Pope Francis began this week’s General Audience on Wednesday by focusing on the dynamics of today’s demographics, where a truly “new people”, the elderly, have never been so numerous in human history. Often seen as ‘a burden’, they risk being discarded even more frequently, as has been seen in the first phase of the pandemic. Already the weakest and the most neglected, they paid the highest price. “We did not look at them much when they were alive, we did not even see them die”, he laments.
In this regard, the Pope drew attention to the charter of rights of the elderly and the duties of the community, saying it is a secular document drafted by governments, not the Church. “It is good to know that the elderly have rights. It will be good to read it.”
Unity of all stages of life
“Together with migration”, the Pope says, “old age is one of the most urgent issues facing the human family at this time.” More than being simply a question of quantitative change, it implies that the unity of the various stages of life is at stake. Hence the importance of understanding and appreciating human life in its entirety, and the need for friendship and cooperation between the different stages of life, or whether separation and being discarded prevail.
The Holy Father pointed out that in today’s society, the proportion of children, young people, adults, and the elderly living together has changed. “Longevity has become mass and, in large parts of the world, childhood is distributed in small doses” in what is described as the ‘demographic winter’.
This imbalance has many consequences. Today’s dominant culture has as its sole model a self-made individual who always remains young. “The exaltation of youth as the only age worthy of embodying the human ideal, coupled with contempt for old age as frailty, decay, and disability, has been the dominant image of the twentieth-century totalitarianism”, which must not be forgotten.
Sense of life and community
The 85-year-old pontiff said that the fact that people are living longer has a structural impact on the history of individuals, families, and societies. But we need to ask whether life’s spiritual quality and the sense of the community are consistent with this.
Do the elderly need to apologize for living longer, or should they be honoured for contributing to everyone’s meaning of life? Unfortunately, the Pope notes that in the so-called ‘developed’ cultures, the meaning of life has little bearing. This is because old age is regarded as having no special content to offer nor is there any meaning of its own to live.
Besides, people are not encouraged to seek out the elderly and there is a lack of education for the community to recognize them. Such a mindset and culture regards the elderly as waste material. Despite old age being a decisive part of the community space, extending to a third of the entire life span, there are – at times – care plans, but not projects of existence. This, the Pope says shows a lack of thought, imagination, and creativity.
Restoring the lost alliance
“Youth is beautiful but eternal youth is a very dangerous illusion”, the Pope warns. We need to remember that “being old is just as important – and beautiful – as being young”. “The alliance between generations, which restores all ages of life to the human level, is our lost gift.” In this culture of waste and culture of productivity, “it must be found again”, he exhorts.
Scriptures on generational alliance
Regarding this generational alliance, Pope Francis says the Word of God has much to say. Drawing attention to the prophecy of Joel, who says, “Your elders shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”, the Pope says that “when the elderly resist the Spirit, burying their dreams in the past, the young can no longer see the things that must be done to open up the future”. But when they communicate their dreams, the young see clearly what they have to do. Without the dreams of the elderly, the young people will struggle to carry their present and bear their future. “If grandparents retreat into their melancholy, young people will look even more to their smartphones”, and life will soon die. In this sense, the disenchantment of young people is perhaps the most serious repercussion of the pandemic. The old have resources of life already lived that they can call upon [resort to]. Will they stand by and watch young people lose their vision, or will they accompany them by warming their dreams?”
Hence, the wisdom of the long journey that accompanies old age to its farewell is to be lived as an offering of life’s meaning. The Pope warns that if old age is not restored to the dignity of a humanly worthy life, it is destined to close itself off in a despondency that robs everyone of love. Pope Francis says that with the series of catechesis on old age, he would like to encourage everyone to invest their thoughts and affections in gifts old age brings to other stages of life. Old age is a gift of maturity and wisdom for every stage of life.
Referring to the prophet Joel, the Holy Father stresses that the elder people are not just known for their wisdom of life they have lived, but both they and the young people need to engage in conversation and interact with each other. And this bridge is the transmission of wisdom to humanity. According to Joel, the elderly can give dreams that the young can carry forward. Using the analogy of a tree, the Pope says that the elderly with their history are the roots and the young are the flowers and fruits. If they lack this ‘sap’ from the roots, they will never be able to flourish. All that is beautiful in society is related to the roots of the elderly, who are no waste matter.