Maria Jose Atienza, 24th July 2022. Reading time: 4 minutes.
Today, for the second time, the Church celebrates the World Day of Grandparents and Elderly People 2022, with the motto, “In old age they will still bear fruit”. This is the result of several months of catechesis on old age, elderly people and the role of the family that Pope Francis has been developing in his Wednesday audiences.
In addition, in this interview he points out that the elderly are asking the Church, basically, “that they are not left on their own, and the Church, especially with the magisterium of Pope Francis, is making this very clear: to abandon the elderly is a grave sin”.
The Pope’s message for this World Day points up a typical attitude in the first world: the fear of growing old. What is the effect of this in families and in the Church?
The Pope speaks of the fear of growing old. This is something we are clearly aware of: we associate old age with loss of one’s autonomy and health. Often people think that growing old means somehow losing one’s dignity because of one’s frailness.
Nonetheless, growing old, according to the message, is a special gift. After all, for centuries, one of mankind’s greatest dreams has been to enjoy a long life. Now that this has become achievable for many people, our societies seem poorly prepared.
Old age is something new. This is the first time in history that growing old has become a mass phenomenon. We are not prepared for it and therefore the Pope is paying much attention to the elderly. We have to learn to think about and study this period of our lives. This is one of the most important challenges for the coming years.
The general population, including members of the Church in the West, are elderly people for the most part. This is also a pastoral challenge. How can we involve the elderly in the work of the Church when they are not at their best physically?
Often the elderly are involved; they are the ones who direct the work in the parishes; the ones who run our charitable activities. You have only to look around the churches to see that they are the ones who attend Mass most frequently. And this is a challenge that the physically weaker in the parish offer us.
Referring to the Gospel passage that we heard last Sunday, which is a direct challenge from Mary of Bethany: namely to understand that being a Christian is not just about running around doing many things, but rediscovering how to listen and to pray.
In his message, the Pope entrusts the elderly with the task of praying for us. This is not just an off-the-cuff remark, because the future of the Church and the world depends on it. Jewish tradition says that the prayer of the righteous sustains the world.
Right now it seems to me that perhaps the most urgent thing is to encourage people to pray for peace in Ukraine; yet the elderly who experience the full horror of war are not comfortably left at the back, but are right there on the front line.
In a world in which loneliness has become a serious issue, especially among elderly people, what are the elderly asking of the Church?
-Loneliness and being left alone is the greatest suffering of our society and risks getting worse. We are now accustomed to thinking that it is something quite normal, and the pandemic made it seem inevitable.
But God, and it is not by chance that these are among the first words of Genesis, does not want man to be alone.
The elderly ask not to be left on their own, and the Church, especially with the present magisterium, has this very clear: leaving the eldely on their own is a grave sin.
Nevertheless, we see around us so many different signs of the “throwaway culture”, and regrettably this also happens in Christian families.
The Pope also asks the elderly to be the leaders in the revolution of affection that the world needs. How, then, can affection and teaching responsibility exist side by side in the family?
In his message the Pope combines the word affection with the not so fashionable word revolution.
I think he intends that the behaviour typical of this attitude has to be the seed for a radical change in our cities.
He asks us to have an affectionate thought for and attitude towards the poorest, and mentions particularly the war refugees from Ukraine and others whose innocent blood stains the world we live in.
The elderly can do a lot -and here we have a great thrust of solidarity- not only from the practical side of welcoming these people, but they can also help us lower any possible tension and understand, as many have already had to do, that we do not save ourselves on our own.
This is the teaching about frailness that the Pope spoke of his most recent Wednesday audiences, namely the wisdom of knowing that we are not sufficient unto ourselves and the uselessness of opposing this idea at any cost.
At the same time, and aware of all this, how can we encourage the young generations to take an active part in the Church and society?
The Pope often speaks of an alliance between the generations. I have always been struck that the first time he mentioned elderly people was during the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.
The question he asks is quite complex but, for sure, part of the reply is in rediscovering, or actually building from scratch, a bond between the young and the not-so-young. It is not just a nice idea. We all have many experiences to convince us that such an encounter is always a valuable experience for all concerned.
In recent months we have heard the Pope not only speak about the elderly, but also speak to them, referring to attitudes that make it difficult for the different generations to live together. How can the Church give a push to this understanding besides the first visit?
To begin with, let’s make sure we make this first visit! In his message the Pope writes that a friendship usually comes about with that first visit. To take that first step towards others, especially the weakest in society, is always of great value, and this is precisely what we are asking everyone on this World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. Let us make a visit to an older person who feels alone! Especially during this period of extreme heat. May no-one live these days on his own!
Then the Pope, in his usual down-to-earth style, speaks to the elderly and not about them because they form the majority of lay people. The elderly are many and will always be a majority. How can we carry on as if they didn’t exist?