Pope Francis urged Christians on Monday to treasure the presence of elderly family members and not to discard them like “waste material.”
The most important thing “is to make a gift of one’s life,” the pope told the crowd of pilgrims and tourists gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for the Angelus prayer. “And this applies to everyone, to parents towards their children and children towards their elderly parents.”
“Many elderly people come to mind,” Francis continued, “who are abandoned by their families as if they were waste material.”
“This is a drama of our times: the solitude of the elderly,” he said, when “children and grandchildren do not make their lives a gift for the elderly.”
“God wants to help us grow in the gift; only in this way do we become great,” he said. “We grow if we give ourselves to others.”
Over the seven years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has often employed colorful language in his efforts to draw attention to the dignity of elderly people.
In 2015, for instance, the pope declared that the elderly “are not aliens,” but rather “men and women, fathers and mothers who walked the same road before us.”
“We are the elderly: some sooner, some later, but inevitably nonetheless, even if it doesn’t seem like it. And if we do not learn to treat the elderly well, that is how we will be treated,” he said on that occasion.
“All of us elderly people are a little fragile,” Francis said. “Some, however, are particularly weak, many are alone, and marked by illness.”
Yet a society that does not know how to reach out to its elderly “is a perverse society,” he said.
The quality of a civilization is shown by the way it treats its older members, he insisted, and the many modern societies that make no room for the elderly carry in themselves “the virus of death.”
Contemporary society has marginalized the elderly, and that this trend must be reversed,” he continued. When we are young, “we are taught to ignore old age, as if it were a disease to be avoided,” then as we grow older, especially if we are poor or sick, “we experience the shortcomings of a society planned on efficiency, which consequently ignores the elderly.”
“In a civilization in which there is no place for the elderly or they are discarded because they create problems,” Francis said, “this society carries the virus of death.”
Francis remarked that in the West, scholars have called the present century “the century of aging,” where children grow fewer while the number of elderly people increases. “This imbalance challenges us,” he said, especially since a culture based on profit “presents the old as a burden, as dead weight.”
According to this mentality, he said, old people are “a burden,” he said. And the result of this way of thinking is that “they should be discarded.” Nobody dares to say this openly, “but they do it!”
“We are used to discarding people,” Francis said. “We want to remove our growing fear of weakness and vulnerability; but in doing so we increase the elderly’s anguish over being barely tolerated and abandoned.”