June 17, 2022

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

Older people are a gift who need our respect and love

(En Espanol)

In recent weeks, Pope Francis has been reflecting on the role that older people play in carrying out the Church’s mission.

On Wednesday, June 1, the Holy Father’s general audience included the latest installment in his catechesis on old age. Using a verse from sacred Scripture, “Forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Ps 71:9), the pope said:

The beautiful prayer of the elderly man that we find in Psalm 71 encourages us to meditate on the strong tension that dwells in the condition of old age, when the memory of labors overcome and blessings received is put to the test of faith and hope.

In his reflections, the 85 year-old Argentinian native speaks of the “strong tension” that older people feel, and the challenges that confront them as their faith and hope are put to test by “the weakness that accompanies the passage through the fragility and vulnerability of advanced age.”

Aging is a process that effects every aspect of human life. As the pope observes, “the Psalmist—an elderly man who addresses the Lord—explicitly mentions the fact that this process becomes an opportunity for abandonment, deception, and for prevarication and arrogance, which at times prey upon the elderly.”

Surely reflecting on his personal experience, the Holy Father appears to cry out: “It is true! In this throwaway society, this throwaway culture, elderly people are cast aside and suffer these things.”

Pope Francis is critical of our contemporary culture, which seems to be obsessed with youth, and which seeks to marginalize the elderly members of society. He specifically cites the neglect and indifference that older people must endure:

Often, we read in the newspapers or hear news of elderly people who are unscrupulously tricked out of their savings, or are left without protection or abandoned without care; or offended by forms of contempt and intimidated into renouncing their rights. Such cruelty also occurs within families—and this is serious, but it happens in families, too. The elderly who are rejected, abandoned in rest homes, without their children coming to visit them, or they go a few times a year. The elderly person is placed in the corner of existence.

Pope Francis argues forcefully that all members of society have a serious moral obligation to care for the elderly “who are increasingly numerous and often also the most abandoned.” We dare not allow the older members of our families, our communities, and our Church to be dishonored—in direct violation of the Fourth Commandment.

“When we hear of elderly people who are dispossessed of their autonomy, of their security, even their home,” the pope says, “we understand that the ambivalence of today’s society with regard to old age is not a problem of occasional emergencies, but a feature of that throwaway culture that poisons the world we live in.”

A society that does not reverence and care for its elderly members is in serious trouble. “How is it that modern civilization, so advanced and efficient, is so uncomfortable with sickness and old age?” the pope asks. “How is it that it hides illness, it hides old age? And how is it that politics, which is so committed to defining the limits of a dignified survival, is at the same time insensitive to the dignity of a loving coexistence with the old and the sick?”

The way we treat our older members defines who we are as a culture. We either love and respect those who have gone before us, or we abandon them—and ourselves—to the cruel indifference of the culture of death.

The irony, of course, is that we all age, and if we are blessed with a long life, we too become aged and infirm in mind, body or spirit (sometimes all three). As the Holy Father reminds us:

Remember that you too will become elderly. Old age comes for everyone. And treat the elderly today as you would wish to be treated in your old age. They are the memory of the family, the memory of humanity, the memory of the country. Protect the elderly, who are wisdom.

Pope Francis concludes his reflections with prayer. “May the Lord grant the elderly who are part of the Church the generosity of this invocation and of this provocation. May this trust in the Lord spread to us. And this, for the good of all, for them.”

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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