ROME — The value of the elderly is not only in the past, Pope Francis said Friday, because they are also “the present and future of the Church.”
The elderly “are also the future of a Church that, together with the young, prophesies and dreams!” Francis told a gathering in the Vatican for an international congress on the pastoral care of the elderly. “This is why it is so important that the elderly and the young speak to each other, it is so important.”
“Life is a gift, and when it is long it is a privilege, for oneself and for others,” the pope told participants.
In his address, the pope reiterated his belief in the importance of inter-generational solidarity, as well as reflecting on a global demographic shift that has changed the composition of modern society.
“In the twenty-first century, old age has become one of the distinctive features of humanity,” he said. “Over a period of just a few decades, the demographic pyramid — which once rested upon a large number of children and young people and had at the top just a few elderly people — has been inverted.”
“If once the elderly could have populated a small state, nowadays they could populate an entire continent,” the pontiff continued. “In this regard, the enormous presence of the elderly constitutes a novelty for every social and geographic environment worldwide.”
The pope noted that old age takes many forms. While for some it is marked by infirmity and a diminishment of capabilities, for others “it is the beginning of a long period of psycho-physical well-being and freedom from work commitments.”
As he has done on other occasions, the pope denounced “the indifference and rejection that our societies manifest towards the elderly,” while urging further efforts to “grasp and to appreciate the value of old age.”
In the Church as well, there is a need for a shift in pastoral approach to better care for the needs of the elderly community, Francis noted, while calling for an ongoing “journey of pastoral exploration and discernment” to better attend to older people.
“In the Bible, longevity is a blessing,” Francis said. “It confronts us with our fragility, with our mutual dependence, with our family and community ties, and above all with our divine sonship.”
In the spiritual life as well, old age is precious, he noted, because “God the Father gives us time to deepen our knowledge of Him, our intimacy with Him, to enter ever more into His heart and surrender ourselves to Him.”
This is “the time to prepare to deliver our spirit into His hands, definitively, with childlike trust,” he said, while adding that it is “also a time of renewed fruitfulness.”
The pope underscored the “irreplaceable role of the elderly” in the Church and society, suggesting that “intergenerational sharing” helps us learn to look forward together with older people.
“Go out into the streets of your parishes and seek out the elderly who live alone,” Francis urged. “Old age is not an illness, it is a privilege! Loneliness can be an illness, but with charity, closeness and spiritual comfort we can heal it.”
Grandparents “are the indispensable link in educating children and young people in the faith,” he said, and, therefore, the Church must see them not only as beneficiaries of care and attention, but as active evangelizers and “vital components of our communities.”