VATICAN CITY —Pope Francis Wednesday issued an impassioned defense of the elderly and called on Western societies to have a renewed appreciation for their senior citizens, boldly declaring that “where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young.”
Speaking to pilgrims at this week’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope continued his series of catecheses on the family, devoting this week’s address to the grave situations the elderly often face in a throw-away culture that is blind to their worth and dignity.
“Thanks to advancements in medicine,” the 78-year old pontiff said, “life has been lengthened, but society has not become more open to life.”
Indeed, today societies lead the young “to ignore old age as if it were a disease to keep at bay,” he said. And yet, he noted: “When we become older, especially if we are poor, sick or alone, we experience the shortcomings of a society organized around efficiency, which ignores the elderly.” But the elderly, he said, are an asset that we cannot ignore.
In fact, recalling words spoken by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s during a 2012 visit to a home for the elderly, Pope Francis observed that “the quality of a society … can be judged by how the elderly are treated and included in the common life.”
Modern Western societies stand at a crossroads, he said. If they choose the path of respect for the wisdom and unique contribution the elderly make to society, they will go forward. If, instead, there is “no room for the elderly, and if they are discarded because they create problems, the society carries within itself a deadly virus”, one that eventually will ravage and destroy it.
Pointing to declining birthrates and increasing efforst to legalize euthanasia, the Pope then warned pilgrims that a cultural mentality which portrays the elderly as a burden or as “baggage”, because of their apparent inability to produce, poses a gave threat to contemporary societies. This way of thinking, he said, leads down a perilous path to believing that those who are old “should be discarded.”
He then boldly said: “It’s awful to see the elderly discarded — it’s an awful thing. It’s a sin! … There is something vile in this addiction to the throw-away culture. We have grown accustomed to throwing away people. We want to remove our increasing fear of weakness and vulnerability, but in doing so we increase in the elderly the anxiety and fear of being unsupported and abandoned.”
Recalling his experience as a priest and bishop in Buenos Aires, the Pope pointed to “abandonment” as one of the most painful sufferings the elderly endure today.
“The elderly are abandoned,” he said, “and not only to material uncertainty. They are abandoned in the selfish inability to accept their limitations, which reflect our own limitations.”
Often, he said, they abandoned even by their own children.
“I remember, when I would visit nursing homes, I would speak with each person and I heard this so many times: ‘How are you? And your children? — Good, good — how many came last time?’ I remember one elderly woman telling me: ‘Well, they came at Christmas’. It was August! Eight months without being visited by her children, abandoned for eight months! This is called moral sin, do you understand?
Pope Francis then recounted a story which his grandmother told him and his siblings as children, to instill in their young and impressionable hearts the lesson never to “set aside” elderly family members.
“[There was] an elderly grandfather who got dirty when he ate, because he couldn’t hold the soup-laden spoon to his mouth very well. And his son, i.e. the father of the family, decided to move him from the common table. He set up a little table in the kitchen, where [the grandfather] wouldn’t be seen, so that he could eat alone. In this way,” the Pope said, “[the son] wouldn’t have a scene when his friends came for lunch or dinner.”
“A few days after, his youngest son … was playing with wood and a hammer and nails … and his father asked him: ‘What are you doing? — I’m making a table, Papa, the boy responded. —Why a table, the father asked? — The boy replied: To have when you get old, so that you can eat there.”
The 78-year old pontiff then told pilgrims not to conform their minds to a throw-away, anti-family culture that sets aside the elderly, but to listen to God’s Word, which says: “Do not disregard the discourse of the aged, for they themselves learned from their fathers; because from them you will gain understanding and learn how to give an answer in time of need” (Sir 8:9).
It is time, he said, to reawaken ourselves and our communities to the wisdom of a Christian culture, one of “closeness to the elderly” and “an attitude of warm and supportive accompaniment in this final stage of life.”
“The Church,” he said, “cannot and does not want to conform to a mentality of impatience, much less to to indifference or lack of appreciation in relation to old age. We must reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, appreciating, hospitality, which makes the elderly feel like a living part of his community.”
Pope Francis then invited everyone to see his or her elderly parents, aunts and uncles as individuals with their own personal and unique history, with whom we are called to live in a communion of love. They are “men and women, fathers and mothers who have gone before us, on our same paths, in our homes, in our daily struggles for a dignified life. The are men and women from whom we have received much.”
He also reminded Christians to remember that, one day, we will all grow old. “We are the elderly: in a little while, or in a long while, but inevitably [it will be], even if we don’t think about it. And if we do not learn to treat the elderly well, we will be treated in the same way.”
The Pope concluded his Wednesday address by inviting individuals and societies to be especially attentive to the most vulnerable, and to the sick. A society that would abandon them, he said, is “a perverse society.”
“The Church, faithful to the Word of God, cannot tolerate these degenerations” he said. “A Christian community in which closeness and gratuitousness are no longer considered essential … would lose its soul.”
“Where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young.”
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.