received much. The elderly person is not an alien. We are the elderly: sooner or later but in any case inevitably, even if we do not think about it”.
“We are all a little fragile, the elderly”, he continued. “Some, however, are particularly weak, many are alone, and affected by illness. Some depend on the indispensable care and attention of others. Will we take a step back for this? Will we abandon them to their fate? A society without closeness, in which gratuitousness and selfless affection – even among strangers – are disappearing, is a perverse society. The Church, faithful to the Word of God, cannot tolerate these degenerations. A Christian community in which closeness and gratuitousness are no longer considered indispensable, would lose its soul with this. Where there is no honor to the elderly, there is no future for the young”.